By Cubie King, Special to CNN
There are no more Polaroids. No more Kodachrome. And the smell of potent darkroom chemicals has almost disappeared.
For most people, “analog photography” is a relic or something their parents once used; an archaic technology now lumped in with yesteryear’s sensations, like the rotary phone or 8-track tape player.
Over the past decade, the number of analog film and manual cameras has dramatically decreased in favor of their digital counterparts. Digital photography has ubiquitous control over the market, leaving little to no room for alternatives.
Yet in the New York City metro area, there is a close-knit community of photographers, merchants, galleries, institutions and darkrooms that keep the art of analog photography quietly in practice.
“[There’s] just something inherently different about the medium that you can’t get with digital,” said Steven Sickle, who works at K&M Camera in Tribeca.
Some say that “something” is depth or quality.
K&M Camera, open since 1976, caters to photographers, from the first-time film student to the hardened fine-art photographer who refuses to use digital technology. The newly expanded store proudly embraces their connection to analog film. There are 35 mm cameras on display around the store and refrigerators and freezers stuffed with film.
Although digital sales mainly drive the store’s profit line, the store continues to sell everything film-related, from darkroom chemicals to beakers, loupes and print paper.
“We still sell analog film in large bulks to all sort of clientele,” Sickle said. “It’s a lot of fun when you get guys that come into the store not knowing much and leaving knowing more about film and its process.”
Uptown from K&M on 43rd Street is the International Center of Photography, where photographer/artist Lesly Deschler Canossi teaches a class on color printing to teens. Film negatives and prints are sprawled out in front of the students as they listen attentively to Canossi. She lays out the day’s agenda before they head into the pitch-black darkroom.
The students quickly learn that it takes more patience than they initially thought to work with analog film. This patience is earned through hands-on experience with their negatives and in the darkroom and classroom discussions.
The center offers students of all ages more than 400 photography courses a year that cover such topics as lighting techniques, black-and-white printing and marketing their work.
“What we hope within the Teen Academy is that as they move forward, and if perhaps [they] switch to digital, they have a much better understanding of manual camera functions as it relates to film as it translates to digital,” Canossi said.
Across the street from the school is the International Center of Photography’s museum, which is exhibiting a retrospective of the work of world-renowned Magnum photographer Elliott Erwitt, recipient of the center’s 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award. Throughout Erwitt’s decades-long career, he’s used only analog film.
Visitors can see quickly that Erwitt’s talents closely reflect the diversity of the medium itself as he dabbles in almost every genre — from portraiture, to street photography, documentary, fashion, humor and wit, and everyday life. Erwitt classifies himself as both a professional photographer and hobbyist.
“I’m a traditional photographer in that I don’t use electronic devices,” he said.
“I think I’d like to know that I’m taking pictures because I’m interested in the human condition, in stories and people and animals and whatever is in front of my lens,” he said. “That’s what drives me, not the latest gadget.”
Downtown on 19th Street is Print Space, where photographers can rent well-designed darkrooms (black-and-white or color) to transfer negative images onto print paper. It’s a cozy little establishment that transports photographers to another era. The smell of chemicals wafts through the air, and the pace of the staff and clientele seems to mimic the process of making a print: relaxed yet deliberate.
“There’s something that’s not so immediate about the analog world,” said Hashem Eaddy, Print Space’s lab manager. “You take a picture with your film camera, you have to wait. And all of those pieces have to come together so it’ll be a print. Printing takes time, but the patient are rewarded.
“In terms of analog, for the most part, it still gives you a higher-quality print than digital, but I feel like the way people are looking at things now doesn’t matter anymore,” Eaddy lamented.
But to each of these people, organizations and establishments, film does indeed matter and continues to evolve. It’s vital, not only to their livelihoods, but also as a gateway to a deeper understanding of the medium as a whole, even if one does end up in the digital arena.
To serious-minded photographers Erwitt added this: “I certainly would suggest that anyone interested in photography start by doing the hard stuff; that is to say print, photograph, develop, dodge, do all the things that are essential in producing a good analog print.”
And like the variety of steps required to make that analog print, these practitioners, viewed as an amalgamation, form a community that continues to further the history, tradition and craft of analog photography.