Measured against the standards of the times, photography has always been a high-tech activity. Practice even preceded science in the early days: photography predates the periodic table by thirty years. As in other technology-based endeavors, over the years practitioners of the art have become more and more dependent on others for their technology. In the early days of the medium, photographers needed only ordinary paper (for both negatives and prints, although later glass was used as a substrate for negatives), and refined chemicals for creating and processing photosensitive material. Most photographers couldn’t grind their own lenses, but enterprising ones constructed their own cameras and printing frames.
It didn’t take long for a technological food chain to arise. In 1883, George Eastman introduced roll film and made the rewards of photography accessible to a vastly greater population. Soon, glass plates were a curiosity. The manufacture of photosensitive coatings on plastic required specialized machinery and sophisticated chemical processes beyond the reach of normal photographers, who soon purchased pre-sensitized film and paper and preblended chemicals. The desire for color images drove the technology of photography even further away from its practitioners: after many false starts, the market settled on Kodachrome, a product that not only needed a factory for its manufacture, but also for its processing. Home processing of color materials returned years later, but the trend was clear: photographers would trade lack of control of their materials for speed, convenience, and quality. Cameras followed a similar path, from wood-and-leather boxes assembled on a kitchen table, through mechanical marvels from the likes of Leitz and Hasselblad, to 21st century instruments with more computing power than the Moon Lander.
There’s a price for this sort of progress. In the case of equipment, when things break sometimes they can’t be fixed because parts aren’t available. With mechanical equipment, you can still get things repaired if you are willing to have the broken part made, or salvaged from other equipment. Now that much modern equipment relies on electronics, the situation gets worse: if an integrated circuit fails and is no longer made, it would cost millions of dollars to fabricate a replacement; the only hope is salvage.
The issue of obsolete equipment is unpleasant—no one likes to discard a camera that through long service has become an extension of one’s brain—but it pales beside the problems of obsolete processes and materials. One of the joys of photography has been that old printing techniques never die, they just become alternative processes: carbro, collotype, gum bichromate, platinum, palladium, albumin… That was true when photographers could carry out the processes with basic materials, but sadly, is no longer the case. The marvelous rich reds of the Ektaflex process are gone forever. Velox blacks are history. Azo and Portriga are unavailable. Perhaps the most beautiful color printing process of all, dye transfer, is dead, now that the matrix materials are unavailable. Super-XX, Agfa 25, Agfa Ultra 50 and Ektar 25 films survive only in a few far-sighted photographers’ freezers. The coming dominance of digital capture and printing will accelerate the obsolescence of materials for chemical photography as their markets dwindle and their production becomes uneconomic: even Kodachrome has a place on the endangered list because of the environmental problems associated with its processing. In digital photography there are totally new ways for older equipment to become useless: consider an older scanner or printer with no drivers for current operating systems.
What’s a photographer to do? Enjoy the 19th-century processes that are still available: since they’re so low on the technology food chain, they’re probably safe. Watch out for the demise of current processes, and don’t start a project that depends on particular materials without being ready buy a freezer load if they threaten to become unavailable. Look for new incarnations of old processes, like digital gravure. Look for work-arounds, like simulating Super-XX’s long toe with Photoshop. Be willing to try new processes, because the old ones may not be around, or go the other way, and pick a favorite mainstream, and therefore presumably long-lived, process and commit yourself to it.