The Photographic Print
Written for ‘Skills, Smells and Spells’, an exhibition held at the Strand Gallery in central London, 2012:
The final stage of a journey that started with the release of the shutter – focus, exposure, framing – all done without thinking, just a general sense of elation as you draw on years of habit and experience before – click – it’s done.
A journey during which you have nurtured and caressed your exposed film through the remainder of your travels. Labelling it lovingly, keeping it close and riding the fear as it disappears into airport x-ray machines, towards the safety and refuge of your darkroom.
But once there, it’s not over; mixing the chemicals and immersing the film – knowing what to do, how to do it but not truly understanding how or why it works.
Inching closer to the end, re-living the moments you experienced through the viewfinder weeks, perhaps months before as the film hangs to dry, coated in the foam of the anti-static, water dripping. Marvelling at this tiny 35mm negative that holds memories and emotions, all entwined with those moments, frozen in time.
Then digging deep to find the patience and will power to print hundreds of contact sheets, for the greater good. A sacrifice to the gods of organisation and a long term strategic decision.
And all for that final print.
A sheet of paper lying there exposed, naked and vulnerable under the enlarger. Ready for the perfect amount of light required to bring it to life. Too little and it pales to nothing, a feeble representation of the potential it holds. Too much and it burns, a murky dirge of greys and blacks.
As your hands hover and flicker, moulding shapes – more here, less there – you conduct an orchestra of light. The deep bass of the shadows and the shrill vibrancy of the whites.
The light falls onto the paper, through your fingers, moulding a three dimensional landscape. A mountain of light piled high, vibrant and shimmering. A valley of shadows, denying the print the light it craves. Hands dancing to recreate the tonal flow that lives in your mind’s eye.
All to sculpt that perfect print. Dodging and burning to the rhythm of your instinct while the enforced accuracy of the clock eventually pulls you from your trance.
Then a moments doubt before you decisively pull the pregnant paper towards you – going beyond the point of no return – and slip it lovingly into the chemicals.
And silence. Stillness, trepidation and anticipation.
The grim knowledge that it may not be perfect, that you will once again have to repeat the process.
Or the escalating elation that this is it, this is the one.
Both tempered by the knowledge that until the light comes on, until the red hue retreats into a corner of the room and until the print is dry, you just…don’t…know.