The Haunting Beauty of Damaged Film

I had about 25 rolls of B&W film, which I took in Ujir, Aru, my research site, developed when I was in Jakarta and Singapore. The results were bad: heavily fogged, scratched, and oddly speckled. This was true for film cheap and expensive, high- and low-speed. I don’t know whether the damage came from the harsh conditions in which I storing the film, or sloppy lab practices. Either way, the negatives are damaged. This is an odd contrast to film I shot in Nepal in 2003, and developed in 2017; most of that turned out fine, the exception being some infrared film I developed by guesswork; it still returned decent, in fact enchanting images.

A chorten on the Solukhumbu Trail, Nepal, on Konica infrared film that was exposed and then stored for 14 years before development.

As I begin to develop the other 100-odd rolls myself, I’ve found that some of them are still in good condition, while others are damaged. There isn’t much consistency in which rolls are damaged and which aren’t. The only pattern seems to be with the Pan-F 50, which has a remarkably vulnerable emulsion—a pity, because I do like the look and fine resolution of that film. In any case, some of the rolls have suffered.

The Mesjid Lama at Ujir, on Fomapan 200, with some subtle speckling. QC error, or climate?

Part of me thinks this is a small disaster: I carried my Hasselblad system, all 10 kg of it, halfway around the world so I could get clarity and resolution, and some of my negatives have anything but that. Artifacts of development cloud people’s faces, throw off the viewer’s understanding of depth, place a screen in front of the action, through which one can see only part of the story. When a negative is fogged, the end result is a huge loss of resolution; we can compensate for the lightening of the image, but in the course of doing that, the image must become murkier, softer, and grainier. There’s a not-quite-there quality to many of them, the same feeling I get when I look at a picture from the nineteenth century. Although I know in the abstract that the picture shows something that happened, I have no visceral sense that it did: the image isn’t clear enough to connect with the real world. So many of my photos look like they were made with a primitive, imperfect process—one of those nineteenth century attempts that used highly toxic and explosive chemicals to preserve, grudgingly and uncertainly, a shadow.

Peter Lape on my boat, paddling through the sungai. Ilford Delta 400, processed in Singapore.

There is an other-worldly quality about 19th-century images, as if they were captured on another planet and imperfectly transmitted here—the Demonia of Ada or the ancient Mars of Quatermass and the Pit. It is unsettling. I think the same is true of my damaged negatives, and the very other-worldliness of them may be both a curse, as I’ll explain later, and a blessing.

Blessing first. I’ve noticed a bunch of little film producers emerge recently, making custom small-batch film, mostly in 35mm, to catch the new analog enthusiasm. It seems that some of their most popular products are films that are pre-fogged, so to speak—they expose the film to some light, in particular colors or patterns, that give the whole roll a certain character. Or, for those who can produce their own emulsions, they make film that heavily favors a certain palette, that is deliberately deprived of some of its chromatic range. It seems they’re trying to replicate things that photographers of another generation would think of as imperfections. A good Photoshop technician could probably tweak all the imperfection of a boutique-fogged film into a digital image if they wanted, but I think the people who buy this pre-messed-up film are looking for serendipity. An image with an unexpected color shift, or random dots on the negative, could work, by chance, better than something completely planned out. In fact, this is one thing on which film still has a monopoly; the delay of development means you have to trust chance. You can either burn through film to ensure one of your frames will be a keeper, or shoot less, and put your image in the hands of the gods. In the latter case, maybe something beautiful that you hadn’t planned will show up on the contact sheet, and you can bring that out further in the darkroom (or, let’s be realistic, bring it out with your favorite Instagram filter).

A neighbor, on FP4+

The secret of creativity is that it rarely goes according to plan. MFAs teach people to plan things from start to finish, and to polish it relentlessly—I suppose that’s good to practice, but is that why I find so much MFA-certified art dull these days? The ability to create any image you want through drop-down menus (not just in Photoshop but also in the camera, for Christ’s sake!) can be liberating, but I also suspect it deprives people of salutary constraints, things nudging or shoving them into creativity. You could also say that the film having its own way frees photographers from the agony of choice. It focuses the mind if you know the film will behave a certain way. In my case, where the film did not cooperate, it also forces me to re-think what I’ll do with an image. Are there blotches in the most important part of the picture? Maybe we should figure out a way to make the blotches part of the composition. There’s enough of a market for the unpredictability and constraint of film—these days the purposefully engineered unpredictability and constraint of film—to suggest that what I have, these failures of chemistry, are nothing to be upset about. I just need to work with them and embrace them for what they are. Other people are paying for these kinds of effects, and I got them gratis, courtesy of a lazy technician, the atmosphere, or a hostile ancestor-spirit.

Arifin, on Fomapan 200. This was one of the first pictures I took with the Hasselblad in Ujir.

The images from the damaged film communicate something about the difficulty of working in Ujir, and they do so with a diaphanous quality that would be difficult to reproduce digitally. They are mystical; the layer of imperfection between the subject and the viewer is something that cannot be passed through without imagination. This is analogous to Ujir’s relationship to the rest of the world; in many ways it is isolated and unknowable, except if you are there. The images with these imperfections, in one sense, are a remarkably honest vision of Ujir in the Western world—an expression of its inability to fit, or to be translated.

Obi gives a thumbs-up to the camera. I think this was on Ilford FP4+

At the same time, and although I normally chafe at the Anthropological unwillingness to let anything Western be free from social criticism, I am troubled by the idea that the photos I took of Ujir, by their visual inaccessibility, are hard to think of as part of this world. I’ve argued their otherworldliness is charming and dramatic; maybe I like to think it highlights how distant life in Ujir is from where most people will see them. That, though, is a problem, and a lie, because no matter how physically or culturally distant Ujir is from Port Townsend, where I’m writing this, the basic problems of life in Ujir are the same as those here. To imply, as I’ve already done, that life in Ujir could be equated with life on Mars or Demonia, is flat-out wrong. The perversity of doing research in a remote place like Ujir is that most of life there fits with life anywhere else. Sometimes it needs translation, but on the whole it corresponds. My goal in dragging the Hasselblad, the four lenses, tripod, and hundreds of rolls of film out there was to bring Ujir, as much as I could, closer to the world I was used to, in the belief that people here might relate to it, and would therefore embrace it, be less afraid of distant cultures, recognizing the differences but nonetheless finding common ground. The corruption (like an ancient manuscript) of the film makes that relation much more difficult. The screen of fogging, scratches and lost information, lost depth, I fear deprives most viewers of the power to connect with whoever’s on the other side of the lens. I could lapse into jargon and say it’s exoticizing, not to say othering the people in Ujir.

This is a problem, and one I’ll be curious to present to the people in the photographs, when I return. Will they think the strangeness of these images is a good or bad thing? They add filters of all sorts to the selfies they take with their phones, so will they see the damaged film effect as another way to add gaya (style) to a photo? Will they be disappointed, as I was, in the lack of clarity? I have no idea, but rather than philosophize and ask other anthropologists how to feel about the images and their degradation, the opinion that matters is that of my friends in Ujir.

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