Sunday, April 24, 2011

Film Processing: The Thrill is Gone

My last post, "Digital vs. Film: The Process of Taking Pictures", inspired a comment from octo. I'm going to quote several good points he made and then my response. Octo lead off by offering a solution to the film development issue in the second process flow:
One way to deal with the processing delay issue is to just shoot B&W and process it yourself.
Let me begin to answer this by relating a little personal history.

From 1973 to 1979 I was a darkroom rat. During that period I learned how to process and print in black and white, color print, and color transparency. I learned those skills by supporting darkrooms at two colleges I attended as well as several labs I worked at.

My black and white darkroom skills came from using Kodak and Ilford chemicals, films and papers. I learned quite a bit, most of which I've conveniently forgotten over the years. I was so into black and white during that period I would buy Tri-X in bulk and print paper by the gross. I'd run roll after roll of Tri-X through my Minoltas (an SRT-SC and XE-7) and then spend hours in the darkroom printing contact sheets and enlargements through Beselers using my own personal set of Nikkor enlarging lenses. I learned bulk loading, winding my film onto steel reels in mere seconds, pushing and pulling, the differences (subtle and not so subtle) between HC-110 and D-76, and the fine art of dodging and burning. I quickly added 120/220 black and white shooting using a Mamiya c330.

I was Cool. I was selling my work (as it would later turn out, for not nearly enough), and I thought I Had Arrived. Life just couldn't get any better.

Time marched on and I learned color development with my second darkroom job. In that lab color development was pretty well automated and devoted specifically to print. I'd load the reels with film (and later, just feed them into an automated film developer) and let the machines handle the fine details of proper development. It was my responsibility to make sure that the machine's filters were clean and the chemicals at proper purity and temperature. The magic, such as it was, occurred during printing.

Transparency was a little more proscribed. We'd send out the transparency film to a bigger lab for processing (especially Kodachrome *sob*), then print them locally as the customers desired, primarily on Cibachrome paper.

Bottom line: after seven long crazy years of working and sometimes living in darkrooms, when I finally walked out of my last darkroom in 1979 I never had any desire to walk into another. I have never since felt, and never will feel, any desire to build one in my house either.

Familiarity didn't breed contempt but outright rebellion against being tied down to that system and all it implied.

Octo also mentioned using Nikon film scanners (a Coolscan 9000 and Coolscan V) for scanning negatives and slides. I went looking on the web for information on both those scanners. Their prices took my breath away.

My attitude towards film development has evolved over the year until it follows Henri Cartier-Bresson's, who didn't develop his own film and prints but depended on others to produce the final product. Considering his place in photographic history, that probably wasn't a bad decision.

One of my favorite photographers, Jim Marshall, is renowned not for his darkroom skills (and I'm pretty sure he sent his work out to be developed like Bresson) or even the brand of camera he used (which was Leica, by the way), but for the powerful body of work he created. Carter and Marshall and so many others created their photography in their minds and then in the viewfinder of their cameras. Not in the darkroom. Either the image is there, or its not. No amount of darkroom magic will make a purse out of a sow's ear.

One of Jim Marshall's M4 Leicas

I think it's time for me to rethink my "processes" a bit, to streamline them and just live with what a lab delivers. I can man-up and live with the delay and save a hell of a lot of money. It's not like the world will come to some horrible end because I can't get my results right now. The idea of buying an expensive Nikon scanner (or even a cheaper brand) is another anchor I refuse to tie around myself. For some irrational reason, a reminder of a darkroom past I refuse to relive.

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