what is analogue

nick kamen by mark lebon

I was asked just yesterday… what actually is ‘analogue’..

I was one of the first to print from ‘polapan’. A film so delicate, so extraordinary at that point in time.. an instant 35mm transparency in black and white and colour, developed in a little black plastic clockwork type of thing with a little handle, that had to be turned at just the right constant speed.. laboratory.. half the size of a toaster.  Photographers and their assistants would come to me with their precious rolls.. I guess because they thought vas I had a giant expensive cibachrome processing machine I was an expert.. making it up as I went along as I just turned the handle carefully and made out it was a really really precise procedure… then hopefully they would order some prints.

As the prints were vital, the diligent photographers, or most pertinently their assistants would preserve their fragility in ‘glass’ 35mm mounts on my lightbox.. always aware that in reproduction these ‘peculiar and alien’ transparencies would invariably get scratched, or their lenticular-esque cyan hue that accompanied these little moments in time retained and perhaps should be preserved in print form. Hence, the hand printer then had the task of delicately removing the film from the 35mm glass holder, in a way that an archaeologist handled the dead sea scrolls or the turin shroud. And creating the print that was couriered to the invisible reproduction posse from the little anonymous cave of the photographic printer… with or without that delicate cyan hue.  Heralding a time when the art directors of that era, started accepting ‘colour’ prints for reproduction as well as transparencies.. about a decade before C41 exploded on the fashion scene and colour prints became the norm for reproduction.

Yet, of course… that unknown alchemical process of handle turned machines, and that instant transparency with that delicacy of a butterfly wing… sometimes produced something quite unanticipated, even quite extraordinary…. the very first or last frame embodied with  that very particular polaroid roller mark, impossible to replicate.. and it too was carefully fossilised in those glass mounts, and then subsequently preserved in the cibachrome print.

Just half a decade later, feeling like a magician, I took the whole minute processing laboratory with a huge amount of this precious film, happily donated by the echelons of polaroid to an underwater archaeological expedition in Greece that I was part of, my true passion and desired vocation of that time. To be able to process and see the underwater grids and treasure under the sea, and even make polaroid prints with another clockwork machine of images just taken underwater, was a mind blowing technological feat of that time… as quaint as that may seem now. And in that time that diver disentangled from all the equipment and dried off, the film had been processed, cut and mounted, and was then ‘present and relating’ on the boat to what had been discovered and shown to all as the images appeared.

As always, with my many tangents I think of my boyhood romantic vision of canisters of film being smuggled across borders up donkeys bums to Fleet Street…The romance of photography, stealing the moment, encasing it in a roll of film, the person who develops the film with their heart in their mouths until they see that it has been processed correctly, to the photographer scrutinising the contact sheet or transparency over a light box with their hearts in their mouths for composition and focus, to the printer with their hearts in their mouths to be able to portray the density and balance of the print, to the front page to be seen for a day and then revisited twenty years later….In prints and books… that precious film and their custodians.

All amalgamating to the more romantic definition of analogue.. in my mind.. and what we all appear to be wittering on about… and why we believe in the treasured archive of film or prints to be so very very important. And reminding me of Egyptian mythology where there is the boatman for the Pharaoh.. who takes him to the next world for that very important journey.

The journey of the image to film… its capture the subsequent journey of the processing of the film and the negative or transparency to print and its preservation… is a journey… the journey of analogue photography.