Fifty years ago, I was buying a lot of film. In 1957 I was working for both my high school newspaper and yearbook, and going through 8 or 9 rolls of 35mm Tri-X a week. Even though it was the school’s money, I remember exactly what it cost. Twenty exposures were 85 cents, and a 36 exposure roll was $1.15. I nearly always bought the longer rolls, since it was cheaper per frame if you made more than 27 exposures. A (six ounce) Coke cost six cents in a vending machine. You could mail a first-class letter for three cents. A gallon of gas was a little over 30 cents. You could buy a ’57 Chevrolet Bel-Air with a V8 for $2400, or fuel-injected Corvette for about $3500. The consumer price index stood at 27.7. The CPI is a bit over 203 today, so what you could buy for a buck in 1957 will cost you, on average, $7.33 now.
The last 50 years have been tough ones for the black-and-white film market. In 1957, most photography was black and white. Most color photographers made slides. The speed of Kodachrome was ASA (ISO today) 10. Ektachrome was a stop-and-two-thirds faster, but neither were fast enough for mass acceptance. Kodacolor had been around since WW II, but it was slow, expensive to develop, more expensive to print, and most people had to send their film away to get it processed.
The first assault on black-and white photography came from improved color reversal films. High-speed Anscochrome at ASA 100 and High-Speed Ektachrome at ASA 160 were introduced in the waning years of the fifties. That made color photography more practical for amateurs, but didn’t address the main disadvantage of transparencies; most amateurs didn’t want to have to darken a room to show their images to friends and relatives. They wanted to get their film processed locally and quickly, and pass around photographs or paste them into albums. Ironically, Kodak set the stage for rapid expansion of the availability of photographic processing when they lost a court battle in 1954 and were forced to cease bundling color film and color processing. They signed a consent decree in which they agreed to sell them separately. What at first appeared to be a defeat for Big Yellow became a victory when Kodak realized that had created a new market for itself, that of independent photofinishers. Kodak prospered by selling machinery, paper, and chemicals to the photofinishers, the photofinishers prospered by proliferating and offering ever-faster turnaround time. The customers loved it, and bought more film and processing, predominantly negative film and prints. The bigger market allowed Kodak and thus the photofinishers to reduce their prices, and the market got even bigger. It was a virtuous circle for the people who had switched to color, but one that left the black-and-white users on the outside looking in. Soon the corner drugstore would no longer process black and white film. The one-hour photofinishing shops that supplanted them handled only color.
By the late eighties, traditional black-and-white film was nearly finished as a mass market. Amateurs were forced to do their own processing, switch to color, or pay the heavy fees of professional B&W labs. The resurgence of black and white in the art market was a small compensation to the manufacturers for the loss of millions of less-serious photographers. Ilford developed chromogenic black and white films that could be processed in the same equipment and chemicals normally used for color; Kodak followed, and people no longer had to buy conventional B&W film to get black-and-white photographs.
When the digital wave hit the mass market in the late 90s and the early years of the new millennium, it washed away much of the color film industry, and hit what was left of the black and white business pretty hard. With the volumes shrinking, you’d think prices would be going through the roof. And that roll of Tri-X, the one that sold for $1.15 in 1957, or $8.43 in today’s dollars? You can still buy one. It’s changed a bit; it’s twice as fast and has finer grain, but you can no longer reload the cartridges. It’ll cost you $3.93 at Calumet.
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