Shari Denson

Rituals, drugs, and the darkroom

Hmmmm… sometimes I wonder why I go months and months without picking up my camera. Usually I start wondering this when I’ve had a stint of photographing and feel rejuvenated, invigorated, and happy. I think ‘why have I gone so long without doing this?’ It’s like self-neglect.
I wonder what it is about photography that really makes me feel well.

Is it the getting out of self for a while? Focussing on others, on shadows and light, on colour, on composition, seeing beauty? Possibly.

Is it the comfort of being around like minded, creative folk who inspire me, and the social aspect of going to a gig or a shoot? Also possibly.

Is it the satisfaction of producing an image that, if it were someone else’s, I’d wish I’d taken it? Probably.

Is it the hiding myself away during the post-production phase, choosing the image(s) I want to work with, getting the contrast etc just right?
Very probably.

Or is it a mix of all these things?

I wonder why after 10 years of shooting digital and editing images in photoshop I am still pining for film.  What is it about film that makes it so much more alluring to me?

Is it the grain? The lovely soft round grain of film as opposed to the square and very unsexy pixel. Especially when shooting in low light at a gig, this is when grain vs pixel becomes quite important because the lower the light, the faster the film (iso) needs to be, and therefore the more prominent the grain/pixels. So yes, the grain factor is up there.

Is it the tactile feel of the film as opposed to – well – nothingness? Erm, yeah!

Is it the fact that with film you have to choose your moments much more carefully, not wasting shots, making you really look for those moments and positions to make that frame count? And the just not being completely sure of what you got until you’ve got home and processed that film? I think so. Something about film photography builds your confidence because you really have to trust your process. You learn to read lighting and use it in way that I have never really felt with digital. Film is so unforgiving. Digital seems to want to forgive where I don’t want it to.

For a photographer like me who has never spent more that £150 on a lens, and doesn’t ever use auto-focus, you get to build a relationship with your camera and favourite film. It took me a little while to find my ‘must have’ film, after trying others and feeling, well, deflated with fast films such as Ilford Delta 3200. The film I finally found and fell in love with was Fuji Neopan 1600 – which I would push (over process) to 3200. I would know how that film was going to react to the light around and I would use that. See the images below of  British Sea Power, Ian MacCulloch and Ian Brown. I’ve rarely managed to achieve that technique to the same degree with digital. Once in a while, maybe… see the images below of Inder Goldfinger,  Ghetts and The Blinders, but you can still see the difference between the film shots and the digital, I think. Hmmm maybe not The Blinders? I’m particularly proud of that shot, partly because it has such a look of film.

The last, very huge, massive difference for me between working with film and working with digital is the darkroom process.

I used to lock myself away for hours and hours in the darkroom. I would put some Cocteau Twins or something on the CD player and set about going through the rituals needed to produce a photographic print.
As someone who struggled with addiction for a very long time, on and off, I had grown used to rituals. Tinkering away with small items, being careful, being methodical, chemicals, equipment, liquids, burning.  I had grown used to spending a lot of time alone and lonely, I had also grown used to being separated from my community and doing my own thing.
The darkroom gave me all of those things but also gave me the chance to come back into the world with something to feel proud of, instead of feeling shame. It gave me the chance to spend hours alone, but not lonely, performing repetitive actions, methodically, calmly, surrounded by the sound of running/trickling water, the smell and touch of potentially harmful chemicals, measuring, mixing, waiting, hearing, seeing, all in darkness except for a small red light. I would emerge into the daylight of the afternoon quite fragile, feeling as though I’d just fallen to earth, but with a smile inside, instead of dread and shame – and importantly, without having harmed myself or upset anyone else.

The similarities and contrasts of the two situations (drug use and film photography) seemed quite pertinent to me.

There’s so much I could say about film photography and it’s rituals, and why they can be so important and beautiful, and maybe another blog post will spring from it.

In the meantime, I’ve just found some bottles of darkroom chemicals that I ordered last year. They remain un-opened and so still useable. I wonder why I still have not committed to finding a darkroom I can use, and made going back to film a priority. I know sometimes I get stuck in ‘contemplation’ for literally years – a work in very. very slow progress.