A mother informs her son that his best friend has just died… ”Just thought I should tell you, Peter is dead.”
“Why don’t you go down the road and play with Paul instead, I know you’ve never met him and he has nothing in common with Peter, but I’m sure you’ll get on, now run along.”
Ok, maybe it’s a bit extreme but that’s kind of how I felt when Fuji announced the end of Neopan 400 and suggested users should switch to Acros 100.
I’ve had a long and varied relationship with Fuji for many years. I first tried it when I was in college; I bought several rolls of Neopan 1600 to photograph an abattoir in rural England. I hated it, didn’t like the grain structure or tonality and regretted my choice, back to Ilford and Kodak.
Fast forward 10 years and I was living in Bangladesh, shooting various projects with one eye on my dwindling film stock. Importing materials into Bangladesh is a bit of a logistical nightmare, they could spend weeks in customs — sweating away on a forgotten shelf in a hot and humid warehouse. I made enquiries with some local contacts and was told the best place to buy film was on the wonderfully named, Elephant Road. My relief at finding film stockists rapidly faded when the only black and white film for sale was Fuji Neopan 400, that was it…
Still, the film was fresh and a fraction of the price compared to the UK, so I stocked up.
My initial impressions were the same as my first Fuji experience, total let down. I was using powder developers for the first time I had bought over Mircophen and D76. The initial films were developed using Microphen and the negatives looked flat and grainy; unpleasant to print and everything I expected from Fuji.
My epiphany and conversion happened the first time I pulled a wet roll of the reel developed in D76. I remember the exact frame–a man looking out a bus window–I wasn’t very excited about the actual shot but I remember the tones, a beautiful negative. I was so impressed, I even overcame my long held prejudice against Neopan 1600 and it became my fast film of choice.
Fast forward again a few years and I was shooting a long term documentary in Egypt exclusively on Neopan 400 and 1600. There has been rumours of the demise of 1600 for a while but it was available most of the time so wrote them off as just that, rumours.
Cue the day I trotted into Silverpoint in London to stock up and was informed that all the 1600 had gone. I stood at the counter, open mouthed like a goldfish, it really had gone. I raced up to another major supplier only to be told that someone had bought their entire stock, that was it…four years into a piece of work and no choice but to change film.
There are so many aspects of photography that different people enjoy and some like to endlessly experiment with different film and developer combinations. I don’t. I’m interested more by pictures than chemistry and tend to stick to with what I know will get me the results I’m looking for. A tad luddite-ish perhaps but I don’t like the idea of cocking up pictures by trying something new for the sake of it and the thought of shooting test rolls bores me to tears.
After the news had settles in, I initially tried pushing Neopan 400 to EI 1600 but really didn’t like the results, so I decided to bite the bullet and went for Ilford Delta 3200 Professional. I pulled it to 1600 and slightly over-developed it, and although not a perfect match, the results were close enough that a visual consistency could be kept with the earlier work.
Then, like a super crappy déjà vu, Fuji discontinued Neopan 400. In a total panic, I bought up the last couple of hundred rolls I could find in the UK, and I’m still working my way through it. Like most film users I shoot in a considered manner; spray and pray is not an option.
Where do I go from here? I’m not sure yet, at some point I will reach the last roll; that’s going to be a strange feeling. I have never been a fan of Kodak Tri-X or T-MAX400, Ilford HP5+ is ok and I’m yet to really try Delta 400.
In photography we are used to being the masters of our own destiny, camera, lens, film, chemicals and paper are all choices we actively make and greatly influence the final result. We build a relationship with them over time, to have part of this equation simply deleted through no choice of our own is something analogue shooters are becoming reluctantly accustomed to.
Whether a film survives or not depends on economics, companies look at balance sheets, not prints. The loss of a trusted film can feel devastating, years of experience and accumulated knowledge suddenly count for nothing but there is little we can do about the situation.
Firms like Fuji seem content to let their dwindling range of film wither away to nothing whilst others seem to have spotted a niche in the market and continue to manufacture a large range of products. It’s hard to blame the companies; digital threw them all a curveball. The camera makers ditched SLR’s in favour of digital compacts, only to see that market pretty much killed by smartphones.
Now a few of them produce retro models that strive for the look and feel of film cameras, a halfway house between romance and reality. We can only hope that these models inspire more people to seek out the original cameras and see what all the fuss about film was about, after all, it’s as subject to the law of demand and supply as every other product on earth.
~ Walter Rothwell