Positive Negatives (Part 1)

Just prior to his death from pancreatic cancer in August 2017, whist still in possession of just enough manual dexterity to manoeuvre small objects in his hands, my father in law loaded a black and white film into his 35mm camera for the final time and shot a roll of photographs of (and possibly for) my daughter, who was three at the time.

Some time after he died I took the roll to be developed, returning to the lab a couple of days later to find that he had sadly loaded the camera incorrectly and the reel of film remained unexposed. Disappointed, and consoled by the sympathetic sales assistant who at least didn’t charge me for the development, I nevertheless pledged to learn how to operate this camera – a classic Canon AE-1 SLR – and take a roll of photos of my daughter, in his memory.

A couple of years somehow passed and I finally found time to load up the camera to tentatively take some photos. My daughter, the original beloved subject, now almost five years old, was accompanied by my second daughter, born the year after my father in law’s death. This time, sending off my own (colour) film to be developed, I noted the excitement involved in awaiting processed photos and their accompanying negatives, a feeling of anticipation recognisable from my childhood but lost since the advent of instant digital photography.

My photos returned, a little out of focus and underexposed, but mercifully not blank. These pictures, at least for me, served as a small memento honouring my father in law’s intention, but also as a record of my two children now fixed in time on 35mm negative, in their materiality somehow distinct from the kind of daily digital photographs contained as data on my phone and shared liberally with family via email and on social media.

I noted that the quality of the image, composed of grain rather than pin sharp pixels, possessed a certain rich, evocative aura. The colours were rendered beautifully, in a way that initially, for me, evoked something of the past. Of course this association with the past only really arises because film photography, as a practice, is itself associated with history, superseded more recently for many by the ubiquity and convenience of digital.

Rather than being archaic, however, film generates particular visual renderings of the world that digital does not – unless through intentional post-processing. Through these photos I felt I had returned not only to a way of representing the world that I thought I had lost but also, somehow, had reconnected to a world in and of itself that I had forgotten ever existed.

Until the advent of digital we viewed the world, on paper and screen, through renderings made using light hitting physical film, rather than light and sensor technology. Our world’s transition from colour to black and white, with the birth of colour film, was perhaps less subtle and more blatant. But how, I wonder, has a transition from film to digital shifted how we perceive the world around us?

I can’t hope to fully answer this here, but it is a question that I now carry with me, as a result of this first (of many) reintroductions to film.

(To be continued soon….)