A Photographer's Eulogy for Kodak P3200 Film

October 11, 2012


I learned last Friday that Kodak is stopping the production of P3200 film. 

This breakthrough black and white film was introduced to the market in 1988. By that time I’d been shooting for The Herald for about two years. Pro Camera was our photography supplier in White River Junction. 

One week, when I was in the store picking up an order,  Jeremy gave me a conspiratorial look and asked, “Would you like to try something very special?” He reached behind the counter and pulled out two rolls, saying, “I’ll put it on your tab.”

This film was a sensation, and in this brief account I’ll try to explain why.

Photography has, since its inception in the mid-nineteenth century, been constrained by the light sensitivity of film emulsions. In the early days emulsions were wiped onto glass plates which received the photographic exposure. Later, by the time of George Eastman, film was substituted for glass, and long rolls were loaded into box cameras in Rochester, N.Y., sent out to customers who took their photographs and sent the whole camera back to Kodak for processing. 

“Kodak”  is an onomatopoetic name invented by Eastman, imitating the clunking sound of the camera shutter opening and closing. This sound was brand new, as earlier emulsions, so slow the exposure often lasted a minute or more. There was no quick “kodak” sound with those long exposures! 

This slowness meant that many things couldn’t be captured in photographs. People moving in town squares were just a blur, as were most babies in mother’s laps. Smiles were difficult to hold; somber expressions reflected mostly the limitations of early emulsion speeds, not the dispositions of those sitting, often held motionless for studio portraiture by iron neck braces. 

Though film speeds were faster by the 1940s, still many images were almost impossible. Flash-free night photography was feasible only if the camera was held fast by tripod. Even then, movement would blur the image. By fixing the camera, Edward Steichen and others carefully composed haunting low-light images concentrating on composition, light and shadow, soft focus and atmosphere.

The advent of the 35mm SLR camera with sprocketed film permitted quick frame advancing for repeated exposures. Then came the quick Plus-X and Tri-X films of 100 and 400 ASA respectively (ASA being a film speed rating now termed ISO). This technology was black and white newspaper photography’s “bread and butter” for over three decades, from the ‘60s on. Tri-X was fast and forgiving; it could be “pushed” as high as 1600 with a modicum of success. The resulting images were somewhat contrasty, but they were discernible, and often preferable, to on-camera flash photography which produced a decidedly artificial lighting look.

In today’s digital world, when photographs can be manipulated in myriad ways on the computer, newsrooms need to be especially vigilant in publishing images faithful to the original scene. Alteration of  press photographs through digital chicanery can be grounds for dismissal from a newspaper staff. In that light, it has always been somewhat puzzling to me that flash photography, with its reliance upon quick bursts of light loosed upon the scene just for the duration of the camera exposure, became so embraced by the press. Talk about changing the look of the subject! 

Yet, even though most photographers longed for a better, more natural look, on camera flash photography dominated imaging in low light situations.

P3200 film changed all that. Suddenly, we had a film almost as sensitive as the human eye; a technology that could look into darkened corners and reveal detail, a film that could stop a basketball player in mid-leap without the intrusion of a flash. This Kodak product was much more elastic than Tri-X; it could easily be pushed or pulled from 400 all the way to 6400 or even 12800 ASA. The “P” in P3200 was acknowledgement of this. The tonal range at the higher speeds was truly remarkable. If you could see it, you could shoot it, and you could shoot it without a tripod. 

Overnight the veil had been lifted; the lights were turned on! The resulting images had a more honest feel, more accurately recording the light illuminating the original scene.

I had many conversations with Harry Beilfuss of Rochester, N.Y., about the seeming miraculous qualities of P3200. Beilfuss, the father of Randolph’s Becky McMeekin, was the consumer products manager worldwide for Kodak in the late ‘80s, when P3200 hit store shelves. Beilfuss acknowledged that P3200 was a really big deal for Kodak. With this new T-grain emulsion they had beaten all the competition once again.

For this piece I’ve selected two P3200 images as a nod to Kodak and this amazing innovation. 

The first is a portrait of Harry Holland, then CEO of Clifford of Vermont. I believe this is the first P3200 image I took. It was shot with a Nikon 180mm portrait lens on a Nikon F body. I hand-held the camera in Mr. Holland’s office for this portrait. 

The light is clean and honest; the tonal range in the print is smooth.  Holland looks like a member of the Roman Senate, like the powerful charismatic captain of industry he was. 

The second image is of Chad Rainey getting a hug from his grandfather Howard Rainey following  Randolph’s victory in the Boys Division II Vermont Basketball final in 1996. (Howard had been on the last boy’s team to win at the Auditorium, in 1941.) Ryan Bushey is cutting down the net in the background.

This image, with its near and far elements, would have been almost impossible with on-camera flash; P3200 made the photography easy. 

Clifford of Vermont is gone now; so too are Harold Rainey and P3200 film. Kodak itself is fading into history; but I give thanks for them all—for Kodak, for George Eastman, for Harry Beilfuss, for all those who “turned the lights on,” allowing us to capture with our camera what we saw with our eyes.

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