How to do things with light: film processing as performance

I’ve been thinking about how the process of developing film to make photographic prints is performative and embodied.

On the 24th and 25th January 2015 I took a beginners black and white film photography course at Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow. This was my first experience of developing my own photographs and has allowed me to think about the ways in which the process can be read through a performance lens by focussing on choreography, duration and repetition.

The first step in the process of developing photographs is to load the negatives onto a spiral and to place them into a developing tank. This has to be done in complete darkness, if the film is exposed to any light at this stage then the negative will be over exposed and the image will disappear. Loading the film into the spiral and then into the tank therefore takes on a haptic quality; you have to feel your way around the film and the tools whilst also being careful not to touch the surface of the negatives. Roland Barthes argues that photography is violent, but until it is “fixed” it is delicate, fragile, sensitive.

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Developing the film and making prints happens in three main stages: processing the film; printing contact sheets; and enlarging negatives to make a photographic print. For each of these stages the film or photo-sensitive paper needs to be bathed in three chemicals: developer (which develops the image); stop (which stops the image from developing); and fix (which fixes the exposure of the image). The timings for each of these stages are crucial to the process as too long or too short in the developer could result in an over or under exposed image. As an example, the recommended timings for processing the film are as follows: developer 13 minutes; stop 10 seconds; fixer 3 minutes. During this process the developing tank must be agitated every 50 seconds for 10 seconds to ensure that the chemicals flow freely among all of the negatives.

Experiencing these instructions for timings I became aware of the structures of time and repetition as a set of rules for performance. Perhaps this is most reminiscent of Goat Island’s performance structures, in which time becomes a creative restraint. In their workshop section of Small Acts of Repair the company encourage the participant to “think of time as one of your materials” (Bottoms and Goulish 2007: 205). In their final work The Lastmaker the performance was structured around a 24-minute meditative dance in triadic rounds followed by a series of 3-minute acts.

I was also made aware of the choreographic aspect of developing film. To agitate the negatives in the developing tanks it is necessary to gently rotate the tank upside down and back again. When repeating this action for 10 seconds every 50 seconds over the course of 13 minutes I became aware of the ways in which my body was performing movements in a dance-like structure.

Once the negatives have been washed in water and dried it is possible to print contact sheets in the dark room. At this stage the photographic paper is too sensitive to be exposed to daylight or traditional room lights but it can be exposed to a red ‘safe’ light (a theatrical kind of lighting effect). Contact sheets are proofs of the photograph, printed onto photographic paper but the same size as the negatives so that on one sheet you can sample a whole 36 exposure film. The sheets are made by placing the negatives directly in contact with the light-sensitive paper (hence the name) and shining a dim white light onto the paper for a short period of time (about 5-30 seconds depending on the required exposure). From these contact sheets the developer can select which negatives to enlarge for their final photograph. Making enlargements follows the same process only the negative is placed in an enlarger further away from the paper, which then needs to be scaled and focussed to the correct size. The many stages involved in this process (from the camera’s click to the final photograph) emphasises the aspect of time deferral highlighted by Barthes and others. Delayed rays indeed.

One particular technique that I discovered on this course was that of dodging and burning. This is an effect where an object is placed in between the light and the paper during the exposure of the print (dodging) or when one area of the photograph is exposed for longer due to a template being placed over the paper (burning). The effect is that the obscured area remains lighter as it has been exposed to less light or the un-obscured area becomes darker (the light is burned onto the paper). In thinking about this technique, I return to Barthes’s claim that photography is violent. When encountering these terms I cannot help but think of Carol Mavor’s discussion of the man who left a haunting silhouette of himself outside the bank in Hiroshima when the bomb went off. Mavor also makes this connection: “he left behind nothing but a silhouette of himself in the form of a sunless shadow: a primitive photographic print made from the terrible radiation that devoured life on the spot” (Mavor 2012: 119).

Photography is violent.

The word photography literally means light-writing or light-drawing. But perhaps in a post-nuclear age we have to acknowledge photography as a kind of burning with light.

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