Last June, photographer Angus Meredith offered me a Mamiya MSX 500 film camera at the Emerge Pop Up Show in Coeur d’Alene. We had been talking about film, black and white photography, slides, my mom’s photographs (some of which were in the Emerge show), climbing, the photography workshops that Angus teaches, school, and arts programs for students. Angus said, “It’s from the 1970s, and the rim of the lens is a little bent and won’t take a lens cap, but everything works. The glass is good. You’re welcome to it!”
At the time, I could hardly believe Angus’s generosity, but during the last year, as I have followed his stories, and because I had a student who worked with him on a senior project about climbing walls and route setting, I see the gift as part of Angus’s creative arc. He’s a photographer and climber. He loves to see others connect to these practices and pursuits. There’s an educator’s investment, an artist’s approach–a working with a question.
Working with a question. This keeps us up late or wakes us up early. It becomes a problem we’ll grapple with, maybe for years. A climb that needs an alpine start and the right weather, a narrow set of conditions. A song that demands several elements for the right composition. A novel whose parts we can’t quite bring together. All those insomniac nights. Lyrics that we can’t quite figure out. A training regimen we’ll need to follow for years. A mystery of history or science or literature or art, something we can’t quite understand. We conceptualize. We take notes. We write journals. We sketch. We collaborate. We talk with friends. We experiment with a chord progression. We study jazz and improvisation. We contemplate a route or a race. A project, or a practice.
Thanks to that conversation and to an artist’s generosity, I have embarked on a return to film. For the past several months it has challenged and intrigued. It has introduced me to other photographers and opened discussions and project possibilities and ideas ranging from New Jersey to New York to San Francisco to Boise to Oakland and closer to home too–Coeur d’Alene, Sandpoint, Bonners Ferry. The journey is dimensioned.
Digging around at the beginning of last summer, I found that I had two rolls of Fujicolor Superia 400, maybe from 2003, which is around the last time I used film. I shot one roll at Mount Hood on a trip with Levi and another just around here. Neither roll developed. Perhaps the chemicals had expired. Angus had told me that the camera was good, so I waited and shot another roll of film, eventually ending up with some photographs that I really liked toward the end of the summer and into the fall.
Grain Tower. Dillon, Montana. 2019.
Motorcycle in front of Monarch Mountain Coffee. Sandpoint, Idaho. 2019.
In addition to the Mamiya, I bought a 1960s Kodak Retina Reflex at the 3 Mile Antique Mall. (I have run one roll of black and white through it and came up with a decent image or two from an outing to Nelson, B.C.). I want to keep experimenting with this camera, eventually using diapositive slide film in it, as it is of a similar vintage to the camera my mom used in Vietnam.
Last summer I also met Mike at the Image Maker shop in Sandpoint, where I have purchased Kodak, Fujicolor, and black and white Ilford. Mike has also developed film for me and sold me a couple of m42 lenses, which I have been using with a Fotodiox adapter for a Sony a6000. Mostly, we have had several meaningful and memorable conversations.
The conversations have compelled in so many ways. I sense decades of experience behind them. Layers and layers of knowledge. Expertise. Experimentation. Trial and error. The sort of stuff that would be difficult to pass down in a classroom or Youtube tutorial, doable but tricky. We’ve talked about Sunny 16 and C-41 process, slide dunking, lenses, aperture, light metering, and adapters. But what I have appreciated the most is simply a feeling–a recognition of an entire life’s worth of stories. Acumen. Mystery. Humility. An awareness of how much we don’t know. A willingness to try something or discover. Nuance. An appreciation for the magic of it. Something intangible that I have also noticed in conversations with photographers like Angus, Kristen, Teresa, Julie, Neil, Winter, Zack, Jackie, Xenichi, Ed, Dawn, and others.
There’s something in the analog–the physicality–a thing tangible and in your hands. It’s a moment, maybe 1/500th of a second, but preserved. How long will it last? A few decades? A century? A layer of plastic. Film. Paper. There’s a luck and unluck to it. Something unpredictable. I appreciate the anomalies. And maybe this is part of our interest in returning to it. Maybe this is nostalgia, or faddishness, or maybe it’s something more, an unpredictability. A patience. It’s expensive, troublesome, and confounding, but this is also what draws us in. It’s like writing. One sentence is so unlike another. One bit of handwriting on a scrap of paper. And another. A written letter. A postcard. This. That. Sometimes we have the documents, but no information about them. No time stamps, exactly. No meta data. An indistinct trail.
Of course temporality exists in the digital writing and photography worlds too, even more in some ways. We have film photographs and cassettes and records from decades ago, but who keeps the digital photographs from just a couple of years ago, or knows they exist? What does it mean for our practice when we dump thousands of files? Something about the ease of creating, editing, manipulating, and proliferating also makes it easy to erase. We leave files and forget about them. Return and find their kilobytes, megabytes, and gigabytes. The cursor blinks, waiting.
With film, there’s a different decay. Something physical. Of course this happens with digital as well, as floppy discs become obsolete, then CDs, then hard drives, then flash memory. Maybe it’s all the same. Eventually everything will disappear, be lost, or forgotten.
Perhaps this is part of what has fascinated me about working with film. My mother’s photographs, particularly the diapositives, the slides, were in her hands. She touched them. Loaded the 35 mm cartridges into her camera, one that later was stolen from the seat of her car. She wound the film. Sorted the slide images into stacks and boxes and carousel trays. Stored all of this in plastic bags. Shipped it across the Pacific. Stored it away for decades in a steel drum. Now, some of the slides are beginning to degrade. I think of my late mother, and I think of how, every time I pull out the slides to view them, or work with them, or digitize them, I am accelerating their destruction.
Nothing lasts forever. No thing.
Yet we value the things–the stories and how they come to us, how we tell them.This is what keeps us returning to the open mics. To a track on an album, a song we might listen to again and again. It’s what keeps us staring at a photograph that we have seen many times, or remembering a photograph we’ve only seen once. Reading and rereading a passage in a novel. We turn these fragments of poems over and over. We pass them from one to another.
This keeps us working and learning and creating.
Photographic film consists of a transparent plastic base (or support) that holds a light-sensitive emulsion. The emulsion consists of gelatin and silver-halide crystals. (Silver halide is a collective term for the combination of silver with a halogen element, such as bromine, chlorine, or iodine.) The gelatin acts primarily to bind the crystals to the plastic base, while the silver-halide crystals trap light.
Light acts like a glue to bind the silver crystals together. Upon exposure to light, these crystals “clump” together. At first this change is invisible, but during chemical development the silver clumping is converted into a buildup of visible black metallic silver, referred to as density. Unexposed crystals are removed from the film in the chemical process. Different proportions of silver density on the film make up the photographic image.
Thus two separate and distinct changes take place: an invisible change, when film is exposed to light, creating what is sometimes referred to as a latent image; and a visible change, when exposed film is developed chemically, and those areas struck by light are rendered as densities of black metallic silver.
It’s early morning. April 12, 2020. Easter Sunday. A waning gibbous moon floats above Black Mountain and the Cabinet range south of our house. If weren’t for Covid 19, today would be the last day of the season at Schweitzer Mountain. I might be working it, standing at the top of the Great Escape Quad. Or we might ride the lifts for the Easter Sunrise Service and spend the day skiing groomers in the sun. Today, the lifts will be quiet, the bull wheels still.
It’s easy to think about what I’m missing–classes, students, ski season, track season, playing music live with friends–instead of seeing what is here. Family. Friends. Work. Communication. Art. Writing. Trees. Natural cycles. Natural rhythms. It’s easier to get distracted than to focus and appreciate the depth and dimensions of living and being–the complexities and multi-layered risk(s). The Unknown.
Above the computer screen, the dark of the woods, the dark of late night/early morning, beckons. The moon moves through the cedar, fir, and hemlock trees. I think of flow, and how life moves from that-to-this-to-that, and how it can be both challenging and delightful to feel these textures. To notice them.
In telemark skiing, one of the key principles is learning to flow–to transition from turn to turn, particularly if you’re coming from an alpine skiing background. You’re looking for a fluid motion of moving forward and backward as well as up and down. Like its cousins–alpine skiing, snowboarding, and nordic–it’s about dynamic movement. Like getting up early to write, or skin up a mountain, or watch the sunrise, or photograph the pink full moon setting above Roman Nose, it’s fleeting. Here and gone. It depends on motion, but keep moving with it, and it’s also gone.
I remember a conversation with Ed Lin at a restaurant in D.C. We were talking about skiing and he asked about telemark. “There’s a whole novel there, Paul,” he said. Indeed, a whole novel, a whole life, a whole life’s story, resides behind one action or incident. One instance, or one instant. One photographic moment. And who knows if we’ll even notice, in our frenzied running around? In our attempts to outpace or outdistance or outperform? What happens if we miss this?
Stiêng Woman, photographed by my mom. Vietnam.1960s?
I pick up the photographs that my mom took in the 1960s and brush against tangible depth and mystery. The images hold the expressions of persons now fifty or sixty years older, or perhaps not even alive. I see joy in them. And frustration. And exhaustion. And acceptance. And resignation. And candor. And strength. And resilience. And ________________________. Something I cannot name.
In front of the lens, and behind it, I hear whispers. Recognitions. The invisible and visible. Change and changes. Life beyond the moment, but also so much in the moment. Naming(s) and unnaming(s) and renaming(s). Conversation(s).
What do we make of these conversation(s)?