It was another gorgeous day out yesterday, so with it being the weekend and all that I decided to go out exploring again. This time it was a walk along Baldersdale and up Goldsborough – the sister hill to Shacklesborough where I’d been a few weeks ago. It’s not as high as Shacklesborough, but the view from the top is arguably much more dramatic. You get the whole sweep of the Baldersdale reservoirs and right round into Teesdale, over to Barnard Castle, and it being so clear yesterday, beyond to Darlington. The loneliness of Cotherstone moor follows the final sweep round to Shacklesborough again on the horizon. No wonder the bronze-age folk liked it so much they built things up there – stone circles, chambered cairns etc. All long gone now.
The Millstone grits are impressive too. Big hulking chunks of grey with it old-age wrinkles and dramatic overhangs. A climbers dream, and in the late afternoon light they looked good on camera too.
The textures of the rock against the clear sky would look good in black and white I thought. I also wanted to try out a new toy I’d found online for recreating black and white film.
During the week I’d read an interview with Sebastião Salgado -one of the great monochrome reportage photographers. In it he lamented the demise of all the wonderful film, papers and chemistry he used to use to achieve his incredible images. However, he siad he now used the software from DxO labs to recreate the classic Kodak Tri-X look from digital files. Well, if it’s good enough for Salgado, it ought to be worth a try.
Back in the late eighties I used to work in a professional photographic lab in central London. It was a specialist black and white lab and at the time it was one of dozens of specialist labs all over the West End and the City. My department was film processing. It became my domain – processing hundreds of rolls of film for London’s advertising and PR photographers. Each type of film had its own process. Most of the film was developed in a big ‘dip’n dunk’ processor in Ilford ID11 developer. Different development and fixing times were given to different types of film, and we could also ‘push’ and ‘pull’ film stock up to 3 stops. On top of that I also used to do bespoke processing in a variety of other developers. There were dozens of film types and dozens of developers. The combinations were almost endless. Each film and developer combination would have their own characteristics. I really loved using Ilford HP5 for my own work, so I tended to keep the main processing set-up for really wide tonal scale and fine grain resolution on that. All monitored daily on a densitometer so that it was consistant from day to day.
This attention to detail was important. These things mattered. Every photographer would have their film of choice and we’d work with them to get a bespoke process which gave them the final look they were after. No professional photographer would just use any old roll of film and expect to get consistant results.
In time I also used to do bespoke printing jobs which needed particular paper and chemistry combinations. While the bulk of the work in the darkrooms was on resin-coated paper and developed in machines for speed and accuracy, I had a wet-bench and got to play with fibre-based paper and all sorts of toning processes. My favourite was split toning Agfa Record Rapid in Selenium toner. With a slightly stronger dilution you could part-tone prints where the selenium would act on the shadows first, and you snatched it out at the right moment to get rich purple mid-tones, deep blacks and cool highlights. It took a lot of skill and know-how to pull off with any certainty. I guess you could call it craftsmanship.
Most of those black and white films have disappeared now. Almost all the paper varieties have gone too, so there’s simply no way to do that stuff anymore. It’s mostly lost knowledge. Digital imaging is pretty ubiquitous now. It’s point and shoot lots, edit later. The forethought and preparation are gone. There’s no film stock to choose – checking all the rolls are the same batch to ensure consistency across the whole shoot. No clip-testing film at the processing stage to tweak the image brightness and contrast. That, along with peeling polaroids is in the past (alongside lunar landings and supersonic passenger flight).
Still, the digital workflow is slowly opening up some of that finesse again. The DxO software does a really good job of replicating most of the workhorse film emulsions. It’s a bit like instagram, but with intelligence I can now make my Pennine landscapes look as if they were shot on Tri-X. The extra contrast and sharp grain is all there, just like the original. Street shots can look like they were done on HP5 – a bit softer both in contrast and grain holding plenty of shadow detail. There’s a richness in the overall tonality which seems to lift it from the standard monochrome transformation. At least on screen they look a lot like film, and as most of the time they’ll only be seen on screen, that’s good enough for me. It’s good to use a bit of that knowledge again. I’m not sure most people could tell the difference – it’s fairly subtle, but to me it’s important.
The other little bit of digital kit I got recently was a film scanning attachment for my iPhone. It’s a series of stacking boxes with a built-in light-box and a tidy little app which allows you to scan your negs or slides at the touch of the screen. There’s a handful of built-in presets which help manage the colour from popular colour neg film stock. It’s not brilliant quality – you are photographing through a tiny plastic lens onto a teeny sensor, but it’s a great way to evaluate negs, and is OK for web-use.
I have thousands of rolls of negatives filed in a big cabinet. I used to meticulously label every sheet and attach a contact sheet to each page so I knew what was on each. However, a few dozen seem to have slipped through the net and I had rolls of negs which for one reason or another had never been printed, let alone seen as positives. It was great seeing these photos for first time after sitting unseen for years. Although a bit clunky, a bit soft and low-res, the iPhone previews at least give a fair idea of the potential of each frame.
There’s a couple of rolls of the Berlin Wall coming down…
…and I’d completely forgotten about the rolls I shot of hand-made signs during the Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001.
At some point I’ll get to printing these properly – paper and wet chemicals of course.
But the thing that they made me think about, which is why I’m writing this post, is that those two sets bring home the real purpose of photography. That of capturing a moment in time.Those are both historic moments in their own rights, but smaller than that, each image is a minute moment in time of a larger culmulative moment.
My digital files now tell me what that moment in time is. The gritstone pics on Goldsborough were just 1/640th of a second. That’s faster than the bink of an eye. A really really small moment in time in comparison to a day, a lifetime even. In contrast, the gritstones took millions of years to build up. The geology of the landscape is a snapshot lasting epochs. I guess where I’m ending up today is thinking about the relative time of moments and capturing those moments. Can the time of photography say anything about the time of geology?