Essay · Rudimentary Philosophy

Undeveloped Film

When you take a picture, be aware of what it leaves.

In the years before taking a picture was as simple as pulling a thin, rectangular device out of your pocket and tapping a certain spot on its glass, people would buy these little plastic cylinders that housed this stuff called film. Those canisters were loaded into the backs of cameras by way of these covers that swung open. Complicated, I know.

You would point the camera and click to snap an image, but unlike their digital descendants and the current practice of using an application on a phone for capturing still moments of life, that kind of photography relied heavily on faith. There was no instant gratification, no “oh, let me see how it turned out,” and no delete option if someone’s eyes were half-open or the focus was wonky. Any imperfections in the moment stayed on that film long after the shot was taken. You didn’t know what they were going to turn out like until you got them developed, which took some time. So we clicked, wound, and clicked again until the rationed amount of images were depleted. Subjects were chosen more carefully. The actual prints were regarded more sacred; there were fewer of them and the process of obtaining the enveloped stack each roll of film transformed into took resources of not only money, but time.

Virtuous patience joined the faith it took to be confident in knowing the images were going to turn out right. When we picked up a developed stack, holding the glossy rectangles in our hands, we were quick to pass them around to those who were a part of the moment and to enlighten those who were not. We so much wanted to share those past moments. This is an act that is abundant in our current digital culture, although the gap between present and past moments is virtually nonexistent. In the decades before the digital evolution of photography, seeing and sharing developed photographs was a compartmentalized act. It was separate from the moment, evoking memories through its reliance on time. It was a sacred act. Looking at the pictures we took was something rare and its infrequence made it all the more novel.

In all my childhood memories of visits to my paternal grandparents, there is one constant. Accompanied by a steaming cup of hot tea with honey, my grandfather would never fail to pull out a few photographs of old friends and family members to show my father. I never quite figured out whether these were current pictures or something he’d stumbled upon cleaning out a closet or if they’d come in a letter from the subjects of the photographs themselves. Regardless, they were important to him. Showing my dad and identifying the names, place, and year of what was pictured was important to him. Print photography was, in my estimation, the most important means by which our family’s recent generational history has been recorded and cherished. Whether that dies with my sisters’ and my generation is yet to be seen.

A few weeks ago, while packing my belongings to move to another state, I was reminded of the now outdated methods of image capturing when I happened upon an undeveloped roll of film in a shoe box. Giddy to learn from what time in my past the images were taken, I halted my packing and rushed to the drugstore. The clerk at the photo center told me they would have to send the film away for developing, but I would be called when the prints were ready for pickup. One-hour photo developing is officially a thing of the past. A week passed before I received word, by which time my discovery of the film had shifted to a less-visited room in my mind. The call from the drugstore ignited my initial giddiness anew. At the first chance I got, I stopped by to pick them up, but I waited until I was home before peeling back the glued flap and allowing the photographs to rouse my memory. The images were nearly ten years old. By the time I got through to the first of the pile, a girl who I loved had planted a kiss on my cheek, my beloved dog had sprung back to life, and a dear friend who since passed away glowed orange as he once again enjoyed the warmth of a campfire.

The undeveloped film canister was a casualty of a bygone means of documenting a moment. Its images overpowered me, each one springing up another section of the orchestra my life once walked in time with. What was lost had been found, brought back to me in a moment of transition. And it was perfect timing.

Here’s to photography, the kind we had when we were kids.

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