The Alchemy of Analog and its Decay
My friend Matthew Robson compared the two mediums of photography thusly;
“Digital is Science; Film is Alchemy.” I feel like this is apt for many reasons, let alone for the very literal transformation of silver crystals in a dark place into memory and evidence.
My first camera was digital one, and it did what it was supposed to- it made pictures. But with film, it was the fact that it had an element of randomness and mystery that intrigued me.
I became obsessed with this ‘alchemy’ when I first discovered that my Minolta X-7 could do a little magic trick called a double exposure. By depressing with the film rewind throttle and winding on the advance, and I could re-expose my image as many times as I wanted to:
For instant gratification I found that by opening up the back of the old Instax mini 7, you could just pull the film cartridge out slightly and fool the camera into thinking its ejected the shot, before pushing it back in and double exposing:
With multiple exposures the negative is no longer acting like a digital camera sensor- capturing in literal terms what it sees. It has a memory of previous shutter clicks, and to put it romantically, it turns film into a canvas, where you paint with exposure:
When Anna and I went to Turkey, she bought us a whole brick of this old Eastern German film from Russian Ebay. I was really excited for it at first, unaware how crappy expired film generally looks- I would learn in the lab that most of time it’s just a foggy, grainy, low contrast mess.
This ORWOCHROME proved to be a pretty interesting film however, mainly because no one wanted to develop it. The reason one lab gave was that old films like these do not have a hardening agent, which is activated by the formaldehyde in the stabilizer- preventing it from melting in the high temperatures of the dryer. I was recommended to do it at room temperature, rather than the usual 38 degrees for C41 dev.
I had never developed a single roll of film, and I was throwing myself in the deep end with cross process, expired color fim. Other than the chemicals I purchased from the camera store, and I didn’t even own a Patterson tank. Luckily one of the antique shops down the street had a few of these weird bakelite ‘Essex Darkroomless’ developing tanks. The Essex is a wonderful design- and serves as the basis for every modern C41 developing machine.
With a Patterson or Jobo tank (the way most people developed their black and white), you load the rolls of film by extracting them in the darkroom or bag and then winding them onto the reels, placing them inside the tank and then closing the lid; sealing them in the dark. The Essex has a leather tongue and a clamp which you clip to the film leader and roll the film through inside the tank without need for transferral in a darkbag. Once the film has wound fully, you engage a little razor blade on a spring to cut the end off, pour the chemicals in and perform your development agitations with the same winding wheel.
From my very amateurish and guerrilla first attempt I was amazed to get anything, but after I had finished with the dev, there were negative images on my film! Tiny, dusty, and a little underexposed images, with a surprisingly true colour rendition.
Yes, from an imaging quality standpoint they are not great; but they were important memories of a happy time. For me they had a special poetry to them: they were as old as I was, marred and altered by the passing of time and through the digitisation itself, you could see things like scratches places where the gelatin layer had stripped away. The film curled up from all the static electricity stored up over 2 decades; and the lack of hardening layer had made some parts of the film buckle and distort.
In some scans, the film was so warped that my scanner stretched the images, resulting in a really interesting mix of both analog and digital distortion:
This was my foray into film as a comprehensive process- from capture, to development and into scanning, and very soon after I started work at digiDIRECT.
Working in a lab was a mixture of wonder and tediusness. I doubt I could work any other day job, but after 5 days a week, endlessly working the same job grows tiresome after learning how to manage the complex work environment and the initial excitement wears off. It’s just like any other service job- with high amounts of stress and pressing deadlines. Occasionally though, something weird would happen that would spike my interest. Sometimes, even scare me a little.
Disclaimer; this next anecdote is not for the faint of heart. However, if you bare with it, it does have a happy ending.
One day, out of nowhere a camera showed up at my house. This wasn’t unusual, because I was goddamn cuckoo for collecting cameras at the time. But what made this different was because I had no idea where it came from. It was an old Seagull, a Chinese knock of a Rolleiflex - quite nice condition, but nothing special.
Anyway, it just sat on the bookshelf for a while, and then I figured that it must belong to a friend who had habit of leaving stuff at my place.
While cleaning up one day, I picked it took a shot with it and realised when I wound it, there was film inside. So I shot the rest of it, and opened the back, and inside was this really old roll. It was a brand I had never seen: with just some Chinese characters and the printed word ‘SHANGHAI’ on it.
So I took it to work to dev it. From my experience developing old films, I knew that agitation generally kills them. The emulsion strips right off them if you do, and you’re left with just nothing after the bleach. So I marinated it in low concentrated developer (Rodinal if your wondering) for 2 hours and when I pulled it out, there were some really creepy pictures on the roll:
I message my friend: “Hey I developed the roll that was in that TLR camera you left at my place.”
“But I didn’t leave a camera at your place.” So neither of us knew where the camera came from, or what it was doing in our house. What we do know is that it takes some nightmare fueling pictures. Here is a close up of my roomates face:
So the happy ending I was talking about- that night, after work I baked some delicious banana bread, and totally forgot about it until I started writing this article.
More recently a lady (whose name I cannot remember, and if I could I would credit her) booked in some slides to be scanned. She admitted that most of them were destroyed beyond recognition, but she could remember who they are pictures of and wanted them for posterity. They the most damaged slides I had ever seen, and the figures were barely recognisable. I scanned them for her and made a copy of some of the files.
Using both double exposure (by physically layering each slide ontop of each other during the scan) and digital manipulation I have created what I think is a more interesting composition or colour palette. This also allows me to call it my ‘work’ and no longer something that belongs to the original photographer or lady who owns them:
The degradation of these emulsions was like the degradation of memory: in the centre of their composition, a figure or a idea fights to be heard over the noise of colour. Even the patterns that form are reminiscent of neural pathways being eaten away by the dementia of passing time.
Degradation doesn’t merely mean the end of something. Images like these celebrate the change from one state to the next, by showing you the true weaknesses of stability. Film is not like digital- it is a living medium, and a dying one.