A Delicate Balance
The fairly brief story of a failed instant film photograph, and it's acceptance.
Whether you’re involved in a writing, photography, painting, drawing, or any creative session, there (usually) comes a point where you are confident you’re creating something meaningful; or you are flailing about miserably and forcing yourself to either commit or give up. Recently, while working on a new photography series, I happened to find myself in that aforementioned, meaningful situation.
I gravitate towards the obscure aspects of the photographic medium— unique and odd expired films, older cameras, and unusual techniques. I seek out the bleak, the beautifully minimal light, the subtleties of motion and darkness. Some of these films I use are very expired, by decades even, and tend to be rather “emotional.” They need hand holding and guidance and after years of using them I’ve gotten good at knowing when they will produce solid results and when they are, quite frankly, pitiful. I constrain my use of them purposefully, usually allowing myself only a very limited amount per session so as to not overshoot, or waste the (irrationally expensive) film. Once in a while I fall into a rhythm and elements line up and a euphoric feeling arises.
The end of this particular session was nearing and I knew I was making my last few photographs. I had the model in a situation that was becoming increasingly perfect to create in. With three photos remaining in the pack of ten, the final scene emerged— I tapped the shutter, but it wasn’t the one. Good, but not “it.” Two remaining— I tapped the shutter again. Almost there. One remaining— wait, wait longer, direct a little, direct more, tap the shutter. It’s the one.
We end on a high note, that is my cue of course, and darkness begins to envelop the area making it hard to see on our walk back to the car through musty, dark and wet woods. Upon arriving back to the car I began to peel the pack film and lay it out in the trunk (for those of you questioning what I’m talking about here, I apologize. Perhaps in a future post I can describe that scenario in far more detail) to see what we made and to allow the negatives to begin to dry. Photograph ten, the last photo of the pack, the “one,” was missing. I spent the next ten minutes, or so, walking back down to the area where we were situated, the path dimly lit with my phone. I walked back up in a heavy zig-zag pattern attempting to cover all the ground we originally walked upon. The back portion of the this film is black, and with the ground very wet and covered in dark brown leaves, everything seemed to be the same color. Having no luck in either direction, I was nearing the car when I heard— “Michael, we found it!”
An instant (pun intented) relief. I kept picturing a group of wayward teens grabbing beer one evening to drink along this nearly hidden pathway and finding this obscure rectangular piece of paper and somehow coming across the photograph I was excited about. Alas, there was no need to worry. It was found. Where? Still in the camera. In my haste to wrap up and excitement in the making of that photo, I never pulled out the film (again, sorry to anyone who has absolutely no clue what I’m talking about here) to begin the developing process. No harm there, it’s simple enough— just pull the tab and the film is released… which I did. Safe again.
But here is where the divergence from excitement to unease happens… where a mishap forms in the mix of elation from a successful session. Exactly how it happened matters not (but don’t fret, I include the photo at the end). But unfortunately, in the sixty to ninety seconds needed to produce the final photo, unbeknownst to me something did happen, and when it was finally peeled minutes later with the image emerging from seemingly nothing, it was damaged and I didn’t, at first, understand why. Too far damaged beyond repair and the photograph was, basically, rendered unusable.
It’s hard not to get upset in this situation. Moments like this have happened before. And when they do, I ask myself why I choose to work in an increasingly frustrating and expensive niche medium. I can’t “fix it in post,” or “just paint over it.” What’s done is done and the damage remains. I already know the answer, but I continue to ask why anyway. For it’s in these moments, both the good and the bad, the experiences, that make me choose this path. Along with the low points, come the high points, and vice versa. Years back I botched a session so badly that I thought no photograph was usable. But later on, out of thin air, one appeared in developing and it ended up being the highlight of the series. This delicate balance has become a part of the process for me, and I can safely say I’m becoming increasingly addicted to it. Because I know that for all those moments of frustration and sadness and concern and failure, there will always be the moment where the elements align and I’m rewarded with something so breathtakingly beautiful that I’m rendered speechless and in awe.
I’d love to say that feeling was immediate, however it wasn’t. It took a bit of internal dialogue and quietness to remove myself from the harsh mindset that immediately sets in. But not too long after, I made peace with the situation. By now I’m sure you’re curious of the photograph and I’m happy to include it below. Allow your imagination to fill in the damaged area and perhaps you can see what I saw in that moment, but failed to save for others to witness.
Ahh, but thankfully I have it in my head.
This photograph would have been part of the series I’ll be releasing in my next Substack!