Have I mentioned how I’m developing an interest in film photography?
Get it? Developing … that’s the chemical process by which images are coaxed from the film.
I’m telling you, this hobby just lens itself to puns. I shutter to think how many more I can make.
Had enough? Hey, don’t be so negative.
Okay, I’ll just focus on this: Developing the film is only the first part of the ritual that is DIY black-and-white photography. As Ansel Adams said: “The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance.”
Well, so far I’m playing “Hot Cross Buns” on a plastic recorder.
As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I’m taking an introduction to black-and-white film photography class from the Smithsonian Associates at the S. Dillon Ripley Center on the Mall. I groused about the difficulties I was having opening the film canister to get at the Kodak Tri-X nestled inside and then rolling it on a spool for the developing tank. Get that wrong and you can ruin the roll.
Making a print isn’t so fraught with irreversible danger. Once you have a decent negative, you can slap it in an enlarger and print it countless different ways. Still, I managed to nearly mess up before I’d even started.
Among the supplies we had to buy for class was 8-by-10 photographic paper, the medium onto which we would shine our negatives. You can buy paper in boxes of 25, 50 and 100 sheets. I got the big one, thinking it would be cheaper in the long run.
But who wants to lug a big, heavy box to class? Surely, I thought, as I loaded my backpack, I didn’t need all 100 sheets at once. Yes, I knew that you mustn’t expose photographic paper to light — there’s a reason it’s called a darkroom — but surely the paper in the box would be divided into smaller, easily-transported units, the way boxes of Twinkies are.
I opened the cardboard box, revealing a thick black plastic bag.
Ah, I thought, this bag must contain four 25-sheet bags. Or maybe five 20-sheet bags. Ten 10-sheet bags?
I pulled up on a sticky flap and opened the bag. And there, easily visible in the light of my study, was all my paper.
I quickly closed the sticky flap.
I thought I’d ruined $80 worth of photographic paper, but it turned out that I’d just invented the signature John Kelly look: Every picture I’ve printed so far has a thin, black strip along one 8-inch edge.
So much for my accidental printing. As for my intentional printing, as with developing, I’m climbing the learning curve. A Post colleague told me that when he printed photos from the Doug Williams Super Bowl of 1988, he was expected to spend no more than five minutes on each print. It took me three hours to get the first one to my liking.
But it’s so much more tactile than moving virtual sliders on your computer. You get to use this cool thing called a grain focuser. It’s a sort of microscope that helps make sure your print is as sharp as it can be.
Adjust the grain focuser until little dots on the negative snap into focus, like a colony of bacteria in a petri dish.
Shoot light through the negative, then slide the paper into the tray of developer. The image appears as if by magic. Into the stop bath, the fixer, the wash.
The result is somehow more satisfying than something spit out from an inkjet printer.
Bill Flanagan is a photographer and photography teacher in Oakton, Va. After reading my column, he wrote to argue that traditional film photography has three advantages over digital photography:
First, you know where your image is. “It’s not a file ‘in the cloud’ or on that camera that broke last year,” he wrote.
Secondly, “The negative itself is a historical object that was present at the event.”
And finally, the image has longevity. “Properly processed film and prints last more than 100 years,” Bill wrote. “I’ve seen prints in the National Archives older than that. These are the family pictures of parents and grandparents from the shoe box in the closet, the pictures the grandkids fight over.”
I don’t know if anyone will be fighting over my pictures, but I’m having fun making them.
Several readers wrote to say they have darkroom equipment collecting dust in the basement that they’d love to donate to schools that teach film photography. Do you run such a school? Shoot me an email if you can put such gear to use.
Ceecy Nucker of Odenton, Md., said she’s been trying to remember whether March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, or does the opposite: comes in like a lamb and goes out like a lion.
This year, Ceecy decided, March has been a kangaroo.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.