Dear God, the film base is gray

Dear God, the film base is gray, and I will never reach the end of scanning 120-format negatives. The spools are scattered, the tape is stuck to my fingers, the backing paper chokes the trash can in the laundry room. A chipped Paterson grad is a divine rebuke. The chugging sound of a Nikon scanner runs day and night, singing a hymn to the almighty Eastman. I have been walking barefoot on a cold floor slick with developer.

Tonight I shut the machines down, put the negative carrier between pages 947 and 948 of the final 120 binder (I would say ‘last,’ but it is supposed to be ‘final’) and close the book for the night. They were some pictures of Chicago taken during the beginning of COVID. The irony is that I am just back from Chicago, same time of the year, same weather, and I even stood in the same spot. Maybe I can scratch the date imprint off the bottoms of the frames and pretend that I am not so far behind. The room is quiet save the starburst-blue transistorized Seiko wall clock that parrots the sound of the scanner at 18,000 beats per hour. The sound is goddamned relentless.

It’s hard to even imagine a number like 948 rolls of medium-format film, about five hundred of which were from the past 10 years. Ever wonder how you would justify a Leica Monochrome? Consider that 500 rolls of film today would cost six grand. The worst thing is that the pages in that book now run well past page 1,000. A mile of sleeving, hundreds of gallons of HC-110, a million hours of listening to 99% Invisible, turning tanks, sniffing fixer, and wondering if any surface of the basement would ever be free of photo chemicals. Every year I look at a hundred-roll stash of TMY and tell myself that when this is gone, that’s it for film. And yet, every following year, there are a hundred rolls of TMY in the closet. The lot numbers get higher, the packaging changes ever-so-slightly, and yet…

During the pandemic I relentlessly bought and shot and developed film. And ran it into continuous glassines, five rolls at a stretch. And rolled it up. And stashed it. When the fog lifted, there were dozens and dozens of rolls of film in the file drawer of a folding secretary desk. And in a drawer in the office. And in an overhead cabinet. Estar rolled up in zippered plastic bags. Ordering, cutting and sleeving that much film took time and a lot of bad Jason Statham movies. Which ones? You know, the ones where he is a former SAS agent/police officer/special agent called out of retirement for one last mission that involves a bank heist/getting the bad guy/transporting guns, money, or women in a BMW/Audi/Mini.

I don’t know why there was so much 35mm under the bridge during the pandemic. Abstractions, snapshots, a lot of unserious photography that I would never have done with my Leica M246. Banalities intentionally made difficult by shooting them on film. Just in case everything ended and someone needed to remember what the world was like. Medium format was for Serious Things. And plenty of that got shot too. This will all have a point someday, maybe.

We’re out of lockdown and this is another year in which Kodak color film is missing in action and Fuji has again arbitrarily executed half its product line. Film is expensive, and the internet is awash with performative statements about this latest price increase being the last straw. Funny how half these people will still be around to complain about the next price increase; the other half were never really in the game. You don’t stop shooting film because a roll goes from being the cost of one Starbucks to two. You stop doing it when it ceases to have any real enjoyment. Everyone who shoots film will feel that way, if only for a couple hours when a batch of film is ruined in development.

And yet we still see film zealots, most freshly minted, who accuse anyone backing away after decades to be soft. Would it be mean-spirited to reveal to these acolytes that there are but three cycles of readings and after some number of Masses, you’ve heard them all? Meaner yet if you revealed that the schedule was exactly the same even if you fled for an Orthodox or Episcopalian church? To those of us people born into film, a lot of its use is functional, meditative. We don’t listen much to the readings anymore. We know what they are. If we don’t get it by now, we never will. We’re the Jack and Diane to your Billy Graham, the people who on Sunday mornings inhabit the coffee shop when everyone else is out film-churching.

With apologies to Anne Halley.

2 responses to “Dear God, the film base is gray”

  1. Jeffery Smith says :

    I may not venture back into MF until a scanner is marketed (new) that does them justice. For now, using a Fuji XT1 and a light table doesn’t make the effort worthwhile.

  2. Jack says :

    “Banalities intentionally made difficult by shooting them on film.” is why I’m here. Thanks for continuing to write.

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