Wednesday, March 26, 2014

New55 FILM in Christopher James' 3rd Edition

Many of you who are in the New England photography community know Christopher James.  After 13 years at Harvard University, Christopher is University Professor and Director of the MFA in Photography program at the College of Art and Design at Lesley University.  He is an accomplished artist: his work has been published and hung extensively, including in shows at MoMA, The Met, George Eastman House and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  His text -- a comprehensive historical survey and practitioner's cookbook -- known as The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes received unprecedented critical acclaim upon first release and was the winner of the Golden Light Technical Book of the Year Award.  The Second Edition has become universally recognized as the definitive text on alt processes.

It is to our delight that Christopher is including in his much expanded upcoming Third Edition a section on New55 FILM.  We will fall in the chapter, The Alternative Negative.  This is not a great surprise because instant film is an historically important medium and Christopher was, along with Ansel Adams, among the testers of old Polaroid Type 55.  

You'll find photographic historians in august stations who deny that Agfa's DTR ("Diffusion Transfer Reversal") process should be on the list of historic processes.  Perhaps the history of instant film is either too disreputable (merely for swinging) or too close to be seen in perspective.  Nevertheless, even though New55 FILM does not yet exist as a manufactured product, Christopher James' enthusiasm for our potential revival of a professional instant positive-negative monochrome film and its inclusion in The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes are at once a measure of justice and a reflection of the importance that the worldwide community supporting New55 FILM should follow through on its mission so that DTR shall not be merely historic in its significance to us.          

Here is Christopher's work -- shared with his kind permission -- to be released in the The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes, Third Edition (Delmar Cengage) in Fall 2014 and available soon for pre-orders at Amazon.

Fig: 24-26, Bob Crowley, Sam Hiser on NEW55, 2011 (Tri-X version)


New55 FILM

Here’s what I wrote in 2007… If you want to have a really great time making photographs let me recommend that you treat yourself to a box of Polaroid Type 55 Positive/Negative 4 x 5 instant film. This ingenious film can be shot in either a conventional 4 x 5 camera or in a pinhole camera that accepts a 4 x 5 Polaroid back. Polaroid Type 55 P/N yields both a positive print and a very serviceable, grainless, negative. For alternative process photographers, shooting with pinhole cameras and with a limited amount of studio time to spare, it is a perfect film.

In 2008, Polaroid stopped producing Type 55 P/N and the world went dark. Just kidding… but it was a serious blow to hundreds of alternative process artists and I would venture to say, thousands of editorial, architectural, and commercial photographers around the world. The discontinuance of this wonderful product, along with the end of the grand buffet of silver gelatin films, also affected the makers of 4 x 5 pinhole cameras that were so successfully connected to the manual 4 x 5 Polaroid backs. Making a shot with Type 55 P/N in your pinhole camera, processing the film in 25 seconds, clearing it in sodium sulfite, hanging it to dry, and using it as a near perfect contact negative 30 minutes later, was a pure delight.

With Polaroid Type 55 P/N you had the simultaneous choice of achieving a great negative for printing in the darkroom with an enlarger or contact printing in an alternative process. You could also simply make a nice positive print, as both the negative and the positive were produced within the single exposure film and chemistry pod. It was rare to have both the negative and the positive come out well simultaneously and with negatives made for alt pro intentions, my advice was to use the positive as a way of evaluating the composition and context of your image and to then focus all of your attention on making the best negative for the process. The lighter and more pathetic the positive, the richer and more resolved was the negative. You simply had to adjust the exposure to fit the process. The Type 55 P/N film negatives could be cleared successfully in standard hypo clearing baths or in a simple sodium sulfite bath of a tablespoon or two to a liter of water. The negatives cleared quickly and were then washed in regular tap water for permanence in minutes. When I worked with Type 55 P/N away from the studio I filled a plastic food storage container with a sodium sulfite clearing bath for transporting the negatives and waited until I returned to the studio to water rinse and hang to dry. On occasion, when working at the beach, I would simply use ocean water.

The film was much loved due to its ability to allow instantaneous adjustments to exposure evaluations and it resulted in instant gratification for the student. It’s flaws and artifacts were appreciated in the same way the ones in wet plate collodion are, and they signaled the use of that material to those who could recognize it. The negatives were actually better than satisfactory for any process and the very nature of the film’s immediacy greatly accelerated a learning curve for anyone learning to shoot contact negatives for alternative process printing. I really loved this film.

That was then… and this is now.

Fig 24-27, Polly Chandler, Untitled, (New 55 FILM)

This may well be a very big deal. For the first time since February 2008, when Polaroid announced that it would cease production of Type 55 P/N film, Soundwave Research Laboratories, in Ashland Massachusetts, has been working to produce a replacement. Now, after a long and concentrated effort they have manufactured a modest production of film that is very similar to Polaroid’s Type 55 P/N. Bob Crowley has documented the projects progress in his blog called New55 FILM, which can be found at
New55 FILM utilizes the same film holder that was used with Polaroid Type 55 P/N and seems to share many of the same characteristics. While a commercial product is a little way off, I can tell you that what has been done by Bob Crowley and his team to date is a major accomplishment.  New55 is a 4 x 5 black and white instant film that produces a tonally superb negative along with a positive print.  It improves on the discontinued Polaroid Type 55 P/N through a lower parts count and this produces the benefit of generating less Polatrash… the term we somewhat affectionately used to describe all of the paper, metal strips, and brown separating tissue that had to be thrown out with every shot. As well, there is an additional major improvement to the old Polaroid as the positive and negative expose evenly, rather than two stops apart like the Polaroid Type 55.  

Handling is quite similar, though the new project is not a duplication of the Polaroid classic.  New55 FILM works in the same 545 Polaroid Land Film Holder, which are available in great numbers on eBay. The New55 FILM negative requires a fixing step to clear the gunk although the traditional sodium sulfite bath is optional.  

Exposure characteristics are undefined as of now because some flexibility remains in final component selection.  Most of the existing off-the-shelf sheet films possessing cubic-grain emulsions, such as Efke 25, Shanghai 100, Kodak Tri-X (320TXP), Fomapan 200, Adox CHS II or Ilford HP5 Plus, will work reasonably well with the diffusion transfer reversal process while giving a decent to excellent negative.  Old Type 55 used Kodak's "SO-139" (alas, my all-time favorite single stage duplicating films until it went out of production) which was a fine grain Panatomic X. The print receiver sheet and developer reagent for New55 FILM, during experimentation, have been provided by 20x24 studios, who also manufactured the developer pods.

It is one thing to read a vague long-expired patent, quite another to duplicate the results on a lab bench. What is planned presently is the assembling of a new work group locally, in Europe, and the Far East. Past vendor quotes, sales projections, and new suppliers need to be re-visited and technical drawings need revision. They also need to prepare fundraising efforts such as a Kickstarter campaign on the Internet. If the New55 FILM project is successful with Kickstarter this spring (2014), there will be sufficient funds to finalize the component specifications, bring in an engineer, and collect the assembly machinery under the roof of Bob Crowley’s skunkworks at Soundwave Research Lab in Ashland, Massachusetts.  Here, the first production run of New55 FILM would be finished and shipped to artists and large-format photography enthusiasts worldwide. If the fundraiser falls short, they will wrap up the technical knowledge into some sort of open source format and schedule a couple of handmade New55 workshops.

Said New55 FILM’s founder, Bob Crowley, “The initial motivation wasn't anything glamorous: I just noticed that The Impossible Project said they were not going to work on 4x5, and so I said, on Twitter, that I would look into it. The gamut of my inventions runs through all things that detect something such as heat, radio and light waves, or sound. In this case, lightwaves through a lens appealed to my inventor's instinct, along with the knowledge that a new era was opening up in materials science and nanotechnology -- which is plainly evident in the diffusion transfer reversal (“DTR”) process that Andre Rott and Edith Weyde invented for Agfa just after World War II.  Like any project, New55 started with researching patents and papers, buying the important books that exist in any field, and contacting people with knowledge who are willing to talk.  After establishing a basic understanding of the technology, I set out to locate the pieces: industrial resources, vendors and others who could supply the materials - often materials that nobody has made for a long time.”

In the meantime, they have a product that works and are getting close to being able to clean up the process where this New55 FILM will be closer to realization. I will add that asking them for free samples right now will only slow things down… be patient and keep your fingers crossed.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The future of 4x5 instant photography is yours to decide

It has been nearly four years since we started working on the possibility of bringing to commercialization a new, instant 4x5 film material.  Here is the link to the Kickstarter page.

Soon we will know if there is real market demand.  A successful fundraise will, if things go very well, result in the regular manufacture of a new instant 4x5 film, which is a very risky thing to attempt these days, or on any day.  Steady sales after that event must necessarily lead to other products and also price stabilization. Price per shot is a key measure of course, and I don't want to be shy about the value being double that of any other instant print, inherently, just because you get a positive print AND a high quality negative. Plus the fun. We are asking for a lot, though.

Shown here is the last of the FP-3000B which was discontinued due to poor sales. Is there enough of a demand for New55? Do photographers want to take the risk and pledge? Soon we shall know.
A moment of reflection before the Kickstarter launch