For as long as I can remember I was interested in science. For the first ten years of my life, we lived across the street from the Cookstown public library, and I devoured anything I could find in there about science or astronomy. (I remember later hearing a Carl Sagan story where, as a child, he goes into his public library, asks for a book about the stars…and comes out with a book about Hollywood). There was only one bookshop in our town, and I’m happy to report that it’s still there today, but one day I was in there and saw this interesting book called Surviving doomsday. Interesting for me because there was a drawing of a mushroom cloud on the cover, and that was science, right? In the foreground, a man with a geiger counter in hand and wearing full radiation protection strode confidently away from the cloud. I managed to persuade my parents to buy it for me. I must have been around 8 or 9.
This must have been 1979 or 1980, and we were in the depths of the cold war. I was fascinated by the book. Inside, one could find details concerning how to build a nuclear fallout shelter (but was there enough space in our Cookstown garden, I wondered) together with helpful hints concerning what colour to paint the walls. Of course, at this time there were programs on TV all the time imagining how nuclear war might unfold. I remember standing in our garden talking about one of these shows with my cousin. “Did you hear when they said they hit Lisburn?” I asked him. Lisburn is a suburb of Belfast. Of course it was Lisbon. At the age of 11, my knowledge of world capitals was very sketchy.
I brought the book to school to show it to my friends, I found it so fascinating. Our horrified teacher confiscated it from me. But I think I was too young to be horrified. Perhaps I didn’t fully appreciate yet what was in the world to be unhappy if it was no longer there. Later on, as a teenager, when we moved further out into the countryside, I made an extensive study of post-apocalyptic literature, discovering amongst other classic works George R. Stewarts’ Earth Abides, which describes America after the population is decimated by deadly virus. At the end of Stewarts’ book, a hundred or so years after the catastrophe, the survivors simply lose interest in rebuilding civilisation. What does it mean to them anyway?
And so today we are almost at the end of the second decade of the 21st century. We survived the cold war. A few days ago I learned that those folks at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (remember them?) have advanced their doomsday clock to only two minutes to midnight. Not even enough time to paint the fallout shelter walls the right colour … Let’s just hope that that particular solution to Fermi’s paradox (where are all the aliens) based on the durability of technological civilisations turns out not to be true, after all…
Blade Runner 2049: the future is (thankfully) retro-futurist
We are now only two years from the dateline of the original Blade Runner. Ray Bradbury’s melancholic future of Martian settlement and abandonment, The Martian Chronicles, has since long passed, and along with it of course, 1984. Today we should be living in Jules Verne’s Paris in the 21st century. And now Dennis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 decides consciously and unashamedly to continue in the same lost future imagined thirty years previously. A glowing hoarding for the defunct pan-American airlines, visible also in Ridley Scott’s original film, makes this clear. It’s certainly reassuring to know that PanAm made it unscathed through the thirty years separating the two films, despite all the terrible things that happened in there, which we will get to presently.
It’s a truism that our visions of the future reflect the age that we are living in. Blade runner 2049 has at its heart Philip K. Dick’s lifelong obsession with memory, identity and the nature of reality, understandable giving the shape-changing psychoactive-substance-abusing times he wrote it in. Layered onto this, then, there is Ridley Scott’s neo-noir down these mean streets a man must go, to which he added, who is maybe an android? At one point, one of the characters from the previous film resurfaces, and we remember that yes, the 1980s, that was big hair too.
Villeneuve has stated that he wanted to stay true to the original, and in Blade Runner 2049 he has gloriously succeeded. The film is a wondrous widescreen evocation of a ruined post-catastrophe future, beautifully filmed by Roger Deakins, who knows how to do retro-futurism, having worked on the film version of 1984. Ryan Gosling is as cooly implacable as you’d expect him to be, and Harrison Ford’s Deckard is as we remember him. His character seems to have spent most of the the three decades between the two films going through the world’s largest drinks cabinet. Happily, the intervening catastrophes have destroyed most digital media, which means there is still some gumshoe work to be done — in flying cars mostly, of course, because this is Blade Runner. That’s what drives the film along, and it’s for the most part compelling and fun to watch.
But within this retro-futuristic straightjacket of “being true” there isn’t much space left over to imprint our current worries. Pervasive surveillance and the effortless execution of miscreants by remote-controlled pilotless drones (whilst the operator gets a manicure) makes a showing, and as a counterbalance we are allowed a marginally hopeful scene involving bees. The Pacific Ocean is kept at bay by an enormous seawall, and weather conditions seem to change faster than you could switch channels on TV. Like in William Gibson’s The Peripheral, the world-melting disaster presented here drives humanity to desperately invent advanced technologies to survive, but the end result is to merely to exaggerate existing power structures. Big corporations operate well beyond the bounds of law enforcement, and we see one of the chief baddies sauntering around LAPD headquarters without so much as ringing the doorbell.
So, the film succeeds entirely as a sequel to the original, which has cast such a long shadow on cinematic history. By continuing down the fork in the road of its predecessor, it is an even more fully realized version of the same future. Yes, this is a retro-futurist film, unlikely to come to be, which is partly reassuring, because the future that it depicts is not a place you’d like find yourself living in. Cinema should not necessarily inspire us with a shining future of gleaming spaceships, brushed metal and inter-species kissing. But where are the utopias today?
In the last twelve months I’ve discovered the French author Henri Calet. My friend Mr. Seagull gave me a copy of Les Grandes Largeurs and at the wonderful Festival des troquets last year, after a reading of Calet’s work, I bought a copy of Le tout sur le tout. It seems that Calet is almost unknown in the English-speaking world: he has no English Wikipedia entry, and no translations are in print. (Doing an image search I did find, amusingly, a few of his books in lurid covers from the 1950s). This is certainly a shame because Le tout sur le tout is certainly one of my favourite books about Paris. Calet, with contemporaries Jacques Yonnet and Bob Girard wrote about paris populaire, the life of ordinary people instead of film stars and politicians.
Le Tout sur le tout is a strange book: it is neither autobiography or novel. Calet’s own life was incredibly rich and chaotic. Born to an anarchist father, he ceaselessly changed job and apartment. Spectacularly, in 1930 he robbed the safe at his workplace in order to help pay for a horse-racing obsession. He fled to Montevideo, and it was actually during this escapade that the name ‘Henri Calet’ first appeared, on a false passport. The name he was born with was in fact “Raymond-Théodore Barthelmess” (harder to spell, that’s for sure). After much wandering he returned to Paris in the 1940s, and it was then that his literary and journalistic career really started.
But there is none of this in Le Tout sur le tout. Calet writes about his impossibly impoverished childhood and then his return to Paris after the war. I asked a friend who knows a lot about Paris if he had read the book and he said, “well, it’s a book for Parisians”, and indeed that is the case. Calet describes in detail the houses, and buildings he lived in and remembered, many of which are vanished today. But the streets are still there. In particular, Calet writes about the 14eme arr., here where I live, and how it was in the years immediately after the war. This part of the book has a melancholic, shocked, feeling to it, and you realise how much history and past a city like Paris can have, most of which has vanished with the people who lived with it. Calet certainly feels this, writing in particular about a Jewish girl he knew who was deported by the Vichy government.
In the Grand Largeurs he writes about the swings and roundabouts behind the 14eme’s town hall. But before those swings and roundabouts were there, in the 1920s, a man used to come from the countryside with his goats and ponies and offered rides to children. Or the fact that the large and noisy avenue du Général Leclerc (which used to be avenue d’Orleans) before the war was once a long permanent market with stalls and stands. After the war, everything vanished, and to Calet it seemed strangely empty and deserted.
Calet’s father was a hard-line anarchist, and changes jobs incessantly, usually either after picking a fight with the management or customers or by provoking strikes by organising the other workers. He is fired from serving ice-cream after spitting in the cones, because after all, ice-cream is for the bourgeois, right? This leads to a continual quest to find money to live, and the stories of pre-war poverty have an almost Irish quality of comedy and tragedy about them. There are many wonderful stories. Here’s my rough translation of one passage:
Another time, Petrus made fake two-franc coins in a room next to ours. But his work was amateurish: his coins blackened almost immediately. My Father’s job was to pass on the money, splitting the proceeds with his friend. But it wasn’t easy: he could only get rid of Petrus’ coins at dusk, in the short space of time when then shopkeepers hadn’t yet turned on the gas lighting.
And the melancholy lives with the comedy. In Calet’s time each year there was a celebration of life in the quartier, la Fete de la Lion. Calet writes that all he’d like in life is to stay in the 14eme and end his days at the retirement home on the avenue du Gereral Le Clerc, sitting outside on the pavement with them to watch the Fete du Lion. But it was not to be, he was dead only a few years after he finished Le Tout sur le tout.
Amongst the last words Calet wrote were the following:
« C’est sur la peau de mon cœur que l’on trouverait des rides. Je suis déjà un peu parti, absent. Faites comme si je n’étais pas là. Ma voix ne porte plus très loin. Mourir sans savoir ce qu’est la mort, ni la vie. Il faut se quitter déjà ? Ne me secouez pas. Je suis plein de larmes. »
or in my rough translation:
“My heart has wrinkles. I’m already a little gone, absent. Pretend I’m not there. My voice doesn’t carry very far. To die without knowing what is death or life. Already time to leave? Don’t shake me. I am full of tears. “
Calet’s popularity has risen here in recent years here in France. A new biography of his life is being planned. Perhaps it’s time to publish his books again in English?
On processing: developing black and white films, and what can go wrong
There are plenty of guides explaining how to develop black and white film. There are books too. French speakers: the best source of information is Philppe Bachelier’s classic “Noir et Blanc”. On my shelves there is also The film developing cookbook which is good but I prefer Bachelier’s book.
So why yet another guide? Well, one of the wonderful (I mean it) things about film is its unpredictability. Things will not always go perfectly. Here, I wanted to write down a few things I’ve learned myself over the past few hundred rolls. At the same time, I thought it would be a good idea to centralise some of the most useful information I’ve found. You see, after all this time talking about film a few friends have said to me, well, I’m interesting in developing film, do you have any hints? Great! Of course, this text is not meant to be prescriptive. This stuff may not work for you, yes, it may burn down your house and eat your cat. The thing about film development is there are a lot of variables, and unfortunately experimentation is essential. But here’s what I’ve learned…
So, if your aim is to get a perfectly developed negative free of blemishes and artifacts (i.e., you are not a Japanese photographer making photographs for Provoke magazine in the 1970s), then here are a few hints. I am assuming you know about the basic steps: loading the tank, developing, stop bath, fixing and washing. That’s easy (and the Kodak and Ilford website have a mountain of great information like this guide for example). But there is more …
Some general comments about developing and agitation
It’s important to select a development time which is at least five minutes or longer: shorter times are difficult to control accurately because you may spend a significant fraction of that time filling or emptying the tank. To figure out your times, the Massive dev chart is a good place to start as any, although adjustment will certainly be required. I keep a note on the computer where I record times and agitation for every film I develop, and this has been fantastically useful understanding when things go wrong.
Also pay attention to the minimum amount of chemicals required for development (e.g, you need around 6ml of HC110 and 6-10ml of Rodinal per film). Check the manufacturer’s data sheet for your developer. This means that for higher dilutions, i.e, 1+50, you may need to put in more water than is needed to cover the reels. It may not be obvious how to select the correct dilution, but for HC110 at least, with the equipment I have, I selected the dilution based on the size of the tank and development time I wanted. Changing dilutions does not seem to affect the contrast for me (the same is not true of Rodinal). Note, of course, that this developing should be done a standard solution temperature of 20 degrees (which you can check with a cheap digital thermometer). This is about right for Paris, where the tap-water usually comes out close to this temperature.
Each manufacturer has a different recommendation for agitation, which is how the film development tank is turned during processing. As everyone says, pick a scheme and stick to it. For shorter development times (5-6mins), it is a good idea to agitate for at least one minute at the start of development, because you may spend a lot of that time filling in the tanks and (as I have found) this can lead to uneven development (this is the Anchell and Troop recommendation).
There is some debate as to whether or not there film should be soaked in water before developing, with some manufacturers (Ilford) suggesting that it’s not a good idea. I have not pre-soaked my films, but it might be useful if you have uneven development. Pre-soaking, as far as I can tell, can only do harm with special developers like Diafine.
Fixing and washing
I re-use my fixer and stop-bath. However, after the first forty or fifty rolls, I found it was better to use disposable bottles for the fixer (I use well-cleaned opaque plastic milk bottles) instead of always storing it in the same bottle. This is because you may get some silver in the bottom of the bottle, and if you are not careful these silver specks can end up on your film. You cannot wash them away, they adhere to the negatives. Worse, if you decide to dry your film with a squegee, it will scratch the film. So, when it’s time to renew the fixer after about 15-20 rolls, throw out the bottle and use a new one. You can find if your fixer is expired by doing a test like this.
Note added later (January 2018): After discussions with experts, the black spots and fixer precipitation that I talk about here are caused by using expired stop bath. I’m using Tetenal’s Indecit, which is supposed to change colour when it’s time to change the bath: but it doesn’t, really, and I realise now that I have been using weakened stop bath. If you do this, by the time you get to the fixing stage, there is still enough active developer around to precipitate out the fix. Solution: change the stop bath after every 15-20 rolls.
I use plain tap water for diluting all my chemicals. I tried distilled water but it doesn’t make any difference to development for the developers I use. However, in the very last step, it helps a lot to use distilled water for the final rinse with a wetting agent. For this, I buy five-litre containers of demineralised water in the supermarket (filtered tap water doesn’t work as well). This step ensures that there are no drying marks on the film from carbonates in the water. And remember, I said do not use a squegee? Simply shake the reels when you take them out of the tank and then hang them up to dry.
I have tried different schemes for washing the film at the end of the processing. However, in the end I have switched to the “Ilford” method, which is fastest, and seems to work well: fill the tank, invert, dump, fill the tank and invert 5 times, dump, repeat for 10, 20 times (or less if you are less paranoid). The advantage of this method is that it uses less water, is faster, and additionally you can easily control the temperature of the water you are using for rinsing (running water from a mixer tap is hard to control).
My most-used film is Kodak’s Tri-X, and this has a habit of curling in the perpendicular direction to film. Sometimes this curl so strong that at the end your film looks like roof tiles on a house in Provence. This adds a second, lengthy step of putting your negatives under heavy books, for several hours, preferably containing good photographs. The internet has a few suggestions as to why this happens, but it seems to be related to the speed and temperature at which the film dries. I’ve found that not washing the film in super-cold running water and ensuring that it dries as slowly as possible helps reduce the curling. So don’t leave the bathroom window wide open.
Summary of things which have gone wrong … for me
Here’s a description of all the things I have had personally go wrong with my development. Of course there are even more things which can go wrong, this list is not meant to be exhaustive. Hairs and dust are the most common things you see on the negatives: I have found you can minimise this by passing a lint-free cloth over your scanner glass (if you are using a flat-bed scanner) every time you scan a new film. Small occasional defects like these can easily been removed in post-processing in Lightroom, they are obviously more problematic when printing, so carefully examine your negatives before putting them in the enlarger.
What it looks like on the negative
What causes it
How you can fix it
Many small black dots randomly distributed over the frame
Silver particles contaminating the final wash
Use new bottles when you replace your fixer
Small black crescents
Film was bent during loading
Large fuzzy black spots with holes
Water drying spots
Use distilled water in the last washing step with photo-flo
Film is still slightly pink or not completely clear after washing
Fix longer, or renew your fixer
Very large black blobs filling the whole frame
Film was loaded incorrectly and film was touching in the spool
Load the film correctly
Long straight lines
Film was scratched, either during loading or drying
Be careful !
How can you tell if you have done it right?
So, the last question: you have developed your negatives, and they are clean. How can you tell if you have done it right? This is the hardest thing to learn: how to distinguish between underdeveloped, overdeveloped, underexposed or overexposed film. In addition, scanning the negative can hide many things that can go wrong, because if you are not careful the scanning software will equalise all the intensity levels. Your negative overexposed by five stops will look (almost) normal, but will be very hard to print in the darkroom.
This is a great description about how to assess your negatives, with examples. This is another reason why simply looking at scans on the internet mean that it is very hard to tell what any particular developer and film combination looks like. Again, of course, it depends on your artistic intention, but in general preserving details in the shadows and not blowing out the highlights depends on finding the right balance between exposure and development time.
The best way to figure out if you have correctly exposed and developed your film is to make a contact print on “Grade 2” paper, where the contact print is exposed to ‘maximum black’: the darkest part on the image must correspond to the same black level as the film sprocket holes. This is the definitive guide from Tom Halfhill. I’m lucky to have access to a darkroom, and I try to make at least one set of contact prints for each developer and film combination that I try. For darkroom printers, your aim in developing and exposure should be simply to make a negative which prints with normal contrast (good shadow detail, highlights which are not blocked) on grade two paper.
Starting out, I hadn’t thought to write quite as much as this. But I hope it’s useful to someone, somewhere !