Sloppy Firsts in Film Photography

Developing film isn’t rocket science but it sure isn’t an iPhoto plug-n-chug either. In total darkness (no orange lights, no floating eye balls, no night vision goggles), I had to pry open the film cassette with a can opener, trim the film leader off without cutting myself, load the curly roll of film onto a plastic reel without jamming it, and then place the film reel securely in the tank before I could see my own hands again.

The next steps were pretty much the fluff-art equivalent of doing a dangerous chem lab experiment. The water had to be exactly 68 degrees (which was inconveniently colder than the faucet water so off to the water fountain we went), the developer/water mix had to be 1:1, I had to agitate the mix with a gentle twisty motion for 10 minutes total (time varied based on the type of film + ISO) but for 30 seconds first and then five seconds for every 30 seconds until time was up… to shorten the rest of the steps, it went something like: pour out pour in stop bath and agitate, pour out and pour in fixer and agitate for 90 seconds, pour out and dunk in running water bath for two minutes, mix around in hypo clear for 30 seconds, wash, dunk in photo-flo for another 30 seconds, hang and dry for 30 minutes… and then cut up my film into strips of five to slip into a film sleeve to create a contact sheet for tomorrow. (This is just the film; I have no actual photos yet.)

If I had messed up somewhere, I would’ve lost those shots forever—no memory recovery, no disc repair.

While I tried to stay focused, I couldn’t help but think of the article written by Vannevar Bush over 60 years ago. My professor for my innovation and entrepreneurship class strong encouraged us to read it, and so I did (a week after it was assigned).

Bush talks about the importance of constantly innovating, and to make his point, he speculates about the future of photography. I shall now quote him:

Certainly progress in photography is not going to stop. Faster material and lenses, more automatic cameras, finer-grained sensitive compounds to allow an extension of the minicamera idea, are all imminent. Let us project this trend ahead to a logical, if not inevitable, outcome. The camera hound of the future wears on his forehead a lump a little larger than a walnut. It takes pictures 3 millimeters square, later to be projected or enlarged, which after all involves only a factor of 10 beyond present practice. The lens is of universal focus, down to any distance accommodated by the unaided eye, simply because it is of short focal length. There is a built-in photocell on the walnut such as we now have on at least one camera, which automatically adjusts exposure for a wide range of illumination. There is film in the walnut for a hundred exposures, and the spring for operating its shutter and shifting its film is wound once for all when the film clip is inserted. It produces its result in full color. It may well be stereoscopic, and record with two spaced glass eyes, for striking improvements in stereoscopic technique are just around the corner.

The cord which trips its shutter may reach down a man’s sleeve within easy reach of his fingers. A quick squeeze, and the picture is taken. On a pair of ordinary glasses is a square of fine lines near the top of one lens, where it is out of the way of ordinary vision. When an object appears in that square, it is lined up for its picture. As the scientist of the future moves about the laboratory or the field, every time he looks at something worthy of the record, he trips the shutter and in it goes, without even an audible click. Is this all fantastic? The only fantastic thing about it is the idea of making as many pictures as would result from its use.

Will there be dry photography?” [source]

Will there be dry photography? Yes, we’ve gone digital now and everything is automatic!, but there are still many of us we take the extra effort to learn how to develop film through a series of wet baths.

Bush continues a few sentences later, “Often it would be advantageous to be able to snap the camera and to look at the picture immediately.” I cannot describe the anxiety I felt while I was shooting an entire roll not knowing what my photos looked like. Was there enough light? Did I shake? Was my subject completely in focus? Is my roll of film even going through the camera?! Even when I was finally able to take out my film reel from the container after the fix, I still couldn’t really see my photos. Did I miss a rinse? Did I pour in fix instead of developer?!

My precious shots are tiny squares of negatives right now—and yes, I did mess up like heck: last ten shots = black abyss (not even in the artistic way). I won’t truly know what has become of my shots until I create my contact sheet and develop a few photos, which of course I will scan and post all over the internet in true digital-era exhibitionist fashion.