Slow photography

Contact print from 6″ x 8″ view camera negative. Bradford on Avon Tithe Barn 1974

How long does it take, now, to take a photograph of say, an architectural gem, a skateboarder, or a moonlit river, and be able to see the outcome? Turn on the camera, find your subject, aim the lens in the right direction, press the shutter. You might remember to focus, look at the shutter speed or check for camera shake, but it’ll probably be OK even if you don’t. Then you can view the result – a positive (as opposed to negative) image, in just a few seconds, and for imperceptible cost – a real bonus for everyone in austerity world. But this ease, speed and low cost has led to the constant assault of digital imagery we’re exposed to every waking hour.  I’ve recently come across some of the images I’ve taken during a lifetime working in photography, and the huge changes that have occurred really struck home. So, by way of a serious contrast to current high speed results here’s a long answer, wrapped up in some personal history, about how long it took to make a photograph forty years ago.

I started work during the three day week in 1974 as a Civil Service photographer for the Building Research Station in Garston, Hertfordshire. You can find out more about what went on in this slightly curious place, and the work I did there in this post. During the three day week only 60% of our time was spent in the darkrooms (uncomfortably compensated for later during the boiling summer of 1976), so non-electricity-using work had to be found for the other two days and we’d be sent to document some of the projects on the site where you could photograph in available light. One of my early tasks was to photograph, over several weeks, a series of concrete beams being stress-tested in connection with ‘concrete cancer’. We did use 35 mm Nikon SLRs and Kodachrome film for much of the work, but for this assignment I was provided with a huge mahogany and brass Gandolfi view camera (beautiful but vintage even then), and matching tripod, the size of a small tree. The large negatives used in these cameras (6″ x 8″ – 150mm x 200mm, see photo at top of page) were very stable so a valuable tool for the Materials teams who measured the variations between each stage of testing from contact prints of the negatives. Not a very enthralling topic and such cumbersome equipment!

Thanks to J B McCourtney for permission to use these photos.

The assignment begins in the darkroom where you load your film into double-sided ‘dark slides’ –  one sheet of black and white negative film is inserted into each side of the slide in complete darkness, and covered with a removable panel that you would slide out once it was in the camera and you were finally ready to take the shot (see how it’s done, in cheating daylight, here). You might need 6 or more slides and you had to check there was no dust or grit in them, so it takes a while. Then these are packed into the huge box with the camera and carried, with the weighty tripod, across the site (sometimes a long trek) and you’d assemble the kit on arriving at your destination – that’s probably taken an hour so far.

In a view camera the image is projected upside down onto the ground glass screen at the back of the camera – so you’d set up your shot with a ‘dark cloth’ over your head so you could see the image more clearly

Me under dark cloth – with a Sinar camera, a slightly more up-to-date view camera and still used though now digitised. Photographers will note the poor tripod practice here!

You would straighten all the verticals by using the tilting and shifting lens panel and back plate, check the exposure with a separate light meter then set the appropriate aperture and shutter speed, both housed in the lens structure, then lastly, focus. Cautiously you inserted the dark slide between the sprung glass plate and the camera body (if you moved anything it would affect the focus and as you could no longer see the image on the screen to check you’d have to start again) and gently pull out the protective panel to expose the film. Using a bulb release you would operate the shutter and finally replace the panel, take out the dark-slide, turn it round and repeat until you’d used up all your slides – if you hadn’t shot all you needed you had to return to the darkroom to re-load more film. If all has gone well that would be a minimum of another hour’s activity.

Back to the photography department for the next stage, the careful unloading of the film in complete darkness and fixing each sheet into a fiddly stainless steel frame with clips top and bottom (you’d get a feel for it after a few disasters) and then smoothly immersing the frames into a sequence of tanks full of chemicals you would have made up earlier in precise proportions and mixed to exactly 20C; developer – agitating the frames for 10 seconds every minute – stop bath, and fixative.

Image borrowed from e-bay US – thanks edskids

Once they’d been in the fix for long enough lights could be turned on – now is your first chance to sneak a look at the negative image in the light – if you’re desperate enough to put up with eczema-inducing fixative dripping down your arm. The film has to wash in running water for 30 minutes and then the film sheets, still in their frames, are lifted gently out of the water (the gelatine-based surface is very vulnerable to scratches now it’s wet) and hung in a dust-free cabinet to dry for an hour or so – too hot and the sheets will buckle, too cool and the corners of the film under the clips won’t dry so when you open the clip a dribble of water can leave an immoveable trail across the sheet of film that shows up in the printed image; you were limited by what you could remedy at the printing stage and film and photographic printing paper weren’t cheap so waste was frowned on. It’s now at least four hours since you loaded your film, more likely to be the next day before you can print – printing from the negative was the only way to view the positive image. And this, is the stunning result…

So the rambling answer to ‘how long to take and view a photograph’ in this case is around a day! It was such a time-consuming process; it’s a relief now to be able to capture an image on the fly with a mobile phone, or choose a high quality RAW setting at the turn of dial; sort, copy, find and send images with ease – as opposed to tracking down filed negatives in flimsy paper sleeves, packaging them to avoid damage, then risk losing this unique object in the post.

But, I do sometimes miss the physical aspects and the sensory experiences of pre-digital photography – the unpleasant but evocative smell of the chemicals, feeling for the fiddly film notches in the dark, and of course watching in subdued red light as the image appears on the printing paper in the developing tray, it’s such alchemy! There was even a kind of masochistic satisfaction in the acquisition and mastering (mistressing?) of all sorts of technical knowledge (see below) – long since forgotten.

Although it is very slow working in this way, it does have a kind of hypnotic discipline to it; it means you have to make several layers of choices, take critical decisions, be considered in your approach, pause as you frame your shot and think again before pressing the shutter. These lengthy procedures thus added some odd kind of value to what you were doing, I suppose you were investing more of yourself in the process. I very occasionally speculate on returning to ‘slow photography’ (a companion to ‘slow food’ I guess) but in yet another age of austerity it’s becoming increasingly costly and now I’m as willing to seize a digital moment as the next snapper.

Bradford on Avon Tithe Barn, 2013. Digital image from Canon G12.