When I started ‘serious’ photography in high school (‘serious’ meant learning what camera settings do and finding your way around a darkroom…), the film manufacturers were in sort of an arms race. This was the late-80s, and imaging giants Kodak and Fuji were constantly one-upping each other with innovative and tasty new products. We were also lucky enough to have smaller makers trying their best, including Germany’s Agfa, and to a lesser extent the U.S.’s 3M and Japan’s Konica. One of Kodak’s great entries in this era was a super-sensitive black & white film called T-Max P3200, which was part of a new line of T-Max black & white film.
I’ll try not to get too photo technical, so here’s a quick run down on what made this so cool. The thing about this film was its unprecedented ‘speed’. Film speed is represented by something called ASA or ISO. I call it ASA. Each number is a ‘stop’. So an ASA film rated at 400 is one-stop higher than ASA 200. The most common speeds back then were in the 100 to 400 range (in photo slang, we referred to the higher ASA films as ‘fast’). This gave you plenty of speed to make sharp images in bright to cloudy days. If you went inside you’d need a flash or some other artificial light to brighten things up.
Then along comes P3200! This film was designed to be ‘pushed’, which means you can rate the film at a higher ASA speed and compensate by increasing your times in the developer. This was a normal darkroom procedure for ages. ‘Pushing’ brought compromises such as higher contrast and bigger grain. You learned what worked and what didn’t by trial and error. P3200 could be exposed up to a whopping ASA 25,000 under the right conditions, and the image quality didn’t degrade very much when you pushed it. BLAM! That’s fast stuff! Well, it was in 1988 when ASA 400 was still considered a relatively ‘fast’ film.
My high school photo buddies and I couldn’t get enough of this stuff, often going out into the night and shooting all sorts of photos….pretty much all of them horrible. Some came out, and when they did it was awesome. Like some dark noir scene with endless inky deep blacks and gruff grainy tones. Gritty and exciting.
Through school and into my early newspaper internships and jobs, P3200 was a common tool in our toolbox. I mostly used it for indoor sports, where that high speed really counted.
During my first internship at the Greeley (Colo.) Tribune, I was assigned my first-ever high school basketball shoot. I was terrified! I loaded up on P3200 and drove out to Windsor, a small neighboring ag town (now it’s an unrecognizable extension of the Front Range’s sprawl). It was as if they had just discovered electric lights in this gym. Barely. The darkest place on earth. How they played any ball in there was a mystery, and I was sure I wouldn’t get any photos. I feverishly shot several rolls of film, and when I got back to the paper I ‘pushed’ it far beyond Kodak’s recommendations. After an agonizing time in the developer tank and then the fixer, I finally pulled the film out to see my disaster. Well, it was kind of a disaster but I managed to salvage a few frames. I printed and turned them in, and the editors were happy. Whew! I still have a print from that first ever game and, well, it’s ghastly. But it worked.
Of course, digital technology has stripped these practical duties from film forever. Those of us who sometimes go back to analog can do it to appreciate its inherent and organic beauty, rather than battling with its shortcomings in difficult conditions and on tight deadlines. Digital has also ruined the business model film needs to survive. Late last year, war weary Kodak announced they are discontinuing the once-revolutionary P3200 film.
I can’t let an emulsion go to the grave without a proper sendoff, especially not something this important. While I haven’t used P3200 since my early days at the Sheridan Press (that would’ve been around 1996 I believe), I decided to order some rolls and give it one last spin.
My friend Josh Wolfson understands the geek. He’s a guitar player and fanatic, loves analog pedals and tube guitar amps. He gets it! So with that in mind he was more than happy to let me take some P3200 and shoot his band Speed the Pilgrim rehearsing in their tiny downstairs space. There wasn’t much room for me there, but it had a great vibe. The light was perfectly awful, which is a good thing! Since I hadn’t used this film in so long I was again afraid things would turn out poorly. Nothing like going back in time to remember what made things exciting, right? Luckily, the negatives turned out pretty much as I had anticipated. It’s the look I was going for. Imperfect but evocative. Like music! No doubt I’m thinking of another larger project for this film and me before it’s gone for good.
The newest DSLRs can shoot at ASA speeds that would’ve sounded like science fiction when I was learning photography. They shoot clean, sharp images with plenty of shadow detail. Don’t get me wrong, I’d LOVE to get my hands on a Canon EOS 1x, especially after this most recent high school tournament season. The thing is a technological wonder. Still, I can’t forget how excited I was when I first went into the night with my friends and a couple rolls of Kodak’s magic new film. I can’t help but love the imperfect perfection of silver reacting with light and chemicals. We gain something, we lose something.