Calgary photographers say interest in film photography is actually growing

Film photography has been in decline for many years due to the ubiquity of digital cameras, which now dominate the market. The trend towards digital photography is global and the Calgary market is no exception. In fact, Calgary is now a city without a single commercial film development lab.

“There used to be a lot of great labs and it’s a little sad to see them go,” says Chris Tait, a professional photographer and instructor of photography at SAIT. “Now there is one guy in town that still processes black and white, and that’s nice to see, but unfortunately the options just aren’t there anymore.”

 Bigger Canadian cities like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver still have labs catering to film development and processing. Meanwhile, in late 2014, Calgary’s last developer of medium format film discontinued its service.

There are a number of reasons why companies have chosen to discontinue film development. First and foremost is the decreased demand for the service. But even when there is demand, other problems can arise.

A sales person at Vistek says the company discontinued its service after the automated processing machine broke down. The cost to repair it would have too expensive an investment based on the limited nature of its film processing business. Meanwhile, London Drugs, a company that used to develop traditional black and white film and medium format film through a partner company, has stopped accepting certain films. A London Drugs customer service agent says it is because the lab it used to ship to stopped accepting film. According to London Drugs, this is temporary, but the service has been offline since December 2014.

Although Calgary no longer has full-service film developing labs, a number of businesses still sell the film itself, including Vistek, The Camera Store, and Saneal Cameras.

Film photography in Calgary has become a do-it-yourself affair. George Webber, a self-described documentary photographer, teaches a popular darkroom class at SAIT. He says he continues to use film because of its reliability and predictability.George Webber answers questions by his students about what they will be doing in tonight’s darkroom class.

Photo by Jesse Yardley

“Up until not that many years ago, virtually all of the great photographs had been made on film. There’s a wonderful, lengthy tradition that extends well over 150 years with analogue photography,” says Webber. “I was attracted to the idea of seeing if I could make a little contribution to that tradition.” With a half-dozen photo books published to date, it can be argued Webber’s contribution is more than a ‘little’.

In a city without film processing and developing labs, Webber says his darkroom class consistently has waiting lists to get in because more and more people are curious to learn about analogue photography.

Levi Wedel, a photographer with a master’s degree in fine arts, says he uses film because he likes the colours and the quality better than digital. Despite having to ship his film for development, he is dedicated to using film for his personal work. Wedel says he thinks film usage is rebounding from rock bottom.

“Some stats seem to suggest that the people buying film is on the rise despite the fact that they’re still cutting back film stocks and raising prices,” Wedel says. “It seems to be more popular now. With the people I know, there’s more people picking it up than before.”

While digital photography is now the dominant form of picture making, film photography seems to have found its legs again as a niche market catering to people who want something different from the norm. Because of this, there’s a good chance film photography will continue to be an art form that is accessible to Calgarians who are willing to put in the effort of shipping it for development or learning to process it themselves.

jyardley@cjournal.ca

To contact the editor responsible for this story; Ato Baako at abaako@cjournal.ca