by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of American Reporter Correspondents
October 30, 2014
TRI-X: CELEBRATING 60 YEARS OF THE ICONIC BLACK-AND-WHITE FILM
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Sixty years ago this week, on Nov. 1, 1954, Kodak introduced a new black-and-white film called Tri-X.
It was the most light-sensitive film that Kodak had made to that point in history, and it quickly became the standard film of photojournalism. Even now in the digital age, it is the world's best black-and-white film.
Ask any news photographer over the age of 40, and they are likely to speak fondly of Tri-X.
I number myself in the group. I messed around some with cameras when I was a kid, but I got serious about photography when I got my first daily newspaper job at the Worcester (Mass.) >i>Telegram & Gazette, and learned I could get $5 a photo, mileage, and all the TrI-X I could shoot. I didn't even have to develop and print it: They had darkroom techs for that.
All I had to do was get a camera and learn how to use it. My first news camera was an Olympus XA2, a compact point-and-shoot that I borrowed from my brother. I got a few pictures published, but I soon found out it was going to take a little more camera to do the job right.
I got a Pentax P3 camera with a Sigma 35-70 zoom lens in 1985, and my photo journalism career began in earnest.
I learned that shooting pictures with my stories got my stories better play in the paper.
I learned that taking a scenic photo on the way in to work could pay the cost of the gas to drive in to Worcester.=20
I got to shoot fires and accidents, feature stories and = profiles, and just about anything else that was thrown my way.
I learned from the darkroom techs in Worcester about exposure and apertures and other tricks. But it wasn't until my second newspaper job, at the Brattleboro (Vt.) Reformer, that I had to learn the other part of photography.
There were no darkroom techs at the Reformer. I had to learn how to carefully roll film onto a stainless-steel reel in total darkness - without crinkling the edges.
I had to carefully fill the steel canisters with the developer, and then the stop bath, and then the fixer, and not mix up the the sequence or the solutions while watching the timer to make sure I had the film in "the soup" for the proper amount of time.
Then I had to wash the film, dry it, unspool it from the reel, and hope I got the pictures I thought I took.
I looked at the negative on the light table, picked the shots I wanted to print, put the negative into the enlarger, got a sheet of photo paper and put it on the enlarger board, exposed the paper for the proper amount of time and put the paper in the developer and fixer, then washed the print and hung it to dry.
Trial, error, and frustration was all part of the learning process. But in time I learned how to do these things on deadline, and do them in 30 minutes or less.
And Tri-X and its British cousin, Ilford HP-5, were the films I used. Because news photography was about black and white, contrast and shadow. About working the light. And using every possible trick to get as much exposure latitude out of a roll of film, grain be damned.
While I know that using film is a more tactile process than digital, I can't say I miss the fixer stains on my clothes, or breathing in chemical fumes, or the limitations of film.
I do things routinely with my digital camera - such as shooting without a flash using available light - that I couldn't dream of doing with film, and can get a decent picture with little effort. And instead of heading to the darkroom, I just pop the memory card out of my camera, put it in the card reader, and start editing photos immediately.
To those who never used it, Tri-X is just another tool that has outlived its usefulness in the digital era. But it captured events big and small. It was the medium we learned on and grew with.
I haven't shot a roll of film in about a dozen years. The romantic side of me might want my old Pentax back. The pragmatic side tells the romantic side to shut up, because digital is fast and easy.
But the romantic side still remembers the film that was so forgiving for the newbie and was so versatile for the pro.
And even though the digital parade has gone by, Kodak still makes Tri-X, new photographers are still learning on it, and pros still use it on occasion when they want to go back to the way we used to see the world, before color film and before digital cameras.
Compared to now, it was a pain in the butt to take photos in the old days, but the thrill you got when you looked at the negative on the light table and saw that you nailed the shot made it worth it.
Happy birthday, Tri-X!.
AR's Chief of Correspondents, Randolph T. Holhut, holds an M.P.A .from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and is an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.