Villains of Wilhelm + White Mansions @ UnderExposed

One of the definite downsides to photographing regularly (See: Always) for publications is that it can be hard to relax, enjoy your photography, mess around, experiment, have fun; it’s always about getting the shot and this can easily take up all your time and focus at a gig because you have to deliver the goods. Although there are still plenty of times where I will go and see bands play and not take my camera, sometimes it’s good to have a break from photography. And sometimes it’s really good to have a proper break, recharge your batteries and want to photograph again, instead of over-doing it and it feeling like it’s a chore and too much hard work and effort.

When I first moved from a film camera to a digital camera my intention was to photograph using both mediums. That lasted about 2 gigs and it’s been almost only digital since then. In those 3 1/2 years there have been three occasions where I have taken a roll of film at a gig – Nation Blue + Side Effects at The Troubadour, The Gin Club + Texas Tea at The Troubadour and Little Barrie at The Colombian (a building that hasn’t been a venue for over 2 years…) – and on each of those occasions the film has remained undeveloped and in my fridge to this very day.

The UnderExposed exhibition, and the accompanying gigs every Friday and Saturday night over the three weeks of the exhibition, meant some nights off from photographing for someone else and photographing just for my own enjoyment with no consequences and no deadlines. And it meant the chance to dig deep to the back of my fridge and pull out a few rolls of Ilford HP5 black and white film to go and play with.

Having made up a 5 litre batch of ID-11 developer on the Saturday afternoon I headed out to photograph a couple of bands at UnderExposed, namely White Mansions, who I’d seen a few times down the years, and the highly rated Villains of Wilhelm, who had won the Road to V 2009 competition to play at the V Festival earlier in the year.

Somewhat ironically, despite being part of a series of gigs to accompany a music photographer’s exhibition, the lighting on the main stage left a lot to be desired. HP5 is normally rated at ISO 400 but because it was so dark I had to rate it at ISO 3200, and even then, according to the camera’s light meter, I was still underexposing by a stop at f2.8 and 1/45 for some shots. Having not used my film camera – a Minolta Dynax 5 – for over 3 years it kept jamming. I wasn’t sure if it was a shutter button problem or just a focus lock issue but when this happened I would keep my finger on the button and then suddenly end up taking two photos in rapid succession, both of which would of course be out of focus. It was strange to be using a film camera after having gotten used to using a digital camera; you can’t help yourself from having a quick chimp to check the LCD screen only to find that you keep looking at the black plastic back of a film camera.

Just like old times, come Sunday morning it was time for the developing ritual and a return to being in a darkened bathroom, with all the processing tank equipment laid in order on the floor and with me sat there with a duvet over my head to compensate for my bathroom not being very light-proof . It was funny to think that developing a black and white film used to be second nature, whereas I had completely forgotten how to do it now and had to download some instructions. However, once I started it all came flooding back to me dark and the smell of the darkroom brought back all the memories of hung-over Sundays spent developing film and the excitement when doing my photography evening class, when I would usually photograph over the weekend and then couldn’t wait until the class on Thursday to develop the films. Instant playback review on the back of a digital camera it was not.

A large part of the reason for not really wanting to rate HP5 at ISO 3200 was that I only had ID-11 to develop the film and the film specs don’t have an ID-11 development time for HP5 rated at that high a film speed. So I had to make up a development time of 18 minutes and hope for the best. I took one 36-exposure film split roughly 50/50 between White Mansions and Villains of Wilhem and put the undeveloped Little Barrie film, which had been in my fridge since Easter 2007, in the same tank, as it had also been rated at ISO 3200. From the off I knew that there wasn’t going to be a happy ending as the emulsion was all stuck together when I took the film out of the canister. Although some shots were ruined from being stuck together, a few shots came out but were nothing worth showing in public. Also the negatives were so thin that it was a real struggle to work out where each photo ended and the next began so that I could cut the roll of 36 into strips of 6.

However, when I scanned in the White Mansions/Villains of Wilhem film I was really delighted at the result. The images are ridiculously grainy, although you would expect that at ISO 3200, especially having pushed the film from its original ISO400. On first inspection of the scanned images, about half the film was worth a second look. There was a fair amount of dust and speckles on the scanned in negatives so a little bit of post-production cleaning clean up was required, although I only did it where it was particularly bad.

Just looking at the images they have a glorious quality that just can’t be matched by digital, even though they’re grainy and messy and don’t have the clean, almost clinical quality that digital images have now. Film grain is such an intrinsic part of the beauty of the photos taken with that medium, whereas there’s nothing more disgustingly unattractive as digital noise. I think these sentiments are something that everyone who made the move from film to digital over the last few years agree on. Talk to any photographer who grew up using film and watch their face light up when they talk about it. Digital may be convenient, it may be quicker, it may be cheaper but it’s just not the same.

Some more photos on Flickr.

Villains of Wilhem

White Mansions

3 Responses to “Villains of Wilhelm + White Mansions @ UnderExposed”

  1. stephen says:

    That first one is super. Dramatic. Powerful. Other adjectives like that.

    I got my negs back today from Brisbane Sounds. Some of the shots look like they could be actually ok. Getting scans done now … gosh it’s all very expensive.

  2. Justin says:

    Thanks Stephen.

    It’s going to be really expensive to pay someone to develop and scan to disc if you’re planning on doing a lot of b&w photography. If you are serious about it you should think about DIY developing. Most of the fun is in the developing, it’s a really special past time, very relaxing and therapeutic, a good way to spend a Sunday morning. Set-up costs to get a processing tank, thermometer, couple of measuring cylinders, couple of cheap jugs, film canister opener, hanging clips etc were about $80 from memory. Chemicals on top of that (at least from memory I think the $80 was just the hardware) but it still works out pretty reasonable if you’re doing do be doing it regularly. I’m extravagant/lazy so I just use stock developer and don’t dilute so I could make it go a lot further if I wanted to. Bought a negative scanner years ago, which at the time was really expensive at about $900 but I think you can get them a lot cheaper now and get them built into flat bed scanners.

  3. Stephen says:

    I dunno that I’m planning on doing /a lot/. But it’s something I want to continue experimenting with. I think I might just be able to set up a darkroom in the laundry … on the floor. Something to look into after the website finally goes live in a few weeks time.

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