… or a lament?

From a project for a course I took on Gothic Literature in North America at the University of Costa Rica. The original photograph was a self-portrait taken in the Netherlands, but in this print I completely ‘burned’ away everything except a sliver of the face to create a ghostly (uncanny?) image. I also considered adding a mirror image of the face, but never got to it – it’s technically quite involved (but not impossible) to do that in the darkroom.

I went to pick up some films – most from my 2011 visit to India and Nepal – today that I had dropped off for developing last week, only to discover that the store where I had left them no longer offers film development unless you get pictures printed as well. It did not use to be like this, but it is clearly a sign that film photography is slowly dying out.

Yes, I still use a film-based camera – in fact, I have two manual SLR’s, a Nikon F80 and a wonderful Canon AE1 from the ’70s (three if you want to count a broken Minolta that I intend to turn into a pinhole camera). I’m usually too lazy to develop film (and in, this case, could not do it, because all the rolls of film, even the black & white ones, were C-41 – a colour development process) but love printing pictures. There is nothing as satisfying as spending hours fiddling with a single image until it is perfect. It is time-consuming of course, also a reason why I have some 20-odd rolls of film that still haven’t seen the light (or dark). But still – there is something immensely magical about what happens in a darkroom. I love how film photography is such an interplay of many things – aesthetics, chemistry, physics, sense of perception, and so forth – and a significant part of that happens in the darkroom. Or when you walk out of that room, with the smell of chemicals still attached to you, most people staring at you disapprovingly except the enlightened few that recognise it as the fragrance of the darkroom.

I worry about the day that film will no longer be produced and sold at all. It’s already hard enough to get in some places – black and white film, for example, could only be purchased in a single store when I lived in Costa Rica – and even darkrooms are hard to come by.

A contact sheet for a roll of film. The photographs are from probably 2005, when I worked at a boarding school in Costa Rica and we were making masks for class. The canal and snow/bike pictures in the second to last row are from The Netherlands (I must have had several hour layover and gone to Utrecht because that’s definitely not Amsterdam). The mountain pictures are Costa Rica again, the more interesting images follow on the next roll of film – we were collecting banana leaves to make tamales at Christmas. (I am not in any of the photographs, in case you are wondering).

Bamboo at the University of Costa Rica, some time between 2005 and 2009 (which was when I lived there). I took the photograph because I loved the textures: the bamboo stems in contrast to the dried bamboo leaves. An imperfect print – particularly the middle part of the photograph needs to be lightened up.

I’m not against digital by the way. I just don’t want to lose analog photography – it’s simply something very different from digital. Both when you take photographs – because with analog you will be much more selective, much more careful – as well as when you develop and print them.

I’m saving up for a proper digital SLR (but the kind I want costs a pretty penny), and there is also this saga of a point-and-shoot that I ordered from the US and that a friend was going to drop off in London when passing through, but that is now sitting in Mumbai, waiting to find its way to London via Delhi (where my Dad coincidentally resides) and Austria (our common point of contact). I’m sure it will end up with me at some point, but that might be a few months still…

If I recall correctly, this is picture is from Karmøy, Norway – it must be from around 2004, when I was visiting. I love this picture – the print I have (this scan) is somewhat yellowed now, meaning I did not develop it properly in the darkroom. It’s scratched as well (and I think, it may be the negative itself that is damaged, unfortunately). The photo itself needs some cropping – I find the top row of houses a little distracting.

None of these photographs are final prints by the way. I tend to give the good prints away or leave them behind – when you lead a nomadic life, like I do, you hold on only to essentials, which in this case is the negatives. These prints are random ones I found between pages of books (another habit of mine – my books are full of surprises of dried flowers and leaves, childhood drawings, old letters and so forth). But I sort of like the imperfect state of these images: they feel old and invoke the nostalgia I feel for this dying art even more because of this.

(Apologies if you are confused by all the countries. I have lived in a lot of places: Austria, Thailand, Taiwan, US, Belgium, Spain, The Netherlands, UK and Costa Rica – and in some, more than once, in different cities at different times.)