Tri-X and the Selfie, Shaping How We See

It’s not that surprising to hear Sebastião Salgado, Anton Corbijn, and Don McCullin wax poetic on Kodak’s Tri-X, as they were invited to by Bryan Appleyard for his 2014 article, “The Tri-X Factor: Kodak’s Tri-X is the Film Great Photographers Love.” All three photographers are relatively old, vastly predate the digital revolution, and primarily (if not exclusively) have shot black and white over the course of their careers. First released as roll film in 1954, Tri-X was the black and white film of choice for generations. Press photographers, artists, street shooters, students, hobbyists–if you were shooting 35mm black and white odds are you were shooting Tri-X.

The article kinda gets bogged down by the (pointless) debate between film and digital.

Film versus digital, McCullin points out, is still a debate among professionals and they are not talking about megapixels. Film is about more than just resolution, it is about authenticity. Film has other, more mysterious qualities.

For all intents and purposes this debate is over; film is dead. And this is coming from someone who loves film and uses it regularly. It’s not that film is dead, in fact I think it’s quite likely that film, especially monochrome film, will continue to exist indefinitely in some form or another, but rather that it has been supplanted by digital capture.

When I hear McCullin talk about the authenticity of film or that “grain is life,” or when Sheila Rock, who is also quoted in the piece, says film has more depth, all I hear are weak justifications for one’s personal taste. It’s okay to like film–for its look, its process, its archival quality, its history–but to say it has more authenticity or depth sounds hopeful at best, arbitrary and desperate at worst.

What does hold water for me is something that Appleyard hits on near the top of the story but never fully explores, at least not to my satisfaction, which is the idea that Tri-X was so dominant that it shaped the way we saw the world.

It was on Tri-X that Corbijn took some of the greatest rock’n’roll photographs, including his documentation of the capering genius of Tom Waits, which has now run for nearly 40 years. In fact, if we include just a few other Tri-X users–Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Josef Koudelka and most of the finest of the photographers who worked for the Magnum agency–it becomes clear that this film may be the most aesthetically important technology in photographic history. The story of Tri-X is unique. It goes to the heart of how we see and what we see…

He goes on to talk about how the “dirtiness” of Tri-X fit the times and how it was the photographic parallel to similar shifts that occurred in other art forms. (And coincidently/consequently/ironically was used to photograph and document those cultural shifts and moments.)

And so what is fascinating to me is to think about the role that Tri-X played in shaping how we thought and now plays in how we think about the decades where Tri-X was so dominate. Appleyard hits on this a bit when he says, “Corbijn’s doctrine that grain is life expresses a great truth about the Sixties and Seventies way of seeing the world. The age was defined by a rebellion against safe perfection and a quest for truth in experimentation, danger and dirt.” However, he doesn’t dive in deep. Nor does he extend the argument to the paradigms of today. If Tri-X shaped how we saw and now see the second half of the 20th century, what will shape the way we see the first half of the 21st century?

He briefly says that digital has replaced the role Tri-X played and that it is the flawless, retouched actors, models, and celebrities that grace the covers of our magazines and catalogs that represent the new paradigm. Here is the final  sentence in full of the paragraph above that I ended with ellipsis.

It goes to the heart of how we see and what we see and what we may be losing as billions of casual, digital snaps are taken daily and as photographic integrity is subverted by the dead, flawless, retouched faces of actors and models that gaze blankly out at us.

I believe he’s definitely headed in the right direction, but I would push things further. I would suggest that the camera phone is the technological equivalent and successor to Tri-X, and even more specifically, the selfie, which was adopted en masse after the release of the iPhone 4 in 2010, the first iPhone to include a front-facing camera, is what now shapes how we see the world. Kate Losse sums up the history of the selfie nicely in her 2013 New Yorker piece, “The Return of the Selfie,” taking us back to the hotly contested fight for dominance between MySpace and Facebook that filled the later ought years, (which seems so distant now).

Sure, there were self-portraits before front facing cameras, but without the front facing camera there would be no selfie. (And without the selfie there would be no selfie sticks!) It is the front-facing camera that signals a fundamental shift in how cameras are used, and thus how we see.

And it seems clear to me that the dominance of the selfie extends far beyond the pictures themselves, but to the technologies and platforms that enable and promote them. Whole companies such as Snapchat and Vine seem unfathomable without the rise of the selfie. I would even argue that the selfie played a pivotal role in the mainstreaming and popularity of vlogging on YouTube.

But now I’m drifting further and further away from where we started. The crux of the entire Tri-X article was the significance that Tri-X played and how dominant it was. So dominate that there are many photographers today who won’t let it go. So dominate as a technology that it played a pivotal role in shaping the way people saw the world at the time and how historically we see that era now.

The idea that a film stock, or any piece of technology for that matter, could be powerful enough to shift or mold or influence our perception of the world is not that surprising. Imagine life before and after the introduction of any now ubiquitous technology: electricty, the telephone, sliced bread, etc. But it is still fascinating. Fascinating to consider how Tri-X shaped our view of the world and what impacts it had on our lives.

When Corbijn or Rock talk up the subjective qualities of Tri-X that they love–it’s depth, grain, authenticity–what I really think they’re trying to talk about, albeit poorly, is the way Tri-X shaped how we saw the world and their preference for that vantage point over others. To value this perspective purely for nostalgic reasons seems silly, however, perhaps there are intrinsic values in how Tri-X shaped our perspective, our understanding, or engagement that did not exist before the rise of Tri-X and are now missing after it’s fall.

Similarly one could contemplate the impact that Kodak’s color film Kodachrome had. Or all color film for that matter in the age of the Shirley Card. It’s well documented and discussed that systemic racism played an integral part in the development and production of color film, skewing how skin tones are rendered and consequently entrenching an entire way of seeing. This is a fascinating conversation, far more interesting (to me) than discussing grain.

And of course, this conversation can extend beyond film stocks to all types of things that shape our visual landscapes. However, I think color is a very important touchstone. For example, in discussing his film The Live of Others on NPR’s Fresh Air, filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck talked in detail how technology, namely inaccessible paint patents, shaped the color palette behind the Iron Curtain.

Dave Davies: I’m wondering what you did to capture the look, sound, and feel of East Germany in 1984. How did you approach that?

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: That’s a good question because the question already implies something which I think is very true that the Eastern Block did look and feel different. I think it had a lot to do with the colors, these somehow desaturated, washed out colors that the East had. There was something very unique about that. I even once spoke to a chemist who explained to me that there were patents that the East did not have and therefore they could not make those bright neon colors that the West had.

He goes on to discuss how this influenced the cinematography and set design of the film, demonstrating how much power something as simple as paint technology can hold in shaping how we see and remember a time and place.

I would be very interested in reading about or discussing these more substantive qualities of Tri-X, other film stocks, or photographic technologies (such as the front-facing camera), and the influence they have had on shaping our fundamental perspective on what and how we see.