It was in late May 2019 that I was first sent a 30 minute rough cut of a video called “Tanky McOneshot”. The short film was the first stab at a documentary tracing David S Allen and Simon Riddell’s efforts at creating what might well be the world’s largest darkroom.
It’s a grand statement but one that is in itself, a little short of the mark.
Now officially known as “One Shot: Inchindown“, the project began in February 2018 when David and Simon first decided to create a large format (4×5″) negative inside the disused oil storage tanks at Invergordon’s Inchindown in the Scottish Highlands. Last used during the 1982 Falklands conflict, the tanks were designed in response to the growing military threat from late-1930’s Germany and became a crucial component of the Allied North Atlantic theatre of operations during World War Two.
Inchindown’s six oil tanks have a total capacity of 121 million litres — over 32 million gallons of cubic capacity. The tanks were finally awarded Category A listed building status in 2014 as a “buildings of national or international importance, either architectural or historic, or fine little-altered examples of some particular period, style or building type.” The tanks also received a Guinness World Record for the longest echo in a man-made structure (112 seconds) in 2014. Tanks 1-5 each measure 237 metres long, 9 meters wide and 13.5 meters tall (778 x 30 x 44ft). Tank number 6 is a slightly shorter.
For 2018’s first expedition, the two photographers used a camera flash to illuminate the entirety of Inchindown tank #1 at set distances, exposing the entire tank through the means of a long exposure photograph, which was documented over on 35mmc.
The idea to return to Inchindown a year later came in the form of a late-night phone call from a sick Simon to a sleepy David:
“…WWII, underground, once top-secret oil storage facility. Large format. Intrepid. Paper negative. Contact Print. All within the tunnels.”~ Simon Ridell, likely high on cough medicine
In other words, they would head down to Inchindown tank #1 with supplies to last for at least two days, seal themselves in, make a single 4×5″ large format negative, then develop AND print it in the underground service tunnels before leaving.
The rough cut David sent to me back in May started at the end of their final day, with David and Simon eating breakfast still inside the service tunnels. From there, we take a trip back to the phone call from Simon setting up the idea, a tour of the tank with Preston White, keyholder of the Inchindown facility, and then the capture, development and printing of the final photograph on a piece of 127x100cm paper cut from a specialised roll.
In the end, two prints were made.
The new, final edit takes the original 30-minute cut and extends it to 88 minutes — nearly three times longer. The difference between what I first saw some months ago and today is like night and day, a true testament to David and Simon’s collaborative nature. If you’re claustrophobic, there are segments where you’ll likely need to hide behind your fingers. Even I felt a little pinch as David, Simon and crew first slid into the main tank via service access pipes barely shoulder-width in diameter.
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Once inside the tank, darkness envelops everything, with even the strongest of torches in the group unable to reach the far end. After a quick tour and planning their escape route in case of emergency — a connecting ladder and walkway to the next tank, which was locked from the outside — David and Simon began the task of moving in their supplies: food, water, their Intrepid 4×5 camera, Intrepid darkroom enlarger, ILFORD photographic film, paper, TETENAL development chemistry and of course, children’s paddling pools.
The latter, although a seemingly humorous addition to the essentials brought in by the pair were indispensable. They would be acting as “trays” for the developer, stop bath, fixer and rinse: fundamental aspects of the traditional darkroom process.
Although not the kind of film where it’s really possible to give away spoilers, I’m being intentionally vague with the specifics. It’s a funny, heartwarming and inspiring documentary, where two exceptional people try to do something exceptionally foolhardy and succeed.
You may argue that there was no reason for David and Simon to do this, that the world didn’t really “need” a print made from a negative exposed in a hazardous underground oil tank. You’d be right but then again the print was born from adventure, not adventure from the print.
I’ve been lucky enough to know these two photographers for some time now and have featured both in interviews on this very website (#86 David, #190 Simon). They are unique, almost polar opposites, passionate and need challenge. Photography for both men isn’t just the end result but the process of getting there. The experience, learning and the value that comes from both are as important as the final tangible result, that’s what I’ve learned about them, anyway.
“One Shot: Inchindown” is dedicated to Simon’s late father and premiers at Inverness College on November 6th. Pending distribution, it will be available to view online shortly after that.
Further details about the project, the trailer and a few behind the scenes videos are available over at inchindown.com.
Please do check it out.