I don’t know when it will happen exactly, but one day the last roll of TRI-X will come off an assembly line, get boxed up and head to a camera store where it will sit on a shelf, probably past its expiration date, and finally get snapped up by a lucky winner of an eBay auction. And with that, a chapter in the history of photography will be closed. When I think of all of the collective moments—instants really—that were captured and brought to the world on film, it’s overwhelming. The history of the 20th century is written in slides and negatives.
Now, before anyone rushes to send me an e-mail to tell me that I’m an idiot and Kodak has no plans to discontinue one of the most gleaming jewels in its crown, I haven’t heard any credible rumor and certainly no hard fact that TRI-X will be taken out of production. However, predicting that the day is coming is a little like predicting that Peyton Manning will retire from professional football one day. It will happen; the only question is when.
In many ways, the page has already turned on film’s chapter in photography. Film cameras are all but discontinued as part of a manufacturer’s product line. Labs have migrated their business models to digital processing and printing and providing ancillary services based on image files instead of transparencies and negatives. Even school programs, which have been among the most ardent defenders of Film Forever, have adjusted their curriculums.
In the brave new world, amidst the chaos of rapid advancements, the more things change, the more they stay the same. In this issue of DPP, we’ve devoted a considerable number of pages to the art and technique of creating what Ansel Adams used to call a proper black-and-white print. Like the glittering reign of a great monarch, film and the wet darkroom will fade into a glorious past, but the aesthetics of a print will endure. In the digital age, the tools we have at our disposal for making such a print are more advanced, more capable, more precise and more useful than anything we ever had in the wet darkroom. If you ever struggled for hours with cardboard cutouts as you burned in parts of an image, sending one costly, dripping-wet sheet of silver-halide paper after another into the trash, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
The gilded age of black-and-white prints is here, and the images don’t even have any actual metals in them. Contrast can be controlled independently in different parts of a print. Masks can be created with utter precision and 100% repeatability. Printers can render minute transitions in tonality and do it the same, print after print after print. Archival ink sets and paper combinations make prints that will last for more than 100 years, and those prints can be made with a printer that resides in your studio and costs less than a high-end enlarger would have cost.
The history of this century is being written every day by photographers who have tools that the last century’s chroniclers never even dreamed about. When that last roll of TRI-X comes off the line, and the lights in the factory are turned off, we’ll all raise a glass to an era that laid the foundation for today’s photography. How much further will photography go? It’s an open question and one that we’ll all answer every time we press the shutter button.
—Christopher Robinson, Editor