Japanese amateur photographers are an impressive breed. They emerged in the 1960s, swarmed the world by the 1980s, and are to be found today in beauty spots and tourist sites across the globe – clustered in front of the Colosseum and Sydney Harbour Bridge, assembling tripods in the foothills of Everest and snapping icebergs in Antarctica. They are not casual holiday snappers, but photo fanatics – the kind who wait all day to capture the perfect light on a cherry blossom or the fall of an autumn maple leaf.
At their peak they were 5 million-strong, and their hunger for lenses, light meters, flash units, tripods, cameras and, above all, film, supported an entire industry. Their numbers are down a little, although they are a long way from becoming endangered. In the past five years, they have led a quiet revolution. To varying degrees, the switch from film to digital has taken place across the world. Bulky boxes are replaced by slender cameras as small as a cigarette packet, and rolls of Kodak and Fujifilm by tiny flash cards.
It has transformed the way people store and disseminate photographs, as large albums have given way to email attachments and Flickr. But in Japan, the scale of the amateur photography market has made the switch from film to digital all the more momentous.
From a peak of nearly 40 million in 1997, sales of 35mm and single lens cameras have plummeted. The situation is stark: if sales continue at this rate, film cameras and film itself will disappear within a few years. Japanese manufacturers – synonymous with quality film cameras – have retreated from the market with a speed that few could have predicted.
In 2006, Canon announced that it would not be developing any new film cameras, and Nikon said it would stop making most of its film cameras to focus on digital. Konica Minolta pulled out of the race altogether by selling up to Sony in 2005. Fujifilm has shown its commitment to film with the only new film camera to come on the market since 2006 – the Klasse W, a pricey compact with its nostalgic-looking body places film photography firmly in the retro category.
“Japanese people love new gadgets, whether they’re good or not,” says the photographer Taishi Hirokawa. “The general public has embraced digital and the film companies are following suit. It’s a vicious circle. You used to be able to get film anywhere – kiosks, convenience stores – but if it doesn’t sell, the shops don’t want to stock it; if the shops don’t stock it, people can’t buy it and so it goes until the manufacturers stop making the cameras.” Figures speak for themselves: last year Japan produced 94 million digital cameras. The number of film cameras was 800,000 – fewer than 1 per cent.
Quite simply, developing new film cameras is bad business. The days of the photographer taking his time in the field and spending hours tinkering with negatives in the darkroom are numbered. Publishers, newspapers and magazines increasingly expect, and demand, digital.
Takeyoshi Tanuma is the president of the Japan Professional Photographers’ Soc-iety and a veteran photographer of over 50 years. “Over 50 per cent of our 1,800 members are working in digital now,” he says. “With digital, photographers can shoot and upload quickly – film can’t compete with that speed. If professional photographers don’t use digital they simply won’t get the work.”
Digital technology – thanks to Japanese manufacturers – is advancing at an unprecedented pace. Canon and Nikon have diverted the expertise they once devoted to film cameras to digital. The latest models have resolutions of 21 megapixels, and 50-plus megapixel cameras are already in development. Manufacturers foresee the single-lens digital as the replacement for film cameras and are developing increasingly crisp telephoto lenses to accompany them.
Photographers contend that regardless of technological advances, film and digital are still not the same. “I’m not opposed to digital,” says Hirokawa. “It has its place – it’s good for news and sport, where speed is the top priority, but digital photography is an electronic process and film photography depends on light and what happens during the developing process. Look at an image taken with a digital camera and compare it to a print taken from a film camera and you’ll see the difference. The depth and texture are completely different. Film prints are made up of grains, digital of clearly defined pixels.”
Hirokawa and three other photographers started a series of exhibitions and workshops promoting film photography. Last year they were joined by 14 other professionals who range in age from their twenties to their seventies. “We’re finding that students are leaving art college and they still don’t know how to develop photographs,” he says. “But the darkroom is where a photographer can really express himself. For me it’s a place for meditation, almost a sacred place. It’s about the smell of the chemicals, the feeling of your hands in the cold water – using all five senses.” But with bulk memory cameras now standard issue in Japanese mobile phones and barely a household without a digital camera, most photographs never exist as anything but digital files.
Photographers such as Hirokawa fear that film will stop being manufactured or be made in such small quantities that it will be unaffordable to professionals – accessible only to wealthy dabblers. Japan’s most brilliant photographic artist, Hiroshi Sugimoto, is said to be stockpiling film in freezers, and the photojournalist Sebastião Salgado is reported to have begged Fujifilm to manufacture film for him in bulk. Less exalted photographers are buying up products and equipment that might soon be discontinued. Hirokawa points out lenses are also going out of production and that as electronics companies such as Sony and Casio move into the business, film-specific camera expertise is being lost. The news is no better across the Pacific where Kodak is withdrawing from the film business, having already ceased production of APS and traditional 35mm cameras in 2004.
Tanuma says the ubiquity of cameras devalues photography and there is a danger that Japan’s photographic heritage will disappear for good. “With a film roll you have to think carefully about the moment – with digital you take as many pictures as you like and delete what you don’t want. Photos we erase now might have value 20 or 30 years from now. A picture has added value over time – it’s not a good thing to judge so quickly.”
Fujifilm appears to be conscious of the pressure being piled upon it from all sides – the commercial pressure to give its all to the mania for digital, and the pressure from photographers whose talent has given photography its prestige. The key figure in all this is Shigetaka Komori, president of Fujifilm. He has been with Fujifilm since 1963 and is known to be a fervent supporter of film photography. He has made a public commitment to continue making film and, officially at least, that remains the company line. The consensus among photographers is that as long as Komori is in charge, then film is safe.
But he is already 68 years old, and will not be around for ever. Will film photography wither completely, to become a quaint craft, like printmaking or hand-made books? Or will it assume the same kind of relationship with digital photography that radio has to television – a min-ority medium, but one with many passionate practitioners and a loyal audience? “It doesn’t matter how many pixels there are,” says Taishi Hirokawa, with what sounds like conviction as well as hope. “Digital cameras can never become like film cameras – they will always run in parallel, but never the same. There will be developments in digital technology and artists will use digital cameras in their work but film is something else, it has its own culture.”
Film vs digital: for and against
Creative director at Acne Paper, a Swedish fashion and lifestyle newspaper.
“Although only 35 per cent of our photography is shot on film, something’s been lost in the move; some of the magic disappears when you can edit pictures on the spot on your laptop. With film, the time between the shoot and studying the contact sheets allowed for a little reflection before seeing the images with a fresh eye. I always liked the craft of it, so I miss it now.”
A freelance photographer who shoots for Q, Rolling Stone and Case Abitare.
“I’ve been shooting on digital for four years now – in fact, I haven’t shot a roll of film since I bought my digital camera. Visually, my work is closer to how I want it to be: when I’m shooting on location I can balance the natural and artificial light just right and I can edit the shots from my hotel room. If it looks too good, I can add the graininess of film afterwards. I’ve not looked back.”
At the Leica store in Ginza, Tokyo, cameras are displayed like works of art.A top seller is the M8 which was lavished with the heft and craftsmanship of a manual but is, in fact, a digital. Some models are as much fashion items as any Birkin bag, and the brown leather “Edition Hermès” is selling for ¥1.3m (€8,000). Ginza is the centre of the second-hand camera trade, with six stores in the space of a few blocks. One store, Katsumido, has been in business for 60 years. The shop is immaculate with glass cabinets lined with vintage Leicas and Nikons. The staff have decades of experience between them and there’s a steady flow of customers, even midweek. “Our customers are collectors, professionals and what we call ‘high-end amateurs’,” says manager Takuji Imai. “Regulars come to check out the stock. Some buy beautiful cameras but never use them.” Collectors look for rare or old models in perfect condition. Most, he says, look for Leicas, but recently there’s a growing band of Nikon fans, particularly overseas. Chinese buyers mainly look for Leica cameras. “They want new models they can use or sell. They will buy several lenses in one go – some go for ¥500,000 (€3,200) each.”