“Due to significantly decreased sales volumes, Kodak is ceasing production of Ektachrome 64T Professional Film.” We’ve become used to announcements like this, which came late last year along with notice that Ektachrome 100 Plus has been discontinued, and that stocks of the E6-process films would probably only last into the early part of this year.
While the decline in film sales has smoothed in recent years, for some products the continued fall has pushed them perilously near the red. And it doesn’t look good for E6.
Gaining popularity in the 1970s, for years it was the preferred choice for photographers who wanted ultimate repro quality, because of its “superior tonal range – richer, smoother hues that are unachievable through modern-day digital software”, says Melinda Gibson of Genesis Digital. “It not only produces a velvety grain structure, but also a cleaner, smoother colour graduation.”
More importantly, she says, E6 retains the “ever-important traditional element to photography where exposure and precision are necessary to create the best possible results. It holds on to that anticipation, that excitement when awaiting your film and keeps the element of spontaneity in photography”.
Robin Bernard at Bayeux agrees. “Try showing a great image shot on 10×8 Velvia to someone who’s never seen a 10×8 transparency before – that’s a lot of photographers these days – and they invariably go ‘wow’, but that’s mostly where it ends,” he says. “Sadly, it doesn’t matter how aesthetically pleasing E6 looks, digital has a perceived economic advantage and its ubiquity, flexibility and convenience has usurped any visual individuality that transparency brings.”
Despite the abundance of praise about its qualities, the use of colour reversal films has plummeted dramatically, as a number of professional labs confirmed to BJP. “After a slow roll down hill for the last five years, E6 suddenly fell off a cliff at the beginning of 2009,” says Bernard, who says Bayeux processed 35 percent fewer films in 2009 than 2008.
London-based pro lab Metro Imaging has experienced the same. “We process 250 E6 films a day, when we used to process 3000 a few years ago,” says director Chris Jackson. The fall in numbers has pushed the large majority of pro labs to abandon E6 altogether. Rapid Eye in Shoreditch is one of them. “We stopped E6 processing three years ago,” explains Eddy Cater. “E6 requires a high level of volume and it has to be consistent. The chemistry needs regular replacing, and this costs money. It wasn’t economically viable to keep it running.”
For Genesis Digital, E6 processing is still “very important to our clients,” according to Gibson. “We work with many museums, galleries and auction houses, such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s, as well as many art photographers that use slide film.” But this isn’t the case for every lab. Bayeux says E6 isn’t an essential part of its business.
“It’s just about viable for us but I doubt if it’s really essential to any customers, just something some of them enjoy using,” he says. The London-based lab currently processes 300 films a week, with a 60/40 ratio respectively for 35mm and 120. “There are still brave souls who are shooting 5×4 and 10×8 but it’s not common.”
While Cater at Rapid Eye predicts that E6 will become extinct before the end of the year – “it’s a matter of months, not years,” he tells BJP – other labs pledge they will continue as long as there is demand. “If the clients want to use this material, we’ll offer it,” says Jackson. But, he adds, that will depend on Kodak and Fujifilm. “They need to continue producing the films and chemicals.”
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