Last week, I made my first set of black and white photographic prints that were shot on film over the weekend. The results have been more than satisfying not only for what gradually emerged on paper in the darkroom, but for the photographic process itself.
While my interest in photography grew from a fascination for images, my engagement with photographic processes had more to do with being a historian who was looking for sources.1 And what a happy meeting point between the two! But for now, let me dwell on the photographic process.
Having shot on digital for some time now, and hence wanting to explore film again, I enrolled for an analogue photography weekend workshop by Ivan Vander Biesen and Edwin Smellinckx in Leuven. After a brief introduction to film and photographic paper, we had our camera loaded with Kodak Tri-X 400 film and ventured to the Botanical Garden for a shoot. While scouting for a subject to shoot, two aspects of analogue photography came immediately into focus: the film had only 36 exposures (five in my case, since the film had been shared), and secondly, one could not review the picture immediately after it was taken.
Apart from the element of mystery that this process brings to itself — that one would see the photograph only after it was developed and printed — what it essentially does is help one focus and compose the photograph in one’s mind. One is then led to slow down, visualise and think! What do I want of this photograph?
Moreover, since the roll used was a black and white film, I had to think in terms of tones and contrasts. Similarly, the dynamic range for a black and white film is far less than that of a digital camera. Taking a photograph was then much akin to the historical discipline in how one interprets and makes the photograph. It is this element of “making” the photograph that brings photography its artistic value. To reiterate Ansel Adams, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”
Making the photograph — apart from the aesthetics of its composition — could be seen in a very literal sense where the exposed film roll is taken to a darkroom, cut open from its canister and transferred onto a spiral that fits into a developing tank.2 Our first step consisted in rinsing the film with water at 20 °C to clear the protective layer of the film and expose the emulsion of silver halide crystals on its surface.3 This readied the film for developing. The next step involved some developing chemistry.4 Considering that we had exposed a 400 ISO/ASA film, we used a Kodak Professional HC-110 developer to prepare a dilution with a ratio of 1:31 parts of water. The dilution was poured into the developing tank and shaken for about 7.5 minutes (alternating with intervals of 1.5 minutes of movement and 1 minute of rest). The developing tank was then decanted of the dilution; and the film within the tank was treated with water in order to stop the process of developing. The third step consisted in “fixing” the film as it was still sensitive to light. We prepared a dilution using the Adox Adofix fixer with a ratio of 1:9 parts of water and poured it into the developing tank. After moving the tank with the fixer for 7.5 minutes, the film was finally ready. Washing it again with water, the film was then removed from the developing tank and clipped to a line for drying. Phew! But for all the process involved, it was satisfying to now see one’s picture within the strip of film negatives. However, we still had to wait for another weekend workshop to have our pictures printed into photographs.5 My first prints!
Waiting for a week, just to see positive prints of our photographs — that’s so unlike the fast pace of the digital process to which we have become so accustomed. But the wait would be worth it.
This weekend we met again with Ivan. Having selected the images from within the film negative strip, we headed to a darkroom to make positive prints of our photographs. We were greeted by an enlarger that promised to project light through our film negatives and expose them onto photographic paper. After mounting the negative within the enlarger and focusing it onto the easel, we were ready to create a test print by gradually exposing the photographic paper for intervals of three seconds, so that we had six exposures of 3, 6, 9, 12, 15 and 18 seconds. Based on the test print, we decided to make a final print with an exposure of 18 seconds. All this in the dark, except for a red safelight to guide us. We placed a grade 3 filter within the enlarger, set the aperture of its lens to f11 and mounted a 6×4 inch RC paper on the easel. 6 Presto! Eighteen seconds later we had an exposed print, but still invisible. The exposed print still needed to be developed and fixed in almost the same manner as the film negative.
Moving on to the next stage, we first placed the exposed print in a tray containing a dilution of Ilford Multigrade developer with a ratio of 1:9 parts of water, constantly agitating the print in the dilution for 1.5 minutes. In order to halt the developing process, the paper was placed for about a minute in a second tray containing water. The paper was then transferred to a third tray containing a dilution of Ilford Rapid Fixer with a ratio of 1:9 parts of water. And as we agitated the paper in the dilution, the image gradually made its presence on the paper, as though like magic. The chemicals on the print were further washed away in water and later clipped to a line for drying. The birthing of this image had been among the most fascinating and fulfilling moments of this process. All you now did was gaze at the photograph. Apart from the curved leading line that lends a perspective to the photograph, the path itself was inviting to something more… to go beyond.
At a time when digital photography has not only normalised a new mode of photography but also democratised its production, digital images now appear everywhere — to such an extent, that we’ve failed to stop and see. A similar situation had arisen in the early twentieth century. And this is captured in Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” which first appeared in German in 1935 where he relates how film and photography had come to mass produce images and represent or even replace traditional art forms like the oil painting. Among Benjamin’s primary arguments is the view that the mechanical reproduction of art has diminished the “aura” of the artwork, not just because art moves from the private sphere to the public, but more so because of a loss of authenticity wherein the artwork is no longer uniquely present in its own space and time.7 For Benjamin, the mechanical reproducibility of art robs it of its unique authority.
However, Benajmin also notes that art and our perception or appreciation of it is historically contingent.
“During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence. The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well.”
In our present circumstances, analogue photography no longer serves as the standard for mass reproduction of images. That position has now been occupied by digital photography which is very efficient; its accessibility has led to the democratisation of photography in a way that analogue photography could not imagine for itself.8 This does not mean that digital photography is devoid of its aesthetic expression as a form of art. However, analogue photography has now come to reclaim its artistic gaze and “aura”.
Apart from being a very tangible work of art that must be intuitively interpreted in its composition and production, analogue photography brings an aesthetic vision into play. It requires an artistic gaze that is no longer able to preview the image on the camera’s display screen, but be conceived in the silent recesses in one’s mind. The birthing of the photograph on paper — from the enlarger to the developing trays — calls for an artistic interpretation of the image, as no two images produced in this process — however identical they may seem — are the same. And while technology enables the rapid production of the photograph in its digital form, the analogue takes a very circuitous path. It is on the journey of this circuitous path, that the artist photographer is joined in contemplating forth his work of art.
I do not claim that my first photographs are very aesthetic. There’s a lot more that is wanting in them. However, what they’ve done for me is the ability to stop, look, gaze and then contemplate. It is in this act of contemplation, that one is invited to reclaim the aura, as analogue photography reimagines art in our mechanised fast-paced world.
The act of contemplation brings a very spiritual dimension to one’s art. At this point I cannot but imagine it through the “Contemplation to Attain Love”, where Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises invites us to contemplate the beauty of creation, and thus its Creator. This contemplation brings forth an intimacy between the photographer-artist as creator and the image she or he contemplates and creates. It is this aura of contemplating the image that enables us to transcend, move beyond what’s materially present, and be still. Silent.
My first five black and white photographs.
(Click on the image below for a larger view.)
- For an introduction to the historical interpretation of photographs, read:
Peter Burke, Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images As Historical Evidence, London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2010. ↩
- Until the film is developed and fixed, it is highly sensitive to light. Hence the film is opened within a darkroom and developed and fixed within a light-sealed developing tank. The photographic paper which is also sensitive to light, can however tolerate a safelight whose visible spectrum of red is safe for photographic paper. ↩
- Water temperature is crucial when developing the film. While maintaining a minimum of 20 °C for the water to have its effect on film, a warmer temperature would have a harsher impact on the tones of the film. ↩
- Developing and fixing a photographic film and paper is a chemical process. While the input for our workshop was readily provided by Ivan Vander Biesen, the technical knowhow required for this process is available online on sites like Digital Truth that provide extensive resources for analogue photography. ↩
- It normally takes less than a day to have film dry. However, we had to wait a week for organisational reasons. ↩
- While my initial print was made with a grade 3 filter and exposed for 18 seconds, it was found wanting of contrast, as also details with regard to its highlights and shadows. Hence a second print was made with grade 4 filter and 21 seconds of exposure. ↩
- Walter Benjamin’s notion of aura is also embedded within a Marxist analysis; while technological reproducibility of art and its commodification reduces its value, it also liberates art from its traditional ritualistic values like “l’art pour l’art”, arts for art’s sake. But Benjamin’s intention of this essay moves much beyond. Apart from the manner in which photography had come to change our understanding of art, Benjamin was also writing this at a time of growing Fascism. He was interested in creating a politics for art that would overthrow the Fascist aestheticisation of politics that erupts in war. (More on this, later.) ↩
- Digital photography is now increasingly consumed on screens, and enjoyed in a virtual sphere. The ability to share it digitally enhances its reproducibility to a much greater extent as compared to analogue photography. ↩