The film versus digital photography debate rages on

  • Asad Ali, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Sep 06, 2014 18:24 IST

Beneath the glass counter of this little shop in Mehrauli lies the usual paraphernalia of all convenience stores: packets of chips, stationery items and so on. But huddled away in one corner of the glass cabinet is a pile of small yellow and green boxes of Kodak and Fuji film. In what might seem like a poignant play of irony, renowned photographer Raghu Rai’s studio is just a ten-minute walk up the road from this shop. Because Rai definitely isn’t a potential customer.

Gone with the wind?

“Some people tend to be nostalgic about things. I don’t believe in nostalgic nonsense. That was technology which was cumbersome and time consuming,” shoots Rai. “Now with digital you can take pictures in the middle of the night on the streets. Isn’t that great?” he asks.

FILM: Daily wage labourers building a highway in Hyderabad

DIGITAL: Rai captures the preparation of Mandala - the symbol that represents the Universe in Buddhism - in Leh

Co-founder of Delhi-based Nazar Foundation (set up to promote photography) and also the co-founder of Delhi Photo Festival, Dinesh Khanna is actually surprised that the film-digital debate is still unresolved.

“Film photography in India is pretty much dead,” he says. Most photographers, he says, have embraced digital. “It’s like debating horse buggies and cars as a mode of transport. The transition to cars happened a long time back but some people still insist on riding a buggy to work! They might look more impressive but what does that really prove?” It proves, Khanna goes on to say, that the person is simply travelling much slower than the others.

The Case for the Prosecution

Convenience is a major edge that digital enjoys over film. Back in the day, says Rai, photographers used up numerous film rolls every day without knowing if the image was going to turn out the way they hoped it would. “Sometimes you just knew that you captured the moment perfectly. However, in most cases, one wasn’t sure,” he says.

But doesn’t that inculcate a certain sense of discipline? “Yes, film does teach you discipline,” agrees Khanna. “But if you just put a tape over your digital screen and swear to not look at it even once, that would give you the same discipline.”

Digital is also seen as more economical. “The recurring costs, once you buy a camera, have reduced drastically. You can shoot a thousand frames and it won’t cost as much. Whereas in film each frame costs money,” he adds.

Though film photography took a massive hit across the world with the onset of digital, it impacted the Indian market much more.

“Even before digital was born, the affordability trend was noticeable. The American photographer had a lot more film to shoot with than the European photographer who in turn had more film to shoot with compared to the Indian photographer. That just reflected the economics of the time which we can see as an extension even now,” explains Khanna.

That ‘extension’ means that photographers in India who want to shoot with film even now find it difficult to procure it locally. Digital became a natural choice for professional and amateur photographers.

Seeing the way the wind was blowing, Rai advised Madanji & Sons – one of the most popular photo stores in Delhi even today – to shift gears to digital: “Madanji was upset with me as I too started using digital. But I told him clearly that if he doesn’t store digital paper and stock the requisite equipment, his store will lose business. I can do nakhras, I’m a creative person, but you’re doing business!”

Raj Kapoor, who now heads the store, understands that well. He says that the consumption of film has gone down by more than 98 per cent: “We do stock some film but that’s only for a niche group,” says Kapoor, but adds with finality that “even this interest in film won’t last very long. A year or two more before it fizzles out.”

Business fizzled out for global companies such as Kodak and Fuji as well when the digital tsunami hit them. Kodak closed down its film manufacturing units and filed for bankruptcy in January 2012. They were back in the reckoning by 2013, officially shifting focus to imaging solutions, printing technology and the like.

Centhil Nathan, executive vice president of the Photo Imaging Division, at Fujifilm India, says that business was affected 100 per cent and Fuji too had to close down the manufacturing of both film and its chemical (C41) business. But Fuji dealt better with the situation by diversifying into other areas. “It was around 2008 when Fuji started bringing out digital cameras and digital mini labs to counter the shift in the industry.”

Closer home, SV Photographic, one of the most popular photo processing labs in Delhi right now, was also smart in riding the digital wave. Satish Luthra, who heads the lab along with his partner Anil Luthra, says, “We started digital operations as early as 2001. Among other things, we started to convert to digital the films that a lot of photographers had at the time.” hasn’t left the building yet

But acclaimed photographer Pablo Bartholomew debunks the digital-is-always-cheap myth. He says, “Most people don’t understand that the storage of digital material is fragile and costly. Backups of gigabytes of data take up huge resources. Storing negatives and slides took up less space, and if stored well, could last 80 - 100 years. I doubt if a CD/DVD or even a hard drive, will last that long.”

For his own part, Bartholomew remains fairly practical and balanced: “I worked for a French American news agency, so I had to change with the times. But I still shoot with film. Digital has its positives obviously. But I think digital and film should, and will, co-exist.”

Another major name in Indian photography, Aditya Arya, thinks that the “machine gun” capabilities of a 32 GB memory card, which allows for a large number of photographs to be taken, does more harm than good. “Analog photography requires a high degree of discipline. You have 36 exposures or single exposures and you learn to make a great photograph within that space.”

FILM: A tribal group in the town of Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh

DIGITAL: Labourers painting an exhibition wall. From Arya’s private collection of mobile photographs. He calls it "Cellphonenama".

He says that the digital wave is a concerted move by film manufacturing companies and distributors to choke out demand in certain markets such as India because they aren’t making enough profits.

Arya, co-director at APEX photo Academy, Delhi (Khanna is also a co-director there), feels that Khanna has “grossly overstated” the popularity, or lack of it rather, of film photography as an art form. He says, “This issue of film and digital has not been resolved as some may believe. It’ll continue to be there and become an exclusive art form. People will do anything to possess a film camera at that point.”

The optimism is shared by Anshika Varma, a young freelance documentary photographer based out of Delhi. Varma, whose work has been published by many leading national publications in India, says, “So many people experiment with mobile photography. It’s easily accessible and convenient.

The relationship you form with film photography is, however, of a different nature. You don’t fall in love with it based on convenience. The whole process of shooting in film, without really knowing how the photograph is going to turn out later, is quite exciting.”

Does the Medium Matter Enough?

Setting sentiment aside, Varma says that a lot of upcoming photographers are making a conscious decision to work with film. In fact, some places like the Goa Center for Alternate Photography, are making the effort to teach the art of film processing to students.

Sohrab Hura, who recently became only the second Indian after Raghu Rai to become a nominee of Magnum Photos, a photographers collective co-founded by Henri Cartier-Bresson, finds the whole discourse “a bit nonsensical”. He says, “It’s like asking a writer if he or she uses a computer or a typewriter instead of focussing on the book that has actually been written.” Hura himself shoots both film and digital: “For me the actual work done is far more important than the medium.”

In Hollywood recently, a group of studios have been in talks with Eastman Kodak to reach an agreement of sorts, wherein the studios will keep buying a set quantity of film in the coming years from them – an attempt to keep Kodak’s film business afloat.

Perhaps a similar intervention would help give the much needed fillip to film photography in India. Maybe then the little Mehrauli shop near Rai’s studio can keep stocking those film boxes without worrying too much about sales.

From HT Brunch, September 7
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