Through most of the 20th century, the hand-held 35mm roll-film camera—named for the size of the small film it used—was a ubiquitous and indispensible photographic tool.
The camera’s compact design permitted easy concealment and nearly effortless transport, and its fast shutter speed enabledphotographers to capture action as it unfolded. At the moment of roll film’s near obsolescence in the digital age, this exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum presents a survey of 35mm photography and offers an examination of its characteristic look. On view are 66 photographs, beginning with street photographs by Andre Kertesz made in 1928 shortly after the 35mm camera became commercially available and concluding with work by contemporary artists who continue to use roll film.
Highlights include work by early 35mm enthusiasts Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ilse Bing, now iconic pictures by Walker Evans and Robert Frank, the war photography of Robert Capa, 1960s street photography by Lee Friedlander and William Klein, and color work by Joel Meyerowitz and Mary Ellen Mark.
The 35mm format has a distinctive aesthetic dictated by its technical parameters. It has a limited depth of field, and the resulting differential focus visible in many of the pictures on view has come to be seen as one of 35mm’s most beautiful qualities. Enlarged, 35mm pictures reveal the grain of the film and lose detail, and the largest photographs on view in the exhibition—approximately 24″ x 36″—represent the outer limit of what is possible with the format.
These limitations often dissuaded twentieth-century photographers from embracing the 35mm format. Accordingly, the exhibition features a small comparative section of work by photographers who shared the interests of 35mm photographers (including reportage and candid picture-making), but who preferred to use a larger camera. Among these are Slab Hollow, Vermont (1943), a photograph Paul Strand made with an 8″ x 10″ view camera, and Cable Car, San Francisco (1956), an evocative image by Dorothea Lange of a woman’s crossed legs perched on the edge of a cable car taken with a medium-format Rolleiflex camera.
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