Kodak Kinksters:
On the Fetishization
of Film Photography

I have a kink. I love to get fucked by the market. I’m a slut for bulky bodies and a masochist when it comes to wasting my own money. Just fuck me up daddy Kodak, I’ll say, I wanna raw-dog reality.

If NBC nightly news is any indication, I’m not the only fetishist out there. Earlier this week my phone was flooded by friends sending along the same report. “#FILMISNOTDEAD”. Yeah, I’ve heard that one before.

I wanna analyze the fetishization of analog film photography because I am at once of two very different minds in relationship to it. First, there is the cynic in me. That painful little voice that knows that what I’m saying is probably bullshit. You’ve heard it all before folks:

“I like the way it looks”
“I just prefer the color”
“I like its grain”
“I’m in it for the adventure.”

Who really believes any of that shit? Except of course… me… and apparently an entire generation of tik tokers, students, and a couple of other older masochists. I can be a cynic, sure, but I’m also the idiot that that same cynic would scoff at.

The truth is that there’s probably a little something there worth exploring. I’m a firm believer in the idea that our artistic instincts are often correct, though even more often, in unexpected ways. I shoot film because I like it, but I’ve also entertained every argument against continuing to do so. So then, I have to ask myself, what’s really going on here?

Part 1: Necrophilia

Let me start by making the case against film photography. It may be obvious that this case is true. Obvious enough, at least, that people don’t usually feel the need to say it out loud. The foundation of the case against film goes something like this: Film is dead. You are fucking a corpse.

Since its bankruptcy in January of 2012, Kodak (Eastman Kodak) has managed to limp by on a firmly held market for Portra, Gold, Ektar, and a handful of other film products. What was once a behemoth of image-culture, one of the companies most responsible for the monumental transformations of the 20th century, has begun to stink with the rotting of its own tissues. This stink is manifested daily with the rising of prices and the loss of quality (looking at you, shitty new adhesive on Kodak’s medium format lines).

Kodak is just one example of film’s collapse, but its failure was probably the most notable bellwether for the eventual decline of the film market overall. Similar trends are clear within Fujifilm lines, even as several other film manufacturers fade into total obscurity.

The only exception to this market trend might be within the recent emergence of companies like CineStill, but even here we’re looking at an exception that only proves the rule. CineStill buys its stock directly from Kodak, repackages it, and sells it in limited edition runs. Companies like Orwo and Lomography might continue to produce their own film, but, at least in the case of Lomography, its quality often remains little more than kitsch.

Kickstarter has, over the years, featured several attempts to reanimate the corpse of film production. I recall one project, Ferrania, which is apparently still attempting to raise money to purchase facilities that had been used to produce chemistry for film production in the past. They’ve managed to spit a few new stocks back into the market and the dream appears, for the moment, alive. Here’s hoping they succeed, but idk, it still feels like a bit of a fantasy.

The failure of the market for film began famously with Kodak’s attempts to produce a viable digital camera. Over the course of the early 2000s we saw the natural rise of digital photography, a market that quickly came to dominate film in everyone’s minds as the 2008 recession made the case for cheaper image production, and as the inclusion of cameras within smartphones began to introduce digital photography to wider and wider markets.

The availability of high-quality inkjet printing brought this same trend to the art market over the course of the 90s and early 2000s, as photographers like Wolfgang Tillmans and Roe Ethridge were able to prove the immense flexibility that comes with freedom from chemistry.

As a Marxist, I’m also inclined to dwell on the more obscure material conditions underlying this transformation. Was it just a matter of technological innovation that saw the supplanting of film? Or, perhaps, is it possible that a time came when it was cheaper to violently extract valuable minerals from formerly colonized nations to produce digital chips than it was to continue paying unionized workers in Rochester to mix chemistry, but I digress.

One by one, camera manufacturers dropped their analog lines, either going into complete bankruptcy or diving into the digital market. With a few exceptions, the only analog cameras available to photographers now are antiques. Built like tanks sure, but increasingly hard to come by. Increasingly expensive, and difficult to repair. A day will come when even that market dries, and like ancient technology that animates the fantasy genre, only artifacts will remain.

Fujifilm is one company that has successfully hybridized its production of both film stocks and new digital cameras. It’s success, however, further makes my case, at least in that its new medium-format line has emerged as a clear future for the medium-format field in general. Fuji GFX digital cameras are dope as fuck, and their film emulations rob the film fetishist of the right to continue saying “I just like the color”. Well, we’ll probably keep saying it, but we’re on flimsy ground there.

The bottom line is that digital photography is so much faster, more accurate, productive, and cheaper than film photography that the decision to continue utilizing film comes off to most as little more than the deluded desires of a cringy conservative nostalgia whore. Trad wife/trad life, em’i’righ’?.

If I’m being hyperbolic about it, I’d trace a familiar line between nostalgia and fascism. Maybe we like the way film looks because it reminds us of a more “glorious” past. Maybe we’re so starved for authenticity that we cling to our petty consumer goods, rocking ourselves to sleep at night with the promise that, like good little artists, what we’re doing is still worthwhile.

Part 2: Bondage and Domination

I still like film, so what the fuck? I’m gonna make a case for it, despite knowing well that I am wrong.

As already outlined, the case for film photography is usually first presented upon fair, if incorrect, lines. Here we’ll say things like “you just can’t get that grain with digital cameras”, “sure, Fujifilm has all of those digital film emulators, but it just doesn’t look the same”, and “I just like how it feels.” Here, we rest our argument on subjectivity because we know that, in art, subjectivity is undeniable.

Maybe that’s all true though? Maybe film does really look better, even though more often than not, the kinds of effects we fetishize (dust, grain, color)  are theoretically reproducible within photoshop, or are just technical errors, to begin with.

My favorite case for film’s defense is also a case for BDSM. I like film because it ties me up. I like film because it’s so easy to fuck up. I like film because my camera is heavy, destroys my back, and leaves me feeling like the fruity little sub I am. I like film because of its limitations, its failures, its fuck ups.

Here, and this will feel like a bit of a tangent but stay with me, I point to George Lucas (I promise this is gonna make sense.) Star Wars has its own history with film, having precipitated both the death and rebirth of film cinematography within Hollywood, but what I’m actually thinking about is the clear disparity in quality between Episode 4 and Episode 1. My case goes like this: when he made A New Hope, Lucas had to convince those around him that his ideas made sense. He had to negotiate with his collaborators and work around technological limitations.

Unlike George Lucas in the 1970s, the George Lucas of Episode 1 was a king. Undeniably powerful when it came to the production of The Phantom Menace. He had proven himself to be a genius in the eyes of his collaborators, and thus, could not be questioned. Any shitty idea he had would be followed through, and any apparent technological limitation was to be denied, replaced instead with the promises of digital technology and CGI. The results speak for themselves, though I admit to being a prequel stan.

This is all to say that I think sometimes limitation and criticism are as crucial to artists as freedom and technical ability. Limitations, like those imposed by film, tie us up in pleasurable ways. They become challenges to work around, or dicks to ride with pride and with envy. We cum because it’s so possible to fail that our success is orgasmic. It’s hot baby, to get that roll back from the lab and see that shit actually looking real good.

Here, for me, film’s technical limitations create a framework that my work thrives within. I like the liminal nature of film photography, as that latent image transforms within my mind with the passage of time between taking and developing the negatives. It occurs to me that this a more of a case against digital. Against possibility, with implications that bleed out into the field of other digital art technologies (AI, et al).

In this way, it might be better to say that I distrust the freedom of the digital camera. I distrust myself when I’m shooting because, since I can see the image then and there, I can never be really sure that I’m making the best possible image. All I can do is keep jerking off and hope something good happens. Film fucks me over gently. With film I know I’ll never get the best possible shot, and I like that about it. It keeps me from worrying. It makes me stoic. As we hear so often “it slows me down.”

Let’s take a closer look at slowness, since, to me, this is the best possible case for film photography, if only somewhat misunderstood…

Part 3: Bimbofication

What if there’s a third way to look at film? What if we accept the truth, that arguments like “I like the way it looks”, and “I like the way it makes me shoot”, are bullshit, but open ourselves up to another possibility. What if it’s true that my argument is futile? What if I accept the possibility that futility is what I’m looking for in the first place?

Much has been made about technology, media, and their effect on people, particularly within the framework of modern capitalism. Marxist criticism is ripe with examples of subtle and overt forms of domination carried out by “technological innovation.” The material conditions of film production have shifted over the past 20/30 years such that it is no longer economically sound to produce images on film, but, what if I don’t want to be economically sound? What if the refusal of digital image technologies (at least within the limited framework of a small part of my artistic practice) represents a more general instinct against the increasing rapidity of life within the digital age?

I’ve come to realize that I might just be stubborn but that my stubbornness might not be a manifestation of some cancerous conservatism or some underlying fascism. I’ve come to feel that maybe I’m not a fetishist because I’m longing for the days when US Imperial domination was more certain, or when capitalism operated more clearly, but that I am fetishist because I want to be slow and I want to be dumb. I wanna be a bimbo, baby.

If I was making this case in a void, that might be hard to swallow 😉, but I’m not. I’m not the only Kodak cuck out there. A quick look at who is shooting on film today and it becomes clear that there is split between two major user bases - old photographers who just won’t give it up, and young photographers who didn't even grow up with it in the first place.

Arguments against the use of film rub me the wrong way because they presume that conservatism is at the core of our desire to use film (it often is, but always?). This argument persists because, around the mid to late 2000’s it was an argument that had to play out among university professors and photographic artists. There, it was sometimes clear that the refusal to adopt digital technology was more the result of some puritanical conservatism within the industry, a refusal of a whole generation of artists who grew up shooting film to evolve with the times.  But, how does that argument explain the desire of young people, those of my and later generations, to use film, when, for us, digital cameras are the default mode? Sure, we can and do fetishize past technologies that we didn’t have access to growing up (see typewriters on Tumblr), but maybe there’s something else here too.

When I use my digital camera, I’m doing so intelligently. I'm questioning my exposure, my composition, my color. I’m wrestling with the camera to make it do exactly as I envision. More often than not, I’m using my digital camera because money is involved. Because someone has determined that I am an expert and hired me to perform my craft. Hence, the need for refinement, perfection, and high-quality image production.

When I shoot my film camera, I’m just dicking around. Sometimes that dicking is painful, as when I realize something’s out of focus, or end up messing up the exposure, but on those rare occasions that my images do work out, my artistic practice is driven forward in ways that digital never could. It’s a gamble, and I like that about it. It’s exciting, odd, and sometimes, very rarely, it’s magic.

It’s true that digital cameras are better. Fujifilm GFXs can produce images of the same or better quality than well-scanned negatives from my Bronica GS-1, but I also can’t afford a GFX. Film is more expensive in the long-run, sure, but I’m broke in the short-run. Maybe “better” isn’t always what I’m looking for either.

Film cameras are dumb, they’re obsolete, they're prone to breaking, they’re slow, they’re inaccurate and harder to focus, they’re unreliable, and they’re out of touch. Maybe that’s why I like them. Because I’d rather be slow, dumb, silly, obsolete, and prone to failure, at least when I know the alternative is to be accurate, fast, efficient, and sharp, but to do so within the framework of modern capitalism.

Part 4: Release

I’m hopeful that press about the successful return of film photography will have positive effects on my own practice, but I doubt that’s how it’ll play out. Film cameras are skyrocketing in expense as demand rises and supply falls. Film itself looks to have an insecure, but not entirely pessimistic, future, as new stocks are released now at around the same rate as old stocks are discontinued. Another recession could tank the whole industry, but that’s yet to be shown as a guarantee. One hopes, at the very least, that we can keep fucking with film for years to come.

At the same time, I think it’s important to consider the ways in which photography has evolved and will continue to involve. New photographers enter the industry every day, as Youtube and tik tok have made the medium more accessible to newcomers than ever. AI art has given a few photographers panic attacks, and new technologies promise unpredictable evolutions within the field overall. How are we supposed to keep up?

Maybe we don’t have to.

When I get pessimistic about the future of photography, I remind myself of one thing that seems to make it better: I shouldn’t be pessimistic about the future of photography when I could just be pessimistic about the entire future instead!

As we rapidly plummet toward economic and ecological collapse due to the contradictions of capital that Marx made note of during its earliest years, I realize that it’s not all that useful for me to dwell on how to defend my use of film photography anymore. I’d rather just be looking at the world, the way I like to look at it and continue doing so as long as I can.

If film feels more authentic, looks better, binds me in pleasurable ways, or feels dumb enough to soothe my big dumb brain, then so be it. I’ll keep shooting as long as I can. Photography is a profoundly empowering medium for those who perform it. If the number of practitioners is expanding, we should celebrate, not despair. At the end of the day, photography is not the most useful technology anymore. It is no longer the darling of philosophers or media theorists, and is no longer something to impress your parents with. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Lean into it with me. I promise it’ll feel good.