Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Developing Story

I was chatting online with my Eastern European gardener this morning (hard to get true blue staff these days) and when she mentioned that she would email me some photos of her progress, it got me to thinking about all things digital.....in relation to photography.

For some years now, newcomers to photography have never known what it was like to take photos, finish 'the roll', take it to be developed and then, often several days later, pick up the resulting prints.

Ahhhhh such levels of excitement and expectation ! It was like a mini Christmas morning for me every time. What would I get ? Would I like what I'd get ? Would I even get what I'd taken or what some stranger had taken and if so, how exciting would THOSE photos be ??!!

Then there were those times when I'd find a roll down the sides of the sofa and have no idea what might be on it. If there was a little bit sticking out of the canister, then it was unexposed and what joy. Photos still to be taken. No bit sticking out meant the roll had already been exposed and unknown photos were awaiting. Even more joy.

Yes all things were possible. After picking up my prints and checking they WERE actually my prints, then I'd flip quickly through them to count how many of the 24 or 36 had 'come out.' This flip through would also reveal if I'd received the dreaded yellow sticker saying a photo was over or under exposed and so hardly worth printing but in order to give the processing staff a good old laugh and teach me a lesson, they'd printed it anyway. Ohhhh the shame !

Sometimes anger replaced shame as I felt the staff should've known that leaving the lens cap on was a genuine photographic technique which had to be regularly practised to get it just right !

In my little home town of Ballymoney in Norn Iron, I took my filim (sic) to the local chemist for processing. No Supasnaps or Truprint in those sepia days. Usually it took over a week to get the results back and despite knowing this, I'd be in every day to check for them to be ready. What the hell did they do ? One print a day ? Where did they send them ? Mongolia ?

Knowing that every photo cost money and that the wait to see the results took so long certainly focused the mind as well as the camera lens. Many potential shots were lined up in the viewfinder but few were chosen. Many were lined up upside down as well but that's going back even further and was a characteristic of the Box Brownie I started with. The original black box recorder. When I see kids turning their compact cameras and smart phones around to take self portraits and complaining how hard it is, I feel like saying.....try doing THAT with a Box Brownie !

I remember the Brownie shutter being activated via a little metal lever on the side of the box that one moved down and the mechanism made a satisfying click when the lever sprung back up and the photo was taken. Then you knew you'd just spent 5p or whatever it cost per photo and for another 10p each you would see the result sometime the following week.

By the time I went to boarding school, the photographic bug had me gripped. I was over the moon when I discovered the school had a Photographic Society with its own darkroom and phase 2 of my hobby could start.......processing my own filims. Such fun.

The first print I ever developed was sadly consigned to the waste bin many decades ago but, unlike most things, I do remember it. It was a photo of the front of the school church as, with the mountain in the background and the recently completed church brickwork still gleaming in the late summer sunshine, it was a 'must take' Kodak shot. With the filim developed, I lined up the negative in the enlarger and composed the print I wanted. I turned off the enlarger light and in the red glow from the safety light, I removed a sheet of photographic paper from its protective black envelope and placed it carefully on the frame under the enlarger lens.

I flicked the enlarger switch and light flowed from it, through the lens and down onto the paper below.

"One elephant, two elephant, three elephant, four elephant, five elephant............"

(Doesn't everyone count seconds using elephants ??)

Finally after a few more elephants, I flicked off the enlarger light and took a long deep breath. Bathed in a red glow, I picked up the seemingly blank sheet of photographic paper (A4 Matt Bromide or something) and carefully placed it into the shallow bath of developing liquid.....which we in the trade called developer.

I tilted the tray from side to side to slosh the precious liquid over the print and bent closer to watch the miracle unfolding before my very eyes. Small details started to appear as if by magic. Little by little the school church and its surroundings developed until (and herein lies the skill of the DIY developer) I picked the moment when it had developed enough and using a pair of tongs, I quickly whipped it out and into the stop bath which for us, was just a tray of water. This would clear the developer off the print and stop further processing. After a few seconds of swishing the print in the water tray, it would be moved along into a tray of fixing liquid (yes you've guessed it....known as fixer to us professionals) to seal the image so that it could be looked at in proper light without turning black.

Woe betide any print which missed the fixing stage as you'd turn on the main darkroom light and watch as your masterpiece would swiftly morph from a lovely vivid outdoor scene to what looked like a photo of the black hole of Calcutta taken with the lens cap on.....at night. I did this many times.

Of course this description is a memory conceived after many earlier failed attempts to process the perfect print and a few steps have also been left out - I mean this isn't supposed to be a blog post about comprehensive DIY darkroom techniques or anything. But my first successfully developed print was such a thrill that I do remember it well.

Now I was free from having to wait for others to process my filim and develop my prints and even better, I had creative control over which photos TO print and also the ability to enlarge those areas I really wanted.

I'm sure there are still photographers who do all this today. They probably refer working with b&w images too. Me ? Oh I've embraced the digital age in a big way but I've never forgotten my roots. Despite the ability to snap anything and everything and it not costing a penny to see the results, I rarely do so. Unless someone is jumping from a building and just can't wait for me to get to a good vantage point with the sun behind me etc, I still take time over my photos and compose them as if someone else is going to process them. The days of the dreaded yellow sticker may be long gone but I still hate to see a blurred or badly composed shot on my computer. I'm probably overly self critical but I never stop learning and still take great satisfaction from what I regard as a good photo.

These days with so much post processing being possible, my creative juices can still flow despite me sitting comfortably in my armchair and using software products like Photoshop.

But nothing can come close to the thrill of standing in a usually cold damp basement room (easier to make 100% lightproof) watching your photo appearing before you in a tank of developer. The yute of today can scoff at such memories and maybe I'm a photographic snob but when I look at hundreds of photos on Facebook albums showing blurred up close shots of people in bars and at parties where you can just make out a nose hair or a zit on the chin of a friend or see a lamp post or flag pole 'growing' out of someone's head at a tourist site, I have a little sigh and think to myself that if I was printing that image old school, I'd be only too happy to have it bypass the fixer stage !!

Anyway, gotta go.....got a steak on the grill.

95 elephant, 96 elephant, 97 elephant..............


rhymeswithplague said...

If this post was not inspired by my current post, then it is indeed a most remarkable coincidence!

Silverback said...

It's a remarkable coincidence then and 100% based on my chat with my gardener.

Daphne said...

The Gardener Writes: I always longed to be able to try developing my own photos, but never managed it. Fascinating to read about.

Anonymous said...

Great blog. Don't forget, a wonderful photographic opportunity awaits you on July 7th in Dagmar Wood.

I'm counting the elephants till you arrive.


Michael said...

I'm still using film cameras (Leica M2 and a Rolleiflex) and I develop my own film in the kitchen sink. I got into it because my local print lab closed down and I didn't like paying $20 a roll at a specialist place. What strikes me is how easy it is. Five minutes in LC29, then fixed and bob's your uncle - beautiful negatives that I scan and place on Flickr.
I still think the film photos look better than digital.

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