I was rooting through the freezer the other day in search of a frozen treat when I came across a whole box of them: my entire collection of unexposed film, shoved in a basket when I came back from Europe five years ago with a busted 35mm camera, frozen, and then never touched again — even after my film cameras were fixed. It was a very strange pang of nostalgia as I emptied the basket out and sorted through what I had. It turns out to be an eclectic collection of new and old, in-production and out, and it brought back a lot of memories of a time when, as a photographer, you had to hold a lot of information in your head more or less continuously while working with the stuff. The upshot was that you got really familiar with a handful of films, and stuck with them come hell or high water.
So I have three unopened boxes of Kodak Portra NC (probably the single-best general purpose low-contrast print film in production mid-last-decade). A box of Portra UC I never tried. A whole whackload of pre-paid RVP 50 — obviously pre-dating the release of Velvia 100F — I ought to see whether the lab will still process it for me! A bit of Provia, from back when Provia wasn’t so good. A couple rolls of Tech Pan and Ilford Pan F 50, slow films that you can’t buy anymore (and that I probably can’t get developed anymore, either, since I was never a big fan of doing my own processing). A bunch of Astia in 120 that I really should load in my Mamiya and go shoot. Lots of Tri-X, in a couple different formats.
But it was the two yellow-wrapped 120 rolls that caught my eye, with the rubbed-off markings, and I realized what I was looking at: Verichrome Pan. This was, arguably, the best black and white film most people never heard of, in large part because the it was never available in 35mm format. But if you worked in medium- or large-format, and you shot B&W — or, heck, if you had a Brownie and were playing around with B&W film in the 1950s — there is an excellent chance you know exactly what I’m talking about, and why it was so good. There’s an excellent chance that you’ve seen pictures shot on VP; it has a characteristic look, a smoothness and a richness and a tonal depth that isn’t there in a lot of B&W films. It was tolerant, it handled high contrast well, the grain structure was damn-near nonexistent, and unbelievably it really was a 125 ISO film, so some degree of handholding was possible.
I used VP pretty extensively for a stretch in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and really liked it — this was, of course, right around the time that Kodak decided they’d discontinue the film. For a few years, up to about 2005, you could still buy the stuff new; a good many serious B&W photographers still have a couple of boxes squirreled away for that special project that really needs “the look.” My stock has, eventually, dwindled to these two rolls of 120, and while I’d dearly love to go shoot them, I have no idea what sort of project I’d do to justify their use. Yeah, okay, it’s just film — but this is really good stuff! Don’t believe me? Other people have the same issues I do.
I’m told Ilford Delta 100 or TMAX 400 (rated at 320, developed as per the box) are supposed to be reasonable alternatives to this stuff. In my head, I keep thinking that the chromogenic B&W films should have the same grain structure as VP, but for some reason when I go back through my archives I can’t seem to find any evidence to support this. Of course, at the same time, I haven’t shot any film, period, in something like five years. Maybe there’s an argument that I need to go and take some (real) pictures…