Steven briefly charted Ilford’s development and numerous changes of ownership and direction since Alfred Harman founded the company in 1879. He particularly highlighted that after a stagnant period when the firm was owned by Billy Butlin, who wanted to capitalise on the photo studios in each of his holiday camps, a new scientific impetus came in 1968 when it was purchased by Ciba Geigy, lead to major investment in research and development. However contraction and two further sales brought the firm to the brink of extinction. Venture capitalists had invested heavily in inkjet at the expense of the black and white side of the business, and this proved unprofitable. Steven explained, “In February 2005, I and five colleagues bought the core business, the manufacture of black and white film, paper and chemicals, from the receivers. People gave it six months. I had my house on the line but I bought it out of a passion for traditional materials and knowledge that black and white had always made money.” The company expanded with the purchase of Kentmere Photographic.
Steven then outlined the trend in analogue sales over the last five years, which was far from the inevitable decline that many might have predicted. There had been a decline in the sale of film, with colour particularly diminishing at a rate of 20% per year, and a loss of less popular film products. While this was a situation which greatly worried film consumers, there was much evidence of returning stability and even growth in some markets. Steven disclosed, “Colleges around the world remain committed to teaching the basics of photography using analogue materials and students love the darkroom. Fine art demand for black and white prints is very stable. Collectors prefer to buy silver gelatine prints (as inkjet prints are not proven to last) and pay a significant premium for them. Many professional photographers use digital but prefer traditional methods for their private work.”
Steven explained that this was not just hanging on to the past but that new products and a new generation was creating a revival in fortunes. There is currently a renaissance among a new generation for whom the saturation of digital cameras and camera phones meant that they sought the cachet of film. Steven said, “It is now cool to shoot film. Young people already have a digital life and they are buying Holga and Diana cameras from Urban Outfitters. People adore the unpredictable nature and the anticipation that doesn’t come with digital.” He explained how the determination to innovate meant the company was launching new complete product ranges as others exited the market. Recent new products included Direct Positive paper in 2010, and Harman holographic plates and Multigrade Art 300 paper in 2011. In a second exclusive, Steve then unveiled the Harman Titan pinhole camera which is set to launch in October, which is a fusion of the latest camera technology with pinhole. As well as being the first to see this, the audience had the opportunity to work with it during the afternoon workshops.
Steve concluded that “The craft aspect is very important and new users will continue to emerge needing facilities and tuition. The fine art market is alive and well. He underlined this by showing a report made by CNN – Film: Not Dead Yet. This short film explained the trend in the USA and emphasised the skills, creative process and the satisfaction derived from film photography.