A box of super-expired E-6 and C-41 35mm film has been sitting in a box in my closet for years slowly filling up with random rolls collected from friends, found in old camera bags leftover from internships, and the like. This isn’t film that expired just last year. This is film expired with dates like: March 1996. November 1975. April 2004. January 1992. October 2006. Expiration dates that are probably older than some of you reading this blog post. This was before having flares and crazy-whack color shifts became an app on an iPhone. Some of this film was around when Zack Morris had a brick phone on Saved by the Bell and Kurt Cobain was still thrashing around with Anarchist cheerleaders in a gym.
I have been waiting for some project with an editor with a little gamble in him/her to do this kind of shoot, but with a credential for the Daytona 500 (and no assignment) this seemed like the time to break out the rolls of film and take the risk. Daytona International Speedway had just completed a $400 million renovation in time for the race, trying to spark new interest in the sport with new generations of NASCAR fans. I had no idea once I processed film if I would even get anything usable, but my hope was to get images that echoed the timelessness of Daytona and it’s fan base. I packed up a couple film bodies (Nikon FM + FE-2) and grabbed a 50mm and 35mm for each and left the house with just that and a ThinkTank full of film at 4am and headed across the state to the track.
Getting out of the car was awkward. I’m used to rolling up to a huge sports event with a 400mm on my shoulder a suitcase full of Canon pro bodies, an arsenal of lenses, compact flash cards, and strobes. I didn’t have any of that shit. It was just me, a couple bodies clanking together around my neck and kind of a newbie attitude I hadn’t felt in a while. I didn’t set up a computer, didn’t grab a meal, and definitely didn’t format anything. I just went into the raceway and started shooting. With the first click, I looked like a complete idiot looking at the back of the camera to check exposure as if there was a LCD screen for me to chimp on. I downloaded a light meter app for my phone just to help when I needed it. Upon hitting the end of the first roll, winding the film back into the canister to change rolls made me feel right back at home and comfortable. I just wandered, made photos and felt free. I got stopped quite a bit by random fans shocked to something that brought them back to when they shot pictures with a camera and no their iPhone. Too many “Oh man I used to shoot with a Minolta this or an Pentax that” conversations, but that made it awesome. The rest of the interactions were from curious photographers I didn’t know that came up and gave me a hand shake saying “You’re shooting film? Awesome.” which was much better than what I thought I would get: “Who are you? How did you get a photo vest? You must be just starting out, a hipster artist, or just insane. Good luck.”
After the shoot, there was no editing (obviously). I just dragged my sunburned, stinky self to the car and tossed 25 shot rolls in a black bag and went home. I was in school/internships when we still shot film, so I had the urge to go process and scan right away. Alas there were no options for that here. I went home, happy and excited to get film out to be processed.
Fast forward to getting film mailed out to a local lab – one of the last around here – and having to wait to see images. We’re all used to instant gratification. I had to wait which was new and to be honest, good for me. Once I got the call it was ready, I drove an hour to pick it up from the lab. It had all the smells of the photo lab I worked at in college for years printing color and processing film. It’s where I learned color. I still can taste fixer in my mouth. I paid my $130 and headed home with a passenger seat of film spaghetti and a six pack of local craft IPA after swinging by a friend’s place (thanks Melissa Lyttle!) to grab a film scanner. I purposely tried to hit stoplights so I could hold one of the uncut, sleeves roll of sprocketed images up to the sky in my windshield and see what I got. That feeling has been lost: the ability to hold our images and have a tangible experience with photography. It was one of the best feelings I’ve had in a while regarding my work. It was just fun – minus the roll of film the lab lost and switched out with another order and the crazy scratches down the center of almost every roll – sure signs of a dirty roller in their machine. Not mad, it’s part of the deal with using film and I messed up plenty of rolls in college. Nose grease to the rescue!
I had my wife’s old light table which flickered on and lit up my face in my dark office. No loupe. Ergh. Then I remembered the old trick of using a 50mm lens. I grabbed the same lens I shot all the images on and slowly went frame-by-frame digesting the errors, smiling at the happy accidents, and just having that moment we all used to have doing this with film. I would have been happy right there. Each expired roll had its own tint based on its age and care in the aging process. Some were army green and horrendous. Others were magenta cast with a light leak and a cool lens flare across the whole thing that are simply filters on Instagram now. Some frames I had hoped for sucked. Others became something totally different depending on where it hit on the roll. Reticulation and grain was at an all time high. Once I began scanning, I didn’t stop. I scanned 75 frames and stayed up until 2am drinking and going through everything, which now sits in a cardboard box on the shelf and not on a hard drive in the ether. In the end, the images all were terrible to scan. I’m anal about color, and it killed me to see shifts like this film did. However, once letting go of that need for everything to look right, it was freeing to just let these images paint themselves as they came out of the scanner minus scratch fixing and pushing the color to my Chipified standards. One roll was a total disaster – the one expired in 1975. Apparently there is a date where film does die. It was 36 frames of foggy emptiness.
This was an awesome experience to approach a shoot with a different process – and that art-making process gets lost in the craziness of this business. Getting imagery out to the world in the matter of seconds just because we can seems to have taken over the fun and thought of what it was like in the film days (which makes me sound old at 38). Slowing down that process and having an interactive, personal experience with pictures is something I’m so happy to bring back into my workflow – if even for just a single shoot.
All that being said film is a pain in the ass. We have it so easy now.
P.S. This experience has recharged me, and the FOCUSED project is coming back up and in your hands (it’s coming!) soon…if you don’t know, now you know…