So, after a long break, I’ve gotten back to taking pictures on film. It’s been a while – about twelve years if memory serves. Unfortunately it also led me to a slight confession, namely that I’d never actually developed any of this “film” stuff.
That’s an embarrassing admission for an MA student studying photography, and it came about for the following reasons.
Back when I was shooting pictures on film – and that included my first published images – I was shooting in colour. While you can develop your own colour film it’s not a task for the unwary and needs a reasonable amount of kit. So for me the development process involved the removal of film from camera and a stroll down to the chemist.
Now developing black and white film is part of the undergraduate course at most schools of art. That would have been a lot more use to me personally if I’d ever actually been an undergraduate at a school of art. As I’ve recorded elsewhere my skills at drawing, painting and etc can be best described as non-existent, and my Bachelors degree (now awarded almost a decade ago) was in English Literature. If you need to know about how Cromwell’s ban on the theatres informed Restoration comedy then that’s great, but it doesn’t have much to say on the topics of loading Patterson reels or the optimal temperatures for developer.
I was admitted onto the MA Fine Art course on the strength of a BA degree and my portfolio of (digital) photography. However, this seemed like a good chance to get back to some real photography, and I had a notion that it would in some way better my artistic practice to follow the whole process of making an analogue image – shooting, developing, printmaking and etc. So before joining the course I spent some time playing with an old rangefinder camera (pictured in the illustration) and amassed a few rolls of exposed film ready for the off. And so, following the Christmas break, I armed myself with some YouTube instructional videos and got to it.
Well the development process itself isn’t overly complex – you basically stick the film in a lightproof tank, then add the right chemicals in the right order, leaving each chemical in there for the correct amount of time. After this you leave the whole thing under the tap for half an hour to make sure all the reactive chemicals are washed off the film, and then you open the tank to see what you’ve got.
This is the magical part of the developing process, and the reason why I’ve been almost immediately hooked on it. There’s an anticipation to it that nothing digital can ever match, an organic quality as you strip wet pliant film from the spool and hold it up to light, hoping like hell that at least one shot has worked out right. One good shot on a roll of 36 used to be the rule of thumb. With digital the game’s changed. I’ll come back to that in another post.
So you strip the film off the reel – it’s not that long ago that you were behind closed doors in total darkness, winding the film onto the reel that would hold it in separate layers when immersed in the tank. Getting it back off in the light is easier. Come the end of the roll you need to hold one arm well above your head to keep the other end off the floor, then use your other hand to remove the excess water. After some time in the drying cabinet this will be the negatives that we all know and love, but right now there’s a pliability to wet film that feels almost alive.
It’ll feel more alive when you start making the prints, but that’s a story for another day.