Negative Disposal / Positive Progression

I threw away two thousand rolls’ worth of archived film last week.

Upon returning to Japan in August of 2004 after two years since finishing a year abroad at a university just west of Tokyo I immediately began picking up where I left off photographically. My film of choice, Fujifilm Neopan 400 was plentiful and I found myself shooting nearly everything to make up for lost time or whatever it was that driving an interest in recording and exploring my new environment. Keeping grounded with the photographic education I enjoyed as an undergrad I had no plan, no real meaning and certainly no “project” to complete. The pace I discovered in the process of bulk loading, shooting, developing, editing, and printing became the means by which I formed my continuing attempt to get a handle on what is going on around me.  This process became as much as a part of my life as reading, walking, eating or sleeping. This was also backed up through a real enjoyment of the dedication which a darkroom encourages as well. And it was fun.

The first roll from the first batch developed in September of 2004 was simply labeled “#1″.  The next was “#2″, and so on all the way to negative sheet #2072 in 2010. Estimating that a roll of film is about a meter long, that’s about two kilometers of 35mm film over six years.

From this stream of images shot in Japan I was able to compile bodies of work for exhibition. The first show, entitled “The Difference Between” was shown at the Konica Minolta Gallery in 2007, and the “Gaijin Like Me” was exhibited at the Nikon Salon in 2008.  For both entries I submitted 11×14 workprints- these were prints pulled from an ever-growing archive, products of regular printing sessions done to see the most recent work. After each frame was printed for the first time the negs went back in their respective, numbered sheets. Upon receiving the invitations to exhibit I had to scour my archived negatives to re-find the frames from which I could re-print for the shows. Each negative strip was pulled from its original negative sheet and this time filed into a new one along with all the other strips which held frames that were used for the show.  These were then contact printed and filed into a single binder labeled “Exhibitions”. If the need arose, it would be simple to reprint any of them at any time.

Contact sheets are really useful. However from 2004-2010 I didn’t print any for 35mm film. While I always kinda sorta intended on making them for my backlog there became a point when it all was just too much. I shrugged that task off and instead chose to simply edit with a loupe on my light table, writing out in a notebook the roll and frame numbers of each image I planned on seeing as a larger workprint for a near-future printing session.  While the “hits” were worth it, this method ultimately resulted in a glut of fairly uninteresting and rough prints that held little value to anyone, even me. But I remained consumed with the process and the prints it produced. Over the course of six years I kept putting freshly filed negative sheets away one after another, filling up thirteen large three-inch thick binders that were kept lined up on a shelf in my spare room.

In late 2010, for one reason or another the daunting problem of eventually having to deal with two thousand archived negative sheets became reason enough to put things on a better track. I got my workflow on course with a determination to slow down and invest time and photo paper into properly contact printing each and every roll of black and white film from then on out. Each year got its own binder and clearfile folder for the contact prints. With these new successful methods, each year gets its own binder and contact prints are filed in separate (usually 2) plastic transparent-sleeved file folders. A full run-down of my methods can be read here.

In the meantime I kept working and soon accepted an invitation for membership with Totem Pole Photo Gallery in Tokyo. Since I don’t work with a deliberate Mission or Story I decided to share work in the most honest and natural way that I can as an individual. This simply means exhibiting work sequentially with content encompassing whatever it is that seems interesting to shoot and that was also interesting as a photograph. While this method has been a target for criticism from some people due to its apparent lack of aim it saw the facilitation of the Zuisha series which I have been exhibiting at Totem Pole since 2011. Since each successive exhibition is always comprised of new work made since the previous show there’s no need to revisit my archives for pictures to include. This approach is what I’m most interested in at the moment. I don’t really want to go back and start fishing out deliberate and unified “themes” anymore.

So while this overhauled approach worked in terms of the present I still had mental clutter from all that un-needed archived 2004-2010 film still in those 13 thick binders. This problem- too many negs- was always in the back of my mind but more literally was actually in front of me the whole time. I could see them lined up across my apartment on their shelf each time I sat down at my computer. But with an ongoing workflow and exhibition prep (and a few blogs, a social life, a full-time job, etc) I was unable to find time or enthusiasm to properly deal with them.

I actually began to resent the binders sitting there in that other room.  I had already been removed from the images within for some time in two ways- First, the time of exposure/creation of the image, and Second, the most previous time that I really looked at them. I felt that I had already harvested all of what I felt was important for the exhibitions and anything else I didn’t want to feel connected with any more. In a sudden flash of inspiration or maybe exasperation I decided to clean house. I switched on my lightbox, and grabbed binder number 1. I popped out the metal bracket holding the sheets and started a massive re-edit, sheet by sheet, frame by frame. There were only two possible destinations for the negative strips about to go under my loupe- the trash, or a new negative sheet with along with its spared brothers.

A Metallica songs popped up in my headphones while I was working: No Remorse.

None indeed!

Almost ten hours over a few weeknight evenings the result of this experience looked like this:

The tower of negative sheets consists of what was about 2000 rolls of film, give or take a few dozen. That’s the trash pile.

The small stack at the bottom was what I saved and labeled under my current archival system. Each section begins with the year and each sheet holds negative strips from film shot during that time. It worked out to this:

2004 (Aug.20-Dec.31) 17 sheets
2005: 29 sheets
2006: 14 sheets
2007: 11 sheets
2008: 2 sheets
2009: 4 sheets
2010: 12 sheets

Eventually I will contact print each of these 89 negative sheets and file them accordingly. 89 contact prints is (with a change of developer and fixer) only an afternoon of darkroom work. Once finished, this will mesh with my current catalog. Each negative sheet holds seven strips of film- there are six frames in each. If any were saved it was because there was one frame of the six worth keeping. This comes to about 623 images that I still have to work from should I ever want to return to this era of my photographic history. This is much easier to handle than the previous and approximate 72,592 frames taken in those years.
Since the surviving negatives all fit into one binder there’s a lot more open space on those shelves in my spare room now.

It’s funny- from the info above it looks like I was in a slump between in 2008 and 2009- But in actuality instead of 35mm I was shooting another 700+ rolls of 120mm film through some medium format cameras. Interestingly enough I had filed and contact-printed each neg sheet from the start due to the investment of time it takes in relation to the number of frames per roll. Go figure!

What was left was to dispose of the rest.

As for looking through sheet after sheet for so many evenings- this was an experience that at a lot of different times was embarrassing and exciting. I always had a pretty good recollection of what I have shot but to see each and every frame was fascinating. Sometimes even moving. And then frustrating. As time flowed by in the form of exposed frames of film I was able to develop an understanding on where I had been and what and who I was dealing with at the time. I could track visual and personal interests as the months passed though all those little negative pictures. Sometimes it was hard to say goodbye, others I discarded with a grin. The prevailing feeling though was that I would never really need those images- or in the case of negatives, need the potential to create those images, again.
Part practicality, part moving on.  This is the point: I traded Possibilities for peace of mind. Setting aside thoughts of cost and time in making this archive, I don’t regret anything. Even though I felt like I was breaking some kind of Way of the Photographer I didn’t care. This wasn’t some kind of mental crisis or cry for help. There was just nothing worth keeping in those trashed negs. And I should know— I took them!

During roughly the same timeframe I seriously shot color 35mm film from and by 2012 I filled up fifty albums- each holding 294 small 1-hour photo prints. 2006 alone took up sixteen. Those all sat on a shelf, too. (Let’s forget for the time being the 20,000 digital images on my hard-drive, and the 8,000 I deleted from that set, too)
Starting with the first color album from 2006 I began to reassess what was pictured and the importance of its existence as a photo.  What began as “fun” gradually, album after album, became something much heavier to deal with. Photographs- especially several thousand of them in a row, tell one a lot about the photographer who made them.  This isn’t at all about “Great Shots!” or other aspects which the average amateur photographer gets worked up over-  I have no love for or even belief in the Rule of Thirds or other compositional bullshit like Leading Lines and Triangles-  it was that they were too accurate in showing how much I didn’t know yet. Life and Photography, for starters (and enders).
It was time to move on and I didn’t want what was exposed to keep holding me back. From those 50 albums I took out three trash bags of prints. Next up was two very full binders and a box of polaroids from 2001-2011. The cull from that collection wound up filling two plastic grocery store bags. Since there are few(?) landfills in Japan it is most likely that everything ended up in the local trash incinerator.

Looking through so many negatives (it’s funny how one’s eyes can adjust to the reversed look at the world within them) I felt almost like I was photographing all over again. Instead of a shutter I had a new negative file to capture my images. Each old negative sheet had notes written out at the bottom in black marker from the first edit. Before starting in with the loupe I checked to see what frame numbers interested me the first time I saw them. Having so much time and so many more exposures in between made for a very clear approach to selecting the survivors. Some of what I tagged then still held interest. A vast majority didn’t. But there were some snaps that I wasn’t ready for in 2004 which gave me pause a decade later. No one ever seems to want to accept the fact that we’re all able to make better pictures than we realize! Whereas an earlier attempt at the medium was to test myself against an agreed upon rubric that serviced “The Greats” forty years ago what caught my eye in this review session were the frames that surprised me by suggesting an ability to teach me something new.

While reviewing this vast archive I began to piece together some insight into my own ongoing understanding of photography. Namely, I’ve always been able to keep at keeping on- the seeds of my ongoing Zuisha series were always there. Hell, “Zuisha” is more or less just cover for an approach more than it is an essential title. There’s enough material though to make a Pre-Zuisha show or collection.

My current personal success with my current methods and work has essentially created a feedback-loop in terms of my approach to photography. What I’ve learned from these pictures and exhibiting them has undoubtedly and subconsciously affected how I make new ones. Simply, I’m more interested in “mistakes” now- pictures that are taken and not made. At the same time, after a decade of photographing in and around Tokyo I’ve covered a lot of ground both literally and figuratively. What at in 2002 or 2004 seemed clever- say, the juxtaposition of a salaryman against a billboard featuring a Western female model, or the thrill of snapping the shutter into a crowd of pedestrians while crossing the street (over and over and over…) has after these many years become less and less interesting. “Street Photography”, too. It’s obviously not that Japan has run out of things worth photographing, but rather I’m feeling the effects of being on a path which leads towards a gradual realignment with or against a whole slew of influences, experiences, and even antagonisms. I’m not about to stop so this all gets shoved into that feedback-loop.

Maybe this process is like running some sort of chipper that makes trees sprout out of a pile of shredded wood chips. You snap off some branches from the new ones and toss them back in for the next round. But there’s a point where you got too many trees in the way to figure out how you are going to keep walking through this forest.

The main goal in tossing all those parts of my photo past was to be able to see a little clearer.

6 thoughts on “Negative Disposal / Positive Progression

  1. I’ve recently scanned my archive – which is thankfully a lot smaller than yours – going back to 2005.
    Nevertheless it meant revisiting about 10000 frames and it really did things with me.
    Sure in some cases it was a joy to see some situations I’ve been in, and sometimes I even discovered absolute gems that somehow evaded editing back in the days,
    but the overall experience was rather painful.
    Memories can be dangerous if relived. Some neg sheets I had to skip.
    The visual “reliving” of frames that you’ve frozen in time is so much more different that the idealised and digested reality your brain has conserved.

    funny that.

  2. I find funny that this seems to be the mood that everybody is on (less is more).
    I have been doing something similar for the last year, looking back at negatives and deciding what’s in, what’s out. And so have a few friends.
    Maybe it has something to do with the beginning of the century, when people are finding their aim, preparing for some kind of revolution.

  3. very good post about moving on and the constant refinement of the photographic process, but i’m heartbroken to know that so many images have now simply disappeared. i would have been infinitely happy to take them off your hands instead — it’s always an interesting experience to see the raw negatives of someone else’s output and see every little thing that made their brain tick. yours especially — finding a bag full of negatives and prints of mid-to-late-2000s japan would have been the coolest thing in my life.

  4. Pingback: Mr. Sypal Kills His Darlings | Creative Camerawork

  5. Wow, congrats John! I did something similar to this with a bunch of cameras I had amassed over the years and felt it was a cathartic experience. It was quite liberating removing the very real “mental clutter” as you put it. I think it can be easy to get stuck in routines, so processes like this are very important that nothing is fixed and nothing is forever. It keeps you on your toes. Well it does for me anyway!

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