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Chemistry Together

June 11, 2009


Okay folks, here they are. Still sealed in anticipation of what they hold in their magic. I know, I know, I’m crazy, but I’ve got film processing in my future once again.

If you have never processed your own film then this post will be difficult to grasp, but let me tell you, there is something about “souping” your own film that is immensely satisfying.

I was in the darkroom a few months ago, with a photographer I had asked to watch print, and midway through the first print he said, “What I really enjoy is doing the film.”

I know it might sound odd, but there is something magical about it.

I think it might be simply because rolling, then processing is what you learn first in the lineage of manual, analog life, and I think it sticks with us.

I can remember being in the dark, with the rest of the class, at San Antonio College in 1990, rolling my first roll of film. My eyes WIDE OPEN yet unable to see even my hands in the pure darkness, hearing the frantic, excited voices around me as we all learned of this other life impossible to view.

I rolled my first roll on top of itself. In short, I ruined it, but I didn’t know enough to know I had ruined it until I popped it out of the tank and had the slippery, pink emulsion come off in my fingertips.

Roll two was a success, and I’ve had the curse from that moment on. You realize there are endless possibilities with this photo-life, endless, only held back by our imagination, our passion and our will to enjoy, explore and yes, suffer.

Doing your own film can allow you to live, breath, outside the mainstream world. You can be completely alone, isolated and yet producing.

Sure, there are issues, headaches a plenty. When we get worn down by the photo-life it is easy to say “let the lab do it,” or “I’ll get dust spots, and I hate doing that.” There are a million and one reasons NOT to do your own film, but when you reduce the cons to what they really are, most are just tiny pebbles in our shoes, that if allowed to grow, suddenly become larger than life.

Much of my work will continue with the lab, the professional lab, in Los Angeles, that does my processing, scanning, and my beloved contact sheets. You see I need things that they have and I don’t, but for a nice little portion of my work, I want to bring the personal relationship back. I want to live with these images from start to finish.

Doing your own processing also allows for much experimentation. As you can see, I, on the recommendation of a friend, bought HC-110 developer. I don’t know of a single lab in the United States using this developer. Most labs have standardized, and for good reason, but this particular syrup will give a particular result, unlike any other.

Doing your own film allows for the real exploration of what is possible, not only in theory, in your mind, but in practical application.

Hot developer, uncommon chemical ratios, violent agitation, four hour development times, etc, etc, all with unique results.

I know a lot of photographers look back on the times in their careers when they were running film, making prints, and either laugh, as if that is beneath them now, or cringe because they hated doing it.

But for me, I look back with fond memories. There were many times of frustration, of printing on deadline for the Daily Texan, bleaching eyes with pure bleach because my exposure was off, or spotting prints, fingers smelling like fixer, editors bitching and moaning, etc. But man, that was fun, and I felt truly alive. And, I felt like a photographer.

It seems odd that something so simple could be so important, but for me, I realizing, it really is. Will I continue to process film in the years to come? I don’t know. I think I will, but hey, i thought I would be Mr. Technology at this point, and we all know how that turned out.

Printing in the darkroom the other day I took a break and walked into the main area of the lab, and there stood a young, high-school girl processing film. While I was printing I kept hearing this slamming noise and couldn’t figure out what it was. It was her, slamming her four-reel tank into the sink bottom to clear air bubbles from agitation. It made me laugh. But I could see, just by looking at her, that she too had the photo-life bug, and getting her hands wet, stained, etc, was an integral part.

So if you run into me in the coming months, years, just know if we shake hands, you might pull away with residue of the photo-life on your hands.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Larry D Hayden permalink
    June 12, 2009 4:57 am

    Glad to see you doing this at home now. I know for me it's made it much more "fun" as far as the process of photography goes. And for me it's a bit easier to stay caught up. Not sure why that is but when I took the film to a lab I was always behind.

  2. SnowPeak permalink
    June 16, 2009 12:03 pm

    Funny enough, I found myself looking at used developing tanks at Pro Photo just the other day. Read about developing film with coffee, and it got the wheels turning again.

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