Film’s not Dead in conversation with Steven Brierley

If some of you don’t know Steven Brierley is the Sales and Marketing Director at Ilford. He’s completely in love with film and traditional processes and is one of the driving forces behind many of these new products that you see coming out of Ilford each year. We were lucky enough to be able to speak to Brierley about the future of film, how Ilford began, and his own opinion on why he feels film is important:

 Film’s not Dead: First off thank you for taking the time to talk to us. A question you have probably been asked a thousand times but how did you get involved with working with Ilford and how has it changed over the years?

Steven Brierley: I joined Ilford 32 years ago in January this year, I have been there an awful long time and prior to that I was always into black and white photography and, particularly Cibachrome prints at that time. I’d met somebody through Ilford who I ended up working for, who saw me giving a talk at a camera club about how to make Cibachrome prints, which was quite a daring thing to do. I actually demonstrated making prints in-front of the big audience. Then weeks later I saw an advert in the paper saying there was a position at Ilford for a sales rep. I wrote in for it thinking I might have a chance and it turned out that the a chap from Ilford who I had met was actually the person doing the interview and he knew me, it was just a stroke of luck, which lead to me getting the job.

So I joined as a sales rep and I was looking after just the Yorkshire area, which shows how times have changed. At the sales conference I went to three days after joining ILFORD there were 60 salesmen there who worked for the company in different diversions, just incredible really when you look back. I worked through the ranks over the years and ended up as a Sales Director looking after the UK Business I had joined all those years earlier.

Has it changed, of course! That company I worked for then was a very different business, they almost made a guaranteed profit and we had a huge budget, which meant almost anything was possible. I think everybody at that time in the photographic industry was in a similar place – it was a time of plenty. This meant there was intense competition between manufactures where as now I don’t think of competition as being say Kodak’s black and white film, competition is from digital cameras or phones. We have to work hard now for the continued loyalty and support of our customers.

As for film I think we have done pretty well, the market has stabilised and it’s way better than it was five or six years ago. We are never complacent because we know that we’re only here due to the fact that people are prepared to support film and want to use it. But things change over time so we can’t be too complacent you can’t assume now that films sales will always be good so we have to promote analogue to make sure people still want to use film and understand why they should use it. We are very passionate about film and I think if you are not then people can tell.

Film’s not Dead: Have you seen recently that there has been an increase in film sales?

Steven Brierley: Well we did some very interesting research last year using our Facebook followers and an on-line product called Survey Monkey to understand this increase. We thought whilst we were using it we might get 100 people to take the survey and  it would be a great way to find out what people want and why they use our products. You can trace the increase  back to things like Lomo and great film cameras coming onto the market at low prices, but it’s not enough just to have these gut instincts for why things are doing well, sometime you want to see if you can validate your thinking. The other side of it is that we haven’t seen a corresponding increase in our paper sales and obviously that is the other dimension to our business.

At the end of the survey it gave us answers to questions we’d been asking ourselves for years. Over 1700 people took the survey from all over the world, the proportions between countries mirrored our business proportions by country, we had 6 people from India took it and a couple in China and  Hong Kong and hundreds in America, it was truly representative of our business. We asked question like “how often do you shoot film?” and a large proportion shot film everyday which shocked us, I don’t know why I was so surprise, perhaps because I don’t shoot film everyday! Only a tiny proportion were only shooting film occasionally. Then when you split into the different film formats people shoot you get what you expect with into the high 80% region for 35mm and over 70% 120 film and 35% of users using  sheet film, our sheet film sales have been rising for a number of years so that was good to see!

The other interesting thing is that people who follow us on Facebook are clearly not young students based on the age groups in the survey. Education worldwide is around 60% of our business, perhaps as students they don’t connect with us as a company because they are taking a 2/3 year course that maybe has 6 month on analogue materials. We found 25-45’s made the vast bulk of the survey, which told us that this isn’t the student user, it is the segment of enthusiasts and fine artists, people like yourselves.

The thing that came out of it that was surprising was 35% of those taking the survey could not print their work in a darkroom, they were scanning or maybe scanning and making an inkjet print, which in my opinion is not the same as making a real black and white darkroom print. Some were also scanning and putting images on web sites. The other reason we asked these questions was to find out the barriers to printing in a darkroom, we asked those who did not print, “If they could access a darkroom would they?” I think it was 97-98% said they would love to get into the darkroom but they didn’t have one near them.

We learnt a lot about our customer’s product usage, we certainly connected with the age group we had hoped might be out there. The intriguing thing was that we are seeing film increasing and nothing worrying but paper sales are very slightly declining, so you have got to think there is a missing link here. If People can’t access darkrooms, they are not having as much fun you could have with film, it explains to us why our paper was not growing unlike our films sales.

Film’s not Dead: It’s a shame to think that people can’t access a darkroom as it’s such a vital place, you can really make a picture come alive there.

What we love about Ilford is your constantly always trying to bring new or improved products to the analogue market. Was it about 3 years ago you brought out the Art 300 paper. How do you go about making new products such as the Harman Titan Camera or the Obscura?

Steven Brierley: Well the Pinhole didn’t actually come from me at all. We made a product called the Direct Positive Paper, which was a collaboration between ourselves and a company in Germany called Imago, who have a giant walk in camera, who needed a product to go into it. The ex managing director at Ilford  Switzerland had made an emulsion for them and we ended up working with them to coat fibre base papers that sold as HARMAN Direct Positive. That product sparked a lot of interest, don’t forget that it is something from the 1950s, and we have since found that the fibre base sold really well to fine artists who want to make one off unique images with it.

I was at Photokina and a nice gentleman called Mike Walker came up to me at the stand and said what you need to go with that Direct Positive paper is to make a Pinhole camera, I make cameras, I will make you one. I thought ‘yeah right it will never happen’, and then a few months later the phone rang and it was him saying he had made the camera. I was blown away with what he had made, we then supported him with a loan for the tooling and soon after launched the camera. That’s why it’s called Titan it’s his company brand name!

The second variety after the Titan was the Obscura, that was my idea, I felt we needed a low costs variant and we wanted to reach out to people who had never used a the darkroom and to try and draw them in with a more youthful approach, that’s why the packaging is so different.

We have also done other things which we don’t particularly talk about, such as an educational pinhole camera kit, cameras which we were introducing into junior schools. It’s trying to take pinhole photography back to younger children aged from 8 to 10 years. It’s designed to teach them not so much about photography but teaching them using a cross curricular approach with several activities. With the pinhole kit you have mathematics when measuring the chemicals and the science of how they work, the history of photography and the artistic side of making your own images plus the camera obscura. We’ve just put this kit in the STEM Centre Teachers Library at York University. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is a government initiative to encourage the teaching of these subjects in schools. It’s a special Library for teachers to find tools to help them teach their subjects, so that product is now put in the Library showing teachers how they could use pinhole photography kit in their school.

We’re trying to take traditional photography to young kids because I’ve seen what reaction they have when they are doing darkroom work, they go crazy for it!

Film’s not Dead: That’s fantastic news and such a great idea, it’s so important to let the next generation understand  photography and how it works!

Right on to a bit more of a serious question, Silver content. Why do film prices always seem to go up each year even through silver content fluctuates in price. Do you think your film prices will go up again anytime soon like they did last year?

Steven Brierley: I would say at the moment I don’t anticipate any increase, but you can never rule price increases out if they are necessary for a secure future for our business. We don’t approach price increases with any relish, it’s not good for our customers and we feel deeply uncomfortable about having to have price increases. I think given we are in good finical financial shape photographers can feel relaxed at this time.

Film’s not Dead: That puts our minds at ease. Could you explain to us the background history between Ilford and Harman Technology?

Steven Brierley: Ilford Imaging LTD was the British company that owned the empire that stretched all over the globe, with two manufacturing factories in England and Switzerland and selling companies around the world. That company went into receivership, it had borrowed a great deal of money from a Swiss bank to drive the growth of inkjet products and even though inkjet grew, it did not grow fast enough to cover the financial pressures it came under. After receivership I bought the UK business with five colleagues from the receiver.  Although it was portrayed in UK TV interviews at the time of the receivership as the poor old tried black and white film business that had pulled the company down, we knew it was a decent business with potential.

We were able to negotiate a deal with the receiver where we bought the business at a very sensible price. It was a huge personal risk for us because we took on the liability that if we failed we could be personally responsible for the loss and in a worst case scenario could lose our homes.

I’m glad we did, nine year later we are in good shape and it was the best thing I could have done!

Film’s not Dead: Yet Harman Technology and Ilford still collaborate on a few of your products?

Steven Brierley: Where it makes sense we collaborate with ILFORD Imaging in Switzerland and a good example is the Direct Positive where they make the emulsion and we coat it. The thing is we have the right to use the Ilford brand on a range of products such as black and white films, paper, chemicals and that’s ours to use as we wish, but what we don’t have was the right to use the Ilford brand to make a camera, it wasn’t in the original agreement. We chose to use the Harman brand for the Titan camera and we thought this would be the best choice given our company name is Harman. In the same way that when we made an inkjet paper and it was sold as a Harman brand product. We even toyed with the idea for a short time to change our brand to Harman with all products, but after over 130 years it would have been rather stupid to change such a well known brand.  

Film’s not Dead: Could you explain your involvement with the Impossible project?

Steven Brierley: Well we had an interest in buying the original Polaroid business based in Boston. We had various meetings with people and it wasn’t viable for us for a number of reasons. The main reason was the massive undertaking to try and acquire all that coating capability and finishing equipment and bring it back from Boston and start producing products in the UK. We soon realised that we might be heading for financial disaster if we attempted to do it.

 Sometime later out of the blue came this contact from the Impossible people who were starting up a new business to re-create the Polaroid product, but by then the know how to make the products was long gone because the business had closed down. Although they had secured some production machinery in Holland, where they could assemble a final product, they needed help to make the components to go into the actual film itself.

They asked if we could help them, we said yes of course, but it was a long shot and we felt they were truly taking on an impossible task in bringing back Polaroid. In the end we did a deal and charged them for the research. We were unsure if it was going to be successful or not, however we succeeded in making made the film receiving layer, the one that actually captures the image, we made it quite fast and more easily than we had thought possible.

In turn this has become a nice little additional business for us and a successful business for them and they had all the research cost refunded as they bought the film coatings. So that’s how we collaborated together, as a direct consequence they were allowed to use the Ilford brand on their packaging recognising the ILFORD technology inside the product.

Film’s not Dead: It’s fantastic that they were actually able to make the Impossible possible and with your help!

This is one that is always a burning question in my mind, which is how Ilford is always able to keep producing a variety of products as nearly every year there is something new?

Steven Brierley: If you have an analogue business which is the majority of your business, which is what we have, then you are very focused on it. If we had the distraction of a big inkjet business and I can remember when our company was like that, you wouldn’t find new products coming out. I think that because we bought a business which is mainly involved in making traditional materials, we’re passionate about it as people, and we feel we have a duty to our customers to carry on making these products given that they support us. 

Believe me if we were to discontinue something, and we have no plans to do that, there would be a degree of anguish our end. I’m not pointing my finger at anybody else who does discontinue products, but we set out to try not to discontinue items and keep the range in full, which we have managed to do. We make products that others don’t care to make such as ultra large format film and roll film slittings, we do this every year and whilst we don’t make a lot of money from it we know it’s important to keep doing so even if the business analysis questions the sanity of doing so. But it matters to the people who want these old sizes of film so it matters to us.

Also last year we introduced 100m rolls of wrapper that goes round our roll film, so that people can make their own 620 and 127 film. We can’t make 127 film but I don’t mind making the components for the film to help people roll their own. It’s partly passion, and also good business sense, we hope it separates us from our competitors. But also, and most importantly, it’s about giving the users heart, and showing there is someone who cares about film and as you say Film’s not Dead. If you really want to show your commitment to the user you have to show it and make new products!

A friend of mine working for a lab in London, who I’ve been to visit many times, always asked me “are you in good shape” and I’ve always told him, yes we’re fine. But when he saw the new ILFORD Art 300 paper he said “now I believe that you are in good shape, you do care”, I said “Brian!!! how long have we known each other, can’t you trust me?” He said ” I want to trust you but with everything that is going on in our business these days, everything seems to be going away”. What he was really expressing was the frustration that people have when favorite products have suddenly disappear. I realised then that it wasn’t about just making a new product, it was far more important and that new products backed up your philosophy of what you stand for! 

Film’s not Dead: Every time you bring a new product to the analogue market it creates such a buzz and really enforces how much Ilford really cares about the future of film photography. Quite recently you released a new website called “Local Darkroom” how did this develop?

Steven Brierley: Before we launched the website on Facebook/Twitter it was something we had been working on for a while and which we released a few weeks ago, it  is called Local Darkroom to help people all over the world to find their local darkroom and for people like me who have a private darkroom to share it with other people. This is a community website, that comes directly out of the survey we did with Facebook. We wanted to change our role slightly, whereas before it was about making products now we have to take another step forward and recognize we have a responsibility to help bring people together who can help each other. Obviously the public darkrooms like Four Corners, Photofusion and others in London are great but if you’re unfortunate in that you live in a part of the world where there’s no hire darkroom near you then you are forced to make your own if you have the space and that’s not a practical prospect for many people 

What this website does is find a local darkroom, you could find my personal darkroom and then I will let you use my darkroom, this website connects people together and I am hoping it will help people get tuition, support and the chance to meet people who share their passion. It will also help people who have darkrooms which can be an expensive thing to run. What seems to be very obvious is that anyone who shoots film tends to be very passionate, it’s not just something you are just doing but it’s something you really want to do. So hopefully this darkroom website will help everyone around the world, for example we have looked and looked in India and I could not  find any darkrooms to hire but finding one in the UK in most major cities is quite easy.

Film’s not Dead: Last year you announced that you opened a Ilford Lab in California, could you tell us a bit more about this and why you decided to put a lab there?

Steven Brierley: The thing is we have run a successful lab here in the UK for number of years based at our factory here at Mobberley. But the US market is massive compared to the UK market, the idea was to expand our service by taking the UK service to the US and if it works we can offer it in other countries. It’s an experiment, it will take time, but it doesn’t offer what I call ‘pro services’ such as printing on fibre base papers, and quite rightly so given we have some very loyal and high quality labs in America who do just that. It’s aimed at people who want to shoot a roll of film and get decent black & white prints back. I think our philosophy is that a lot of the prints people get back from their black & white films are in fact colour prints made to look like black & white, and whilst they are perfectly good colour prints but they are not good black & white prints, that’s the difference. There’s a tint of colour to them, our mission in a way is to get people to experience real black & white prints, you know there’s a difference when you see them. By going there we can raise the profile in America for good quality prints without damaging the existing darkrooms services that are out there.

Film’s not Dead: Over the last couple of years of making new products which one would you say is your favourite and why?

Steven Brierley: Mmmm which ones my favourite, I guess I would have to say I really like the Art 300 paper, just to have that extra surface and different material to choose from in the darkroom is such a pleasure, I only print fibre base at home except for printing on resin for contacts and sometimes some proofing, to have the pallet extended is great. It was such a pleasure to work with Hahnemühle and have them willing to help us by making a paper base that was suitable for the darkroom, because most paper bases would collapse after prolonged washing. So yes that’s the one for me.

I must say I also love the Titan pinhole camera however I don’t shoot much pinhole, I’m a landscape photographer using roll film.

Film’s not Dead: Last but not least quite a personal question but what does film mean to you?

Steven Brierley: Why is it important? I think it’s important from a historical point of view, because we’ll be able to go back and look at things shot today on film. If the negative has been kept sensibly, in 100 years time and we won’t have to depend on an operating system to be able to read an ancient CD. It’s important for people to shoot film as it’s the best way of all for saving images long term. In a way there’s a purity to using film that you just don’t get with digital technology. When you are shooting digitally you are drawn to looking at what you’ve just taken, you see people editing what they have just taken because they can, I think it’s a distraction to see the image at that point. With film you are waiting to see what you have taken, there’s an element of surprise, also your minds not cluttered with images just taken, you concentrating on composing great images and getting the right exposure, it really makes you slow down, stop and think, you have to get it right and only time will tell if you have. 

My brother in law got married last year, I listened to the photographer who was there shooting with his digital camera and it was like a machine gun, he shot everything and had endless storage cards to keep them on. I was using a Fuji GZ645 roll film camera, very quiet even though motor driven, and I wanted to be very quiet when loading my film as I didn’t want to make noise during the service. I only had 16 frames per film, in the time I took 16 he took maybe hundreds, but surely it’s not about quantity it’s about quality, every shot I took was with great care to get it right first time.

I think that’s where film wins, it’s a completely different process. It’s the difference between fast food and slow cooking, we all like MacDonald’s but when we want something really satisfying we take time to cook great food, it’s the same with film.

Film’s not Dead: Ha ha, I won’t keep you any longer but thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview with us. If there anything else you would like to say to the readers of Film’s not Dead?

Steve Brierley: Just thank you for buying the products, we really appreciate it, we hope to have new things for you that you’ll find pleasing and exciting. Thank you for this opportunity to talk about my company!



Ilford Pinhole Education Kit


Updated:July 29, 2019