Time moves relentlessly forward often bringing geographical change as well as the alteration in circumstances that can alter a life and limit access to certain facilities vital for the engagement with a chosen art form. A city the size of London, for example, provided both good processing labs for black and white negative film as well as darkrooms that could be rented by the hour.
A move to a smaller town could mean reliance either on the local processing outlets who with the passing years increasingly only dealt with colour processing, or postal services. Some independent camera shops offered black and white developing but were unreliable – carefully taken film could be given into the hands of a slap dash semi-amateur who might scratch, overdevelop, then melt the film before covering it with a confetti of dust.
Such a move similarly pretty much puts an end to the sort of paid editorial work to be had in London and so a different path is chosen; away from photography. Or at least away from photography as a potentially functional endeavour, with paid assignments, exhibitions and so on. Naturally it devolves to the private, the personal. It becomes increasingly sporadic, something practiced on the edges of life and not its centre.
No money can be earned from it, and therefore the expense involved becomes questionable. It was a costly business too. Even after the basic equipment is purchased, every 24 or 36 exposure film has to be paid for and then there is the development of the film and also prints and/or contact sheets. Then if enlargements are wanted there is photographic paper to buy.
Meanwhile the world changes until eventually digital cameras are ubiquitous. Paper wallets filled with snapshots, photo albums and even colour processing labs become rare chemical-smelling voodoo hoodoo hardly worth any small chemist or camera shop pursuing.
Black and white negatives, once so precious and vital, so vulnerable and unique grow to seem outlandish; the relics of an antediluvian life, like dinosaurs and crinolines and black and white TV sets. The negatives are trapped in Plato’s cave, they are formless shadows, shrunken toy theatres where tiny unreadable puppets cavort and perform in long forgotten and inexplicable plays. The negatives in their protective paper or plastic sheets are put in a box. The lid is closed on them, they are placed on a shelf in a cupboard where the murmur of their presence fades.
Many of them exist only as negatives, some had contact sheets and a few graduated into enlarged prints. Some appeared on book jackets, in magazines and in exhibitions. Others existed as potential only. At times a withering potential; the last leaves left clinging to a tree after an autumn storm. At times it seemed they would be swept away, remembered only by the photographer and eventually remembered only as odd scraps, possibly, probably worthless. Not the map to some lost treasure, but only to a damp hole in the sand where the gold paint has peeled away and the precious things are revealed to be only base metal.
Then a digital scanner is put to use and the photographer works through the store of old negatives, revisiting that lost country where he or she once stood in a room or on the street or on a mountain top and lifted the camera to their eye and pressed the shutter.
Now another journey is undertaken, backwards in time as he or she sees again each person or landscape or object or effect of light and shadow that was once deemed worthy of record. Some of the frames were long ago dismissed as duds; failures of technique or composition or subject. Yet now they have somehow gained a patina that reasserts their once passing worth.
The photographer finds that it is not the picture of the now famous writer or actress which is charged with meaning, or not exclusively that, rather it is the banal shot of the railings overlooking the sea, it is the woman with a walking stick in Matlock, Derbyshire, it is the incongruous baby crawling on the pavement in front of the Bank of England, it is the friend now grown old, the tattered couch they sit upon, the curious shadow of a tree, the faces of strangers and friends as they confront the photographer with a look of perplexity or a frown.
Everything rises before the photographer again like the visions said to come to the dying; a life flashing before the eyes, silent and at last, immutable.
Time, the photographer thinks, photography plus time confers interest and dignity and beauty where once there were only mundane objects, flat light and a sense of failed effort. Photography returns us to ourselves in unremembered glimpses no matter what side of the camera we were on and fixes us there in the chemical echoes of the past.