The vinyl revival now isn’t so much of a revival as a triumphant return, so what’s going on with photographic ﬁlm? My local town now has a record store just like in the good old days and, according to its proprietor, it’s the proverbial license to print money.
In fact, he actually has two outlets – one for secondhand stock he acquires, and one for the new stuff and rereleases, plus the really collectible albums. In this store he also sells turntables, a nice line of Italian-made valve ampliﬁers (yes, valves are back too) and bespoke loudspeakers.
Rarely a week goes by without somebody coming into his shop to buy a few records and a AU$10,000 system to play them on. There’s now furniture speciﬁcally made for storing records and showing off your bespoke hi-ﬁ system. It’s like vinyl never went away… except that everything is now very much more expensive. Forget those op shop or garage sale bargains at 20 cents… AU$20 is now cheap for anything that’s in half-decent condition and it’s actually more likely to be priced closer to AU$50, yet they’re walking out the door as are the remastered reissues at twice the price or more.
How did it happen? I don’t recall seeing any promotions or marketing, but now vinyl record sales outstrip downloads in quite
a few markets and the turntable business is as healthy as it was in 1972 if not better. As far as I can see, the audio aﬁcionados resolutely stayed with analog and railed against the evils of digital compression until everybody else started listening to them… and, more importantly, to the quality of the musical reproduction. Now, of course, it’s fashionable so everybody’s into it.
Film is nowhere near this point yet, but the momentum is deﬁnitely gaining speed. There are now numerous ‘boutique ﬁlm’ brands for B&W, both Kodak and Ilford are pretty active with new ﬁlm products, at least a couple of books on ﬁlm photography have appeared recently, and there’s no shortage of ‘plastic fantastic’ cameras. What’s missing though?
I contend that what validated the credibility of vinyl’s comeback was the return of many mainstream brands to the making of turntables… the likes of Sony, Yamaha, Denon, Marantz and Technics (aka Panasonic). Of course, the smaller dedicated brands like Rega never went away, but it’s the presence of the big guns that gives the market conﬁdence.
At least one of the major camera makers needs to step up to the plate with a new 35mm camera that’s not a toy and not as expensive as the re-released Leica M6 (opens in new tab) (as desirable as it is). However, I do think the rangeﬁnder design is probably the best option – being cheaper to make than a reﬂex – and a fully manual design, save for built-in exposure metering which is, to my mind, an essential.
While there are plenty of secondhand options for shooting 35mm ﬁ m, they really don’t cut the mustard especially with photographers whose sole experience has been digital… which is a lot of you. Reliability and results are now important, so that means a new camera with a warranty, servicing, and spare parts. Furthermore, neither ﬁlm nor its processing is cheap anymore, which is another reason why many would-be experimenters aren’t willing to take risks with old cameras, even if they’re considered classics.
How difﬁcult is it to do? Well, my idea would be to buy the Bessa R tooling from Cosina and build a new R2M or R3M – the only difference is the viewﬁnder – which is a basic but reliable mechanical design that’s both contemporary and classic. The Leica M mount means there’s still a reasonable choice of news lenses available, but also buying secondhand isn’t so potentially problematic.
Then I’d start making lots of limited editions – as per Leica but obviously much more affordable – to keep stimulating interest and sales. I really think that basic – but not too basic – is the best approach, and certainly nothing too gimmicky because this is primarily about people getting their heads around using a completely new medium. So I believe the experience has to be as ‘pure’ as possible.
Regardless of how it actually happens, a new and credible 35mm camera from a recognized brand is going to be the catalyst for any real progress in the revival of ﬁlm photography beyond the dedicated enthusiasts. As interest continues to grow, albeit slowly, we have to be getting closer… don’t we?
• This article first appeared in the September/October edition of Australian Camera magazine (opens in new tab)