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Taking a closer look at prints.
Paul Gadd examining some photos at The Print Room

THE first thing that you will realise when working with film is how much hard work is involved. That was the first lesson I learnt at a photography studio gallery, housed in an old bungalow in Petaling Jaya.

Upon arriving at The Print Room, I was given an old Nikon 4e and a roll of 35mm film to work with. I was instructed to shoot off 36 frames in black and white.

The assignment was to find interesting textures, and I set about the bungalow’s compound looking for objects to photograph. I soon realised how hard it was to finish just 36 shots. While I often shoot hundreds of shots on outings with my DLSR, the knowledge that you have a limited number of shots makes you more mindful with each one. More care is taken into framing the shot, ensuring the focus and exposure is perfect, before hitting the shutter.

I actually started taking pictures with film SLRs, a Canon EOS 88. For today, however, I take most of my pictures with a Canon DSLR.

Over the years, as SD cards have become much cheaper, I’ve developed a habit of shooting off numerous shots for each setting. A typical 16GB memory card can hold up to 2,000 shots, depending on resolution and it retails at just RM30.

On the flip side, I realised the shots were taken carelessly. At the end of the day, you end up with thousands of pictures which are difficult to catalogue and archive. Most of them are never printed and are kept hidden in hard drives. Film makes you think more about each shot. There isn't much quantity, but that means there is a lot more quality.

This is precisely what Paul Gadd, owner and curator of The Print Room, a photographer who has worked for 16 years taking photos for Marie Claire, Harpers Bazaar, The International Herald Tribune, wants people to do when they take pictures.

“There is more that can be obtained from film,” said Gadd, “You have more control over it.”

"We passionately believe that only with a foundation in classical photography techniques can a photographer begin to approach photography as a fine art. Our specific emphasis and pride is to offer students an opportunity to learn to handle a traditional manual film camera, to process film and to print photographs the classical way," said Gadd.

After the photos have been shot around the bungalow, the negatives are removed from the camera. A tool known as a film picker is used. The picker has a sliver on one end that slips into the film roll.

Once in, you manipulate two sliders to get the leading edge of the film out. It is much more complicated than removing your SD card from your digital camera.

The following step required even more dexterity. I practiced sliding a roll of developed film onto a plastic reel.

I had to slide the entire roll of film onto the reel by slowly turning it a little by little. Once that was done, the reel had to be placed into a developing tank. “Ok. You have to do that in total darkness, in the dark room,” Gadd said.

At this point, I doubted whether I would be able to process my own roll of film but somehow, I managed to pull the film out, cut it and slid it onto the reel on the first try, in the total darkness of the darkroom. After nearly dropping the developing tank, I also managed to place the reel in the tank.

What followed was akin to a medieval alchemy session. Gadd prepared three types of solutions which had to be poured into the tank one by one : the developer, stop bath and fixer. The developer had to be at precisely 20°C before being poured in. This involved mixing cold water from a cooler with warm tap water. By this time, I was amazed by the level of effort needed to develop just a few photos.

After all these steps, and waiting a few minutes, the film was finally developed. I pulled the film out of the reel and let it dry overnight in a cabinet. The following day, there were images visible on the film. Gadd brought them to a light box, and I could see clearly that the negatives were well developed.

I spent the entire day transferring those images from the film onto photographic paper using a projector.

The photographic paper was soaked in another three solutions before images finally appeared on them.

As I held the photographs out in the sun in the compound of the bungalow, I couldn’t help but feel a great deal of satisfaction even though my images were mediocre at best.

Photography was invented in 1826 or 1827 by Frenchman Nicéphore Niépce. Since then, it has revolutionised human existence — crucial events and people in human history have been recorded and immortalised on photos. Over the last century, it is estimated that nearly four trillion photographs have been taken, recording every aspect of human life. Digital technology has changed photography extraordinarily. Nearly 10 per cent of the photos in existence last year were taken in digital.

Indeed, digital cameras have made huge leaps and bounds in the last few years. A film camera, while romantic now, appears hopelessly outdated. However, in much the same way that portrait painting did not stop after the camera itself was invented, film photography will continue to be pursued by artists for a variety of reasons.

Looking at the black and white images, I found it amazing how a combination of light and chemicals could capture what our own eyes could see. It felt like magic.

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