Black and white is best developed at 20ºC/68ºF. Colour is best developed at 38ºC/100ºF. Different film types have different development times and different film speeds have different development times. That makes for a helluva lot of development times. I mature and I read, I interact and I absorb and I am slowly more encouraged. I learn that humankind is not too dissimilar from me. A plastic sheet base coated with a gelatin emulsion is what makes photographic film. In an aqueous environment, the gelatin layer is more receptive to chemical treatments. The gelatin emulsion of film contains microscopically small silver halide crystals. The sizes and other characteristics of the silver halide crystals within the gelatin layer determine the sensitivity, contrast and resolution of the film. I’m in a darkroom processing film for the first time in my life. These images may or may not turn out. Dark rooms of any variety have at times been my safe room. As a spritely young thing, you pop out into the world naive and carefree. You get bruised, you get scuffed and torn and scorched, and the latent image that is you then develops negative or develops positive, or falls somewhere within the spectrum. The moments you live, internally or externally, make memories that can make you or break you, but it is the now that matters, it is the now that can influence matter.
Smartphones, DSLRs and streaming devices popped out from previous generations of tape decks, Polaroids and VCRs, like techo device babies that we now cradle like our own. Yet analogue may endure. Items that are succeeded by greater technology become vintage and a prized possession that is treasured and nurtured by generations that never got to experience the original. Just as I stand here with tongs immersed in a developing bath, embracing the tangibility of the process of what is now deemed ‘old school’ photography. I grew up in an era of genuine facial expressions, backyard randoms and uncles who snapped away with their new Minoltas chopping relatives’ heads off. There were no sucked-lemon faces and pursed lips. Professional photographers had to specifically hone and plan their technical and creative goals before the finger even hovered over the shutter button. The content, not the format was raw. It was warts and all and pants caught down. Yes, there were vaselined family portraits and there was posing like boy bands but today the ratio is 100:1 of images taken to insta ready, of freebie requests to genuine transaction. Digital film is essentially ‘eternal’ but also not really there. To a degree, photos have morphed from sentimental to explicit advertising, the ‘Kodak moment’ is now propaganda. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy the evolution. I love my DSLR and phone camera as much as the next person, but should we maybe take time to breathe? Now we do anything we can to project a life of the white picket fence, the banana lounge and laptop, #bossbabe and #livinthedream. A thousand images taken in one sitting, almost effortlessly, sorting, selecting, sorting, best profile, best skin, best angle, best projection of self, facade. A moment absorbing a single frame vs frantic left swiping. Nostalgia vs #nofilter. Treasuring vs cataloguing.
THE DEVELOPING BATH
Temperature and time. What actually is the time Mr Wolf, as time is critical to development. Celluloid film was commonly used in bygone days and was made of nitrocellulose, which was highly flammable and later replaced by cellulose acetate. Celluloid film was more resilient, cheaper and more transparent so continued to be used for theatrical 35mm but was eventually discontinued. There are experiences, a litany of them. There is innocence and there is wrath. Some experiences make you aware of longitudes and latitudes you didn’t even know you had; RSS feeds that whoever your God is, he really needs you to receive. The silver halide grains within the photographic emulsion are converted to metallic silver by the developing agent. The more exposed the silver halide grains to the free electrons donated by the developing agent, the more rapidly they convert to elemental silver. Light leaks at the beginning can cause black film streaks and fogging. If the light occurs in camera while film is inside this can cause ‘ghosting’ or orange artifacting on the image. Temperature control is critical to convert only the exposed silver halide grains.
Younger years were for exploration and eagerness. Early times were doused with purity and were for melting ice-creams and road trips, riding waves and finding rabbit poo like they were jewels. Staying in retro holiday homes with sunrooms and swivel chairs and coloured melamine drinking glasses, which made one excited when filled with coke or raspberry lemonade. While parents played records, yarned about the pains of work and lived for holidays. The days shifted into evenings, their laughing and cackling becoming more audible. Ours was always a congregation of Germans in Combi vans so there was always, afternoon coffee and cakes served on table-clothed surfaces. The houses were teak and plywood-panelled everything, sunken living rooms, spider plants, tea cosies, skylights, wicker, weavings, shag and rattan. Our getaways were many and always fun, Venus Bay, Warrnambool, Mornington Peninsula, Eden… days where you also knew all your neighbours. Neighbours’ gardens and trees were prime real estate for playtime, finding fairies, climbing trees, attempts to backflip, yo-yos, throwing balls, totem tennis, cubby houses, picking plums and throwing crab apples. You knew everyone in your neighbourhood and there wasn’t a grocery store on every corner, you would walk over sugar or flour or milk if anyone ran out. But with age comes lessons, hard knocks, heartbreak and toughening. School days begin to corrupt one a little; you learn from textbooks and become exposed to society as we know it — they are called playgrounds at that age. Kids tease and isolate and vilify and there are cliques and not all interests are embraced. Cool kids do sports and don’t listen in class. You begin to realise that lives are all different, some kids are hurting because their parents are living absent, others hurt because they don’t meet the image they hold of themselves. We all thrive and we all hurt. You discover what prejudice and judgement really mean. For some, school is a refuge from turbulence at home, for others it is walking into hell everyday.
My emancipation came long after the 80s and 90s of my youth but it was my youth that very much shaped me. Even the fashion through the 80s and 90s felt like a deliverance. A German Aussie girl with velvet pants and a blonde, somehow feminine, mullet. Yes, that happened. Here’s a little airtime to the fashion of this era that no doubt shaped so many lives; part warning, part dedication. The 80s were a time for which subsequent descendants should, for eternity, thank those of us who lived through it. Our garments would hold any future outfit in good stead; all future generations to be deemed the hotter, sleeker relative to the 80s. We bore that fashion cross. You’re welcome. You in that rah-rah skirt with those leg warmers (part of me wishes these would make a return). Belts used in ways that were offensive outside of bedrooms and iridescent everything in a this-can’t-be-good-for-the-planet way. Only the rich and famous could afford boob jobs and so, for many, bikinis were less supportive cups for swimming and more triangles of art on a pale flat canvas. We were fashion martyrs in a sense; yes, we can stake that claim.
THE STOP BATH
Temperature, agitation and time. The mouse ran down when the clock struck one. We all have limits, yet we aren’t all familiar. Oftentimes limit is only recognised retrospectively. Sometimes the stop is abrupt and stabbing, sometimes it is chronic and it takes many bruised hands and scraped knees. It can feel like desperation, like not knowing the Heimlich manoeuvre while someone is choking, and that someone may as well be you. The stop bath halts the development process by diluting and washing the developer away with water. Time in the stop bath is not critical but it must be at least and then some.
My fleece wasn’t as white as snow. Sometimes I wished that my evolution was as a damsel rather than a Lilith. As a young, devoted, 50s housewife rather than constantly putting my circadian rhythms to the test and grappling for an out in an era of strobe lights, hard clubs and excessive drink. Wearing matching Adidas apparel with your best friend, feeling as though this qualifies you to release an album and hold up the local general store, neither of which actually occurred. In many ways I would have preferred flour, sugar and tea canisters, enamel surfaces and Bakelite appliances. Instead I lived fluorescents, rebellion, jean and corduroy that was too tight in some places and too flared in others. No doubt both the 50s and 90s could be equally as stifling. No convenience in the 50s; separate visits to the grocer, draper, fishmonger and butcher. Expectancy and conformity. One must be freshly groomed and acceptable for when the working husband arrived home. The house must be spick and span and dinner ready to serve, a newspaper on the table and have the children in order. Each era imposes its own expectations and privileges; sometimes oppressive, sometimes liberating. And the presumption can be a disappointment. You skip meals and look down only to find all your fat reserves are still there. Mornings can be a mirror-work exercise in bonding with Gollum and sometimes no amount of Vaseline or lens flare will Band-aid looking at yourself in a photo.
Temperature, agitation and time….and light. The turn. Everyone needs a dark night of the soul. Silver halide is converted by light to elemental silver. All film is not only sensitive to visible light but also UV, X-ray and gamma rays. The in-camera exposure of light onto the film creates a latent image. Residual silver halide is washed away by fixing; the fixer dissolves only silver halide crystals, leaving the silver metal behind. After the fixer, the film is no longer light sensitive, the fixer renders the image permanent.
If the quickening of my soul had been a melee with a snuff box while sprawled over a chaise longue, I feel it would have been a much more romantic ordeal to retrospect over. Love lost, and then regained, sorrowfully lovely and a hauntingly beautiful scene. It was not, it was loud beats, stumbling, intoxication, bloodshot eyes in dawn hours and the loss of dignities. Fleeting moments of excitement and daydreams and imbibing that led to some forever regrets. Thankfully, mine were not of losing my body to others, mine were regrets over abuse of substances. It was escapism in its most frantic form. An overwhelming hatred of every inch of oneself translated into downed liquids, popped pills and inhaled smoke and embers. When the house lights come on in the wee hours of early morning the night morphs into panda eyes and sweat and blushed faces and straps falling down. But light exists to reveal exactly who you are, and real it is.
The Nachtwächterstaat; living within a self-imposed night-watchman state; there to keep yourself in check for survival but not really present at all. In my case, desperately seeking self-realisation and freedom but feeling quelled, prejudiced and crushed by all that society brought. Sometimes you stare at something so long it goes blurry and you need to look away. Even lust and love aren’t quite what you expect; they have voids but also turn out to be so much more. Your heart yearns, it breaks, sometimes it’s not so honourable and it takes rations from others to feed itself. Sometimes love of the heart is a fist wrapped around itself. You hit a limit of what can be endured. Falling off the wagon with a bad habit for the tenth and ninety-ninth time. You feel counterfeit; 1950s conforming housewife or 1990s rebellious teen. The voids disappear when you realise unconditional and earnest love for self, only then can love with another be whole. You eventually hit a point where everything stops, like a vortex or a timewarp. Emotionally pauperised. It may come in one hard labour delivery or in increments, but either way it is a realisation, a flicker, a suspended point in time of nothing, an awakening, just enough to let light in.
Temperature, time, agitation and light……and treatment. The latent image in the emulsion is then chemically developed. Ten minutes of rinsing in running water at the end ensures no residual chemicals remain. If the residual fixer is not washed away the image can corrode, leading to discolouration, staining and fading.
You finally evolve beyond teething. Your life is no longer a bra that lies about your boob size. You let the sunshine in, even when the rinsing has been a trying journey. It all presents like an Escher painting; the enigmas of life contained within visual mathematics and geometries. My rinsing was a long road, but no doubt we didn’t choose to come here and live in a feathered nest. I always believed life had to be about people and crowds and actions and doing, but that leaves no room for quiet and breath, and the latter two I feel much more akin to. It’s in the quiet and the breath that we find. The agitation is no longer just visceral, it holds purpose. Deep, evolving, connected purpose. I have learnt many things. I have learnt that gorging, soaking and saturation lead to decay. I no longer envy those who appear to have it all. No one comes out unscuffed. Life always holds lessons, and challenges can be blessings. Excess leads to spoiling and brats are the offspring. I have learnt that abstinence makes the heart grow fonder. Yearning translates to appreciation and gratitude. A meal, no matter how feeble, is more enjoyable on the tail end of hunger. A meal cooked with focus and joy results in savouring of each saute, each deglaze, each assemble on the plate. Sometimes as a service to oneself, sometimes as a service to others. All of this is even more satisfying with self-harvested produce. And so is life; self harvested.
HANG TO DRY
Perspective. Film should then be hung in a dry, dust-free area with clasps to keep straight during drying time. I am no longer a dancing silhouette. I have developed and there is no longer a need for the red safe light. I have learnt that the lens you adopt determines your roles, your cast and your mise en scene. It’s what happens in the wings that matters. Of course we are all pre-determined somewhat and this can result in a life lived or a life lost, depending on perspective. But what you focus on grows and a lens can be changed. Dancing is for mirth not mating rituals, okay sometimes mating rituals.
Exposure and contrast are intertwined. High contrast can result in extremes of exposure and potential clipping of blacks and whites (no discernible pixels). Details can be lost in the shadows (under-exposed) or the highlights can be blown out (over-exposed). Push processing attempts to compensate for underexposed film by over-developing. Pull processing compensates for over-exposed film by under-developing. You can take the dark alleyway and find yourself at Rillington Place. But even in an old, rundown, brown paisley Victorian-era existence you can focus on the intoxicating smell of a freshly baked piece of bread, the stunning green of a blade of grass, a spanner turning, the detail in a deck of cards, the feel of linen. Sometimes life calls for a search for these things in the most desolate of times. Then the beauty will grow. I have not lived with a murderer, been physically abused or ever felt that there weren’t things to have gratitude for. But I have had instances where life was so desolate, so excruciating and so agonising that all I could do was focus on the smell of lime flowers, the detail in a walnut or the intoxicating sound of liquid pouring into a glass to find a remnant of happiness. This can lead to evolution and I know I will never reach those harrowing depths again. Bad things may happen but I am a different human now. I know things in my core that no one can ever take away, and that represents endurance. My eyes no longer see caustic, my nose is no longer drawn to smoke and desperation, my body is now sacred and my mind is forever seeking. This is enough to keep me alive and I can now delight rather than just survive.
You will never escape all conflict, internal or external; I am currently vegan with a forkful of steak in my mouth, but clarity forever grows. Endurance is exposure to more of life and the contrast it presents and yet the heart beats, and even thrives. And so the latent image becomes a visible image, developed through darkness, capable and able in any degree of light. Some photographers choose ‘leaky’ cameras such as the Holga or Diane for their exclusive and peculiar effects that cannot be replicated; each photograph is absolute, unique and effing precious.
A special thanks to The Fox Darkroom for use of their studio.