Monday, February 7, 2011

the learning curve

It occurred to me recently that I might as well have titled this blog "the learning curve" since nearly every entry is tagged as such and since the blog has largely to do with what I don't yet get, what I don't yet know how to do, about where I'm stuck, what's gone horribly wrong, etc. Then again, even if I had titled the blog "the learning curve," I'm guessing the tag I'd use most frequently instead would be "on the process of" since that's really what I'm trying to illustrate here--whether or not things go swimmingly, predictably or no.

I developed my first 4x5 negatives last night and I was surprised by how strange, awkward and unfamiliar this process proved to be. Or maybe I should say, instead, that I was "surprised by how strange, awkward and unfamiliar this process proved to feel."

To explain. Just recently I had been talking with one of my classes about antecedent genres and practices and what came first to my mind was how, having had experience working with, modifying, testing, working with, and developing film taken in 100+ 35mm and 120 cameras, it's fairly rare that I run across one that completely confounds me. Sure, sure, they all have their differences but I can, for the most part, figure out what's what or where's where and determine rather quickly if they work. That said, I did run across a Yashica TRL last fall (one that I eventually bought) that required an opposite advance of the film crank to set the shutter. That took me a good while to figure that out and I figured it out pretty much by accident.

All this said, I was really ill-prepared for how clumsy and clueless I felt while working with the 4x5 film. Aside from knowing that I'd still have to use developer, stop, fixer and to do a final wash, little else felt like it really translated from one format to the next.

Certainly, I had had a lot of guidance, and with this, practice loading the film holders, thanks to visual/verbal resources such as this and the time I've spent working with paper negatives. Still, my hands were all shaky and I felt sick to my stomach as I loaded the film holders with the 4x5 film. Part of this was fear of dropping the film, not being able to find it in the dark, loading the wrong side of the film, forgetting to close the box again before I turned the light back on, etc. But part of it was that I was reminded again of how my bodily memory for this particular practice was lacking or at least greatly limited. For instance, I can inspect and practice loading film holders (i.e., with scrap paper or imaginary film) with the lights on. I can practice loading film holders with photo paper with the help of a safelight. But with film, well, it felt like a pretty different game.

But this much I knew. I had to go through the same kind of bodily memory learning curve when I began spooling up and developing 35mm and 120 film. And to be fair, sliding the rectangular-shaped, single-exposure 4x5 film into the holder is much easier and goes much more quickly than reeling up 12 or 36 exposure strips.

The element of the overall process that was hardest to master, or hardest to get a feel for, had to do with loading and then working with this bad boy:

Yipes. In this instance, I simply wasn't prepared for the difference involved between working with a circular, reel-based vs. square, single sheet developing tank. I can't bitch too much here though, given that the tank is in mint condition and was practically free. That is to say, it came as part of the large box lot of odds and ends I bought for 25 bucks last Spring along with all those wonderful negatives of Carl and Nancy. Thus, when I pulled this out of storage and gave it a washing, I was thankful that I didn't have to devote funds to a sheet film daylight tank.

But back to the learning curve: It was surprisingly difficult to think about working with this tank. That I wasn't going through the motion of winding film around a spool and then agitating the film in a circular fashion seemed really bizarre--like part of the process was left unaccomplished. [It reminded me a bit of how I felt when moving from working with vhs or cassette tapes to dvds or cds--not having to rewind the movie or music also seemed to violate my notion of what a proper completed process should both feel and sound like.]

I had also grown very reliant upon seeing my liquid levels with the circular tank. I knew that I needed 500 ml to develop a roll of 120 but I could also see when I was getting there. Not the case at all for this new square Bakelite beast. I really only knew it was full when it began overflowing. Zoinks. Admittedly, I might have actually practiced filling the tank, measuring out chemicals, getting a feel for the agitation process, and pouring chemicals back out of the tank before my first real run.

And now if I may, a word about the scratches. Holy cow. I have a new appreciation for what they mean when they talk about the softness of emulsion. I'm not sure if I scratched a good number of these negatives while loading or unloading them from the tank (or maybe it was that something evil was stuck in my squeegee?), but I definitely need to take more care next time. The tank does come with a plastic guide for inserting the sheets (again, hard to see what you're doing in the dark!) and everything felt like it went swimmingly with that. My sense is that when the process was done, I pulled the sheets out of the tank backwards or against the curved plastic rails that keep the film sheets from touching each other in the tank.

So I've begun to build a bodily memory for this process, for working with this tank. I wonder how many times I'll have to load, go through the development process, and unload the films for it to feel as familiar as working with the circular tank does? I'm guessing seven? Well, provided that I do this more than once a year.

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