On Analogue Photography

Last week I had some business in Germany, and I remembered that the DM drugstores there used to sell a small selection of photographic films (the attentive reader might have deduced from previous writings that I am a huge analogue photography fan, and have been so since film photography was still the norm). I rode my bike across the town square, guided by Google Maps, located the store, and sure enough, there it was: a decent selection of films, though much smaller than I remembered a few years ago.

After being pretty much superseded on all fronts by the cheaper and more convenient digital in the early 2000s, film photography came back in vogue during the “hipster” phase of pop culture during the mid-to-late 2010s. Owing to exposure in online media and mainstream films (and certainly also fuelled by the 80s nostalgia chic we are now experiencing the tail end of), before the Coronavirus pandemic, film photography was almost mainstream again: many classic film stocks were again widely available, there was a huge analogue community on the internet and even in real life, there was a large market of affordable old cameras, etc. The old mammoths of film stock, Kodak and Fuji, ramped up film production; obsolete crafts and skills, like manual black and white processing, were becoming somewhat widespread again. Creating images and consigning stories to a physical support seemed to have a future. They called it the “film renaissance” [1].

Mainz, DE

Then the pandemic came. Producers started struggling with supply, the result being that film got scarce and prices went up; Fuji decided to not even bother producing professional film stocks anymore, while Kodak progressively hiked the prices every year out of most normal people’s reasonable budget range. Now, a roll of good color film costs 1/4 the value of a decent second-hand film camera, and 1/50 the value of a decent digital camera. Black and white film is still reasonably affordable, but there are things you simply can’t do in black and white, and some of the attraction of film is precisely the beautiful, dreamlike colours you can capture with it. It is probably a realistic forecast that many people will do the math and simply switch to digital again, the “film renaissance” a brief moment of rememberance before film is gone for good in the next decade.

In Romania, this had the effect that film became nigh-impossible to find. In the busy drugstore though, I guess I hit the jackpot, as there was no shortage at all; one film on offer especially caught my eye: Agfa APX 100, a very reasonably-priced manual-process black and white film whose branding calls back to a wonderful piece of photography history. I bought a bunch, and immediately got excited – how will it look? How will the grain be? What exposure latitude does it have? How contrasty will it be?

The difficulties in participating in film photography are even more muddled by the fact that film, far from being merely a nostalgic and self-indulgent fetishism of the material culture of the past, is in and of itself a qualitatively quite different artistic medium from digital photography. The “film look” is not reducible to any technical or otherwise objective quality; certainly not to “grain”, “colours”, or any other single feature; and there is no simple qualitative hierarchy between film and digital. There is a certain physicality to working with film – especially black and white, argentic process film, preferably using a fully-mechanical camera. The process of loading film; the cold metal of the camera; the weight and heft of it, its substantiality; the satisfying clank of the shutter, the knowledge that you are limited by the film speed and that you can take only 24 to 36 photos; the smells; the mental arithmetic needed to calculate exposure, the attention needed to focus manually – all these contribute to a very different shooting experience, an experience of just being there, of losing yourself to your practice.

In the operation of a mechanical camera, the taking of a classical black and white frame, there is no gadgetry or software involved – the light reflecting from the subject, focused through the lens, actually provokes a chemical reaction in the silver halides suspended in the gelatin itself. There is then, in some sense, a very real impression of the subject and the context of the picture’s taking embedded within a concrete material support; thus, there is no digital trickery, interpretation, processing – only physics, chemistry and the ingenuity of the human mind. This fully-analogue process might then be said (with some licence) to approximate the “aura” of the artworks of old [2]; of embedding the material context of its own creation into itself much more than digital, wherein the sensor can merely quantify the light falling on its pixels, reconstituting an image only afterwards based on sophisticated rules, in the manner of a measuring-instrument put in the service of copy-creation.

Mainz Power Station

Thus, the digital image is even more ethereal and transient than the film frame. Being a string of ones and zeroes, it can be reproduced exactly; what provides then its aura? The little copyright claim in the metadata, which you can add if you are savvy with the menus? The tacky signature you can superimpose in the corner to prove you are a “pro”? It is a digital file, to be stored ephemerally, briefly shared online and then consigned to the abyss of some cloud storage service, to be one of the innumerable images that are reduced to mere potentialities, there but unseen.

That is not to say that film is aesthetically superior to digital – they are simply different media, suited to different applications and different expressive aims. I readily admit that clinging to film in a digital age, where we are inundated by images via the digital medium rather than the physical, print, slide or cinematographic medium, is akin to going against the current of history; and, scanning analogue images and using the digital scans makes me contradict myself somewhat. But, as we shall see, the ease of digital and the labouriousness of analogue have critical implications for what they represent and what their ultimate nature might be.

Mainz bus and tram depot

Film photography today seems doomed to again become an underground, or at least niche, phenomenon, reserved for the Leica owners and those aiming to show their work only in the local alternative bookstore. Paid work, long-term projects, event photography and just the plain fun of working with film will be severely restricted to an entire new generation of photographers that, growing up within our cyberspace-infused reality and used to the banality of the image, could have perhaps found a chance to recover the aura through film. A chance for the many to embrace crafts and techniques of the past, such as film photography, the manual argentic process, etc., in fact, let’s state it directly: an opportunity for the experience of unalienated labour, is thus missed.

This uneasy relationship we have to the past is, in fact, clearly expressible through the film I ended up buying. Agfa, initially standing for “Aktiengesellschaft für Anilinfabrikation” (Corporation for the Manufacture of Anilin), was founded in 1867 as a dye factory outside Berlin, eventually diversifying its products to include photographic materials [3]. In the 1920s it was merged into the chemicals conglomerate IG Farben (which infamously supplied the pesticide Zyklon B to the Nazis for use in concentration camps during the Holocaust). Agfa introduced several innovations during this period, such as X-ray films and plates and colour film (the once-famous Agfacolor). After World War II, IG Farben was split up by the Allies and Agfa became an independent company again, producing photographic equipment, including film, paper and even cameras. Agfa assets situated in East Germany eventually became ORWO – another legendary name in the Eastern Bloc during the second half of the 20th century.

Similar to the role played by FOMA and ORWO in the Eastern Bloc (about which I would also like to write at some point in the future – as, as incredible as it seems, FOMA still exists, and indeed all the pictures in this article were captured on FOMA film), Agfa formed a critical part of the history of photography in Western Europe. The film I bought though, has only a nominal relation to the photo giant of old. During the early 2000s, the film business of Agfa went bankrupt [3] due to the shift to digital. So, after a complex series of mergers and acquisitions, two world wars, and the unification of Germany, Agfa exists now only as a label, a brand, owned by holding company “AgfaPhoto Holding GmbH”. As far as I can ascertain, nothing of substance remains underneath. Thus the commodity I purchased and hold in my hand is subject to a double fetishism: firstly, the classical one of the divorcement of the physical good from the process of its material production; and secondly, the divorcement of its branding, with an explicit call to a misleading historical heritage, from its actual provenance: the film is actually produced by the German company “Lupus Imaging and Media” to which, I assume, DM has outsourced the actual production of the film [4], and to whom the holding company has leased the right to use the Agfa name. I was unable to find out for certain where the film actually comes from; Wikipedia mentions the Italian factory Ferrania and a Japanese factory owned by Fujifilm as potential locations of its production [5], but cites no sources; while elsewhere the production is attributed to British film Harman, which also supplies the Ilford and Kentmere-branded photographic stocks [6], also citing no sources.

This perfectly mirrors the historical shifts from industrial capitalism, to monopoly/financial calitalism, to our current postmodern capitalism, when capital is no longer bound to be undergirded by actual factories, machines, or even stuff; but rather, by images and stories – and, as I have outlined above, increasingly ephemeral ones at that.


  1. Taylor, Josh (2017) The Great Film Renaissance Of 2017, B&H Photo Video, https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/features/the-great-film-renaissance-of-2017
  2. Benjamin, Walter (2008) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Penguin Books, pp. 7.
  3. ***, AgfaPhoto APX 100 Film Review. Analogue Wonderland, https://analoguewonderland.co.uk/blogs/film-review/agfa-photo-apx-100-flm-review
  4. ***, AgfaPhoto APX Black & White Films, Lupus Imaging & Media, https://www.lupus-imaging-media.com/en/agfaphoto-apx/
  5. ***, Agfa, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agfa-Gevaert#Products
  6. ***, List of Photographic Films, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_photographic_films