On good days, the deserts of West Texas seem to tolerate human presence. The bad days bring flash floods and lightning storms that would faze even Zeus. I often travel to the region for work, regardless of what day it is, and when I do I make sure to bring my Olympus and a backpack full of film.
During my last visit, I tried pushing Portra 400 a stop. The monsoon season was giving way to the dry and cold of high desert winter, leaving me sharp sunrises and clear blue sky days to shoot. I worked Portra on both and was happy with the results. The push development led to a nice increase in contrast, as expected, and the extra stop gave me more time to work sunset views.
My primary problem with this roll had nothing to do with the film at all – a nasty light leak decided to spoil several perfectly good frames. My heart sank when I first saw the scans. Two weeks of pictures ruined by shoddy camera maintenance.
I came back a few weeks later after I had made peace with my misfortune and took a second look. There were several good keepers not ruined by light leaks, and the colors in them were vivid and the shadows deliciously deep, especially amongst the weathered sandstone cliffs and peaks of Big Bend. With some more time, I even came to love some of the negatives previously “ruined” by the leaks.
Although I still would prefer they weren’t there in the first place, they add a mark of imperfection that reminds me why I enjoy shooting film in the first place. It’s unpredictable, it’s imperfect, and I screw it up a lot. Pictures, after all, are a memento of something in the world.
The creative process in photography isn’t always a thing we can entirely control so long as we rely on the world for our subjects. A lot of it depends on our luck, both good and bad. Even on the deserts’ most tolerant days, the camera gods can be less amenable.
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This series is produced in conjunction with Hamish Gill's excellent 35mmc.com. Head on over to read the other half of these stories there.
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