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|| News Item: Posted 2014-10-03

“If someone asked you to borrow a roll, the inference was automatic that it would be Tri-X”

By David Burnett

Photo by David Burnett

Photo by David Burnett
Fifty years ago, when I started taking pictures for the yearbook, there was just one film. You could use it in about any place, any time. Available light, bang-on flash. It was “the film” which fit all necessities. If someone asked you to borrow a roll, the inference was automatic that it would be Tri-X. Somehow there seemed a need for nothing else. From those first days in the darkroom, for years to come, that would be how I saw Tri-X.

Kodachrome 64, and eventually Velvia later joined it in the color world. But nothing supplanted the ability of Tri-X to pitch, hit, run, and field. It could do it all. As with many things in life, Tri-X was so taken for granted, that it wasn’t until the digital revolution of the 2000’s that I started to see what it had meant.

For years, through the ‘60s and ‘70s, and into the ‘80s, contact sheets were made by laying the film directly down on a piece of paper, and exposing it. Plastic film sheets, handy as they were, made for contacts, which lacked that incredible sharpness and contrast of the real thing. I treasure those early contact prints, as they became the public face of those rolls of film. Nothing like a contact to let you see what the photographer was thinking (or not thinking) at the time.

When I began organizing my pictures from Jamaica of Reggae star Bob Marley, I once again reveled over the quality, the truth, and the richness of those films. Though many of us came of age in the world of color — Kodacolor family snapshots, the NBC peacock’s “Living Color” — there remained something so evident and true about black-and-white.

The elimination of the distraction of color, and honing in on texture, shading, and that inexplicable beauty of black-and-white is what founded my feeling for photography, and even in the era of HDR and contrast/clarity/saturation I feel a certain gravitational pull back to the simplicity of B&W. When the Bob Marley prints went on display the first time, I was overcome with the simple joy of recognition that as much as it was a tribute to the musician, it was equally an ode to the beauty that is Tri-X. That from a small handheld 35mm camera, prints 3 feet wide would look absolutely perfect.

Thankfully by my 30s I was mostly using either the Time-Life lab or another of the labs in the Photo District. In my youth, like many of us, I suspect, I purposely over-exposed my films by a stop or so, having lived through the nightmare of trying to print a thin negative. That wasn’t really the answer, but it was, for a few years, the only one I could think of. Even then, blocked up and over exposed, Tri-X managed to save my bacon.

We live, and have lived in a world of riches. Tri-X with Acufine at 1200 or 1600 made for damn good negs. Now, with the digital cameras giving us 6400 or 12500 ISO, it’s no longer even a topic of discussion. But I think back to the great early pictures of Erich Salomon, Cartier-Bresson, Eisenstaedt, and others who would have loved having something faster than 32 or 50, and yet the work they did stands the test of time.

Tri-X was one of the gifts my generation was given, and I only hope that in the years to come, as I look back on what I shot with it, that what I did holds up my side of the bargain.

(David Burnett is the founder of Contact Press Images. You can see samples of his work and links to his other Internet sites at his Sports Shooter member page: .)

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