SILVER BAY, Minn. - Landscape photographers spend their careers chasing perfect sunlight. Twin Cities photographer Ed Wargin is in another kind of race, one against time.
Wargin is hurrying to finish a 10-year photographic project while he can still buy film.
"For me it's a lot of pressure, because the clock is ticking," he said during a recent shoot along Lake Superior.
Wargin began the Fresh Coast Project to "connect people to the Great Lakes through photographs." He estimates he's made more than 100 trips to the five Great Lakes since beginning the project.
In September he hiked with his Pentax camera along the Lake Superior cliffs at Minnesota's Tettegouche State Park.
"It's a narrative that's never been done to this extent before," he said, looking over the lake.
Wargin started the Fresh Coast Project on film, fully expecting to finish it that way too. But earlier this year he got a taste of the changing photographic landscape when Kodak stopped producing the professional slide film Wargin uses.
As digital photography consumes the market, Wargin believes it's only a matter of time until Fuji stops making his slide film too. He admits to being caught a little off guard.
"I think we would have felt it would have been another 20 years before we would have seen this change so quickly."
Imagine a sculptor who's been told the world's marble supply is at its end and you get a sense for what Wargin is feeling.
"It's hard to explain," he said. "There's just something about the quality of the film that's just so beautiful.
More than 400 miles away, clear across Lake Superior, Wargin will get no argument from Mike Lussier, Wargin's film processor for the past 20 years.
"I would say 2009 is when digital really started to affect my business," said the owner of AgX Imaging.
Operating out of an old airport terminal in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, Lussier and three employees once developed 300 rolls of film a day. His workers have all been laid off, as Lussier, alone, now handles roughly 200 rolls of film a week.
Top fashion and wildlife photographers once ran their film through the chemical bath in Lussiers $140,000 developer. Today, he couldn't give the machine away.
"Maybe a museum would want it," he laughs. "I thought I'd retire with it, that's how optimistic I was - or stupid."
As much as he loves developing film, Lussier has been forced to transition into scanning and digital conversion. By his own count, he is one of just three high-end film processors left in the country.
"The end is near, unfortunately, unless there's some miracle that happens," Lussier said, regretfully. "I don't think people realize what they're losing."
Wargin can tell you with certainty one thing he's losing: the moment of anticipation when his photographs are delivered.
"It's a little bit like Christmas," he said recently from his Minnetonka home, while opening the wraps on several rolls of newly processed film.
"Oh, I love this one," he exclaimed as he laid out the slides on a light box.
It's delayed gratification mostly unknown in the digital age.
"It's always a little bit of a surprise and that's a really special part of it," he said.
But that's not the biggest reason Wargin is racing to finish the Fresh Coast Project on film. While digital images are easily manipulated, to Wargin, film represents truth.
"This is what it is, like a painting," he says. "It's done, it's finished. There's really nothing more I can do to it."
Wargin said future generations who see his photographs will never have to wonder if they were retouched.
That said Wargin has accepted his fate. When the Fresh Coast Project is finished he plans to put away his film camera and complete his own conversion to digital.
"Each picture you take seems to become a little bit more important than the last," he said, while pressing the shutter on his Pentax.
In Ed Wargin's world, the pace of progress has become a force of nature.
"I'm just walking film out, that's all I'm doing," he said.
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