I stand at the edge of the forest, my dilapidated Canon in hand. Mist rises from the trees, as two pigeons snap their wings in hasty exit. A path snakes ahead, deep into the wooded dark. Raising my camera, I peer through the scuffed lens. I hold my finger to the shutter, waiting for the light to change. But unexpectedly, I hesitate. Embers of doubt burn in my mind – that would soon turn to great, leaping flames.
Those first flickers of doubt were of course concerned with sustainability.
Starting photographic life as a traditional landscape photographer — digital camera attached to a tripod shakily perched on a windy cliff, tracking the sunset with an app — I captured the typical idealisations of nature familiar to the genre.
But I felt increasingly disconnected from the landscape. Instead, I was fixated upon the camera’s LCD — ignoring the living, breathing ecology I was immersed in. Investigating this disconnection, my interests started to drift towards ideas of ecology and our inextricable connection to the natural world. I moved to analogue photography as a more tactile process, enjoying the physical engagement that is absent in digital.
The feel of freshly developed negatives, the rattle as film ran through the camera, and the smell of chemicals staining my clothes all enveloped me in a realm of physicality that I had previously felt alienated from. And with my interest and involvement in the ecological crisis growing, the experimentation and unpredictability of analogue photography reflected my disquiet of how industrial society treats the nonhuman world.
Inevitably, I began to ask how is my photography affecting the natural world that I hold so dearly? Not in terms of the content of the image, but how the image itself is made. From the negatives to the chemicals and all the rest — what was the footprint of my newfound analogue obsession?
And ultimately, is there a contradiction with me photographing these subjects in fascination and wonder, to then generate waste that negatively affects ecosystems?
Lifting the lid on analogue photography, I found a history so drenched in toxicity, extraction, and a lack of sustainability that I felt it was beyond repair. From toxic chemicals, to silver particles and beyond — analogue and eco-friendly seemed at hopeless odds. So much so, that I took an almost year-long sabbatical from photography — my Canon collecting dust on the shelf.
But waiting to rise from these ashes was a phoenix of analogue innovation – the Sustainable Darkroom.
The ecology of grain
My involvement in the Sustainable Darkroom began during this photographic break, when I wrote my research paper The Ecology of Grain. As the first ecological assessment of animal gelatin in analogue film, it revealed some hidden truths about film to the community. For instance, although the amount per roll is tiny, it snowballs into a weighty gelatinous mass for the entire industry. About 6700 London double-decker buses worth, by 2025.
This caught the attention of the London Alternative Photography Collective, who were running a ‘Sustainable Darkroom’ residency programme on researching sustainable alternatives to analogue photography. Founded by Hannah Fletcher, the Sustainable Darkroom is now a worldwide artist-led movement. Its central aim is to transform our approach to photographic materials, and their historically toxic nature.
Already, members of the movement have pioneered green alternatives set to revolutionise the medium. From developers made out of seaweed, to plant-based gelatin alternatives, or reclaiming silver from fixative through electrolysis — the Sustainable Darkroom is leading the charge on eco-conscious photography.
So you might be reading this, a seed of eco-curiosity now planted in your photographic soil, asking what can you do to make your analogue practice greener?
First off, you could make your own developer from household items. Caffenol is perhaps the most popular – using instant coffee, washing soda, and vitamin C. Caffenol is non-toxic and has long been practiced by photographic alchemists – culminating in the Caffenol Cookbook.
In terms of fixative (fixer) you can make a simple solution using sodium thiosulfate. It’ll take longer than commercial fix, but contains a lot less added chemical nasties. However, the fix will still be full of silver particles after use – and should not be poured down the sink at all costs. Some have had success extracting the silver, by leaving it in a bucket or bottle with steel wool for a week. Or take your spent fix to a local lab, where it can be safely disposed.
And for your stop baths — just use water!
With respect to gelatine, at the moment, no viable alternative for photographic film has been discovered. Big producers like Kodak attest that any plant-based gelatine would be too unstable, making it commercially unrealistic. There has been some success using agar-agar with cyanotype, a photographic print process that is known for its low toxicity, but nothing for photographic film so far. So if you just happen to be an expert in plant-based gelatines, please get in touch!
The Northern Sustainable Darkroom
But to create a truly transformative platform for photography, we have to go beyond these basic material fixes.
Of course, they are hugely important and essential to the movement but without a way to effectively organise and educate other photographers, they would remain as a niche curiosity forever.
Joining the Sustainable Darkroom residency programme, I therefore wrote another research paper – entitled Stare into the Caffenol to Reveal Your Future. In it, I propose an alternative future for analogue photography, based around a network of grassroots darkrooms prioritising and pioneering sustainable methods. These spaces would operate on four core principles, originating with Hannah Fletcher:
REMOVE, RECYCLE, REPURPOSE, REWORK.
Operating on a non-profit, decentralised basis, these spaces would aim to provide a genuine alternative to the mainstream photographic industry. Internalising the entire analogue process, the spaces would aim to eliminate waste and environmental harms, whilst existing as educational resources freely available to the public.
And so, I decided to put this theory into practice
I created the first permanent facility of its kind within the Sustainable Darkroom movement. Based in Leeds, UK and supported by East Street Arts, the Northern Sustainable Darkroom was born.
The Northern Sustainable Darkroom is focused on three main areas, whilst existing as a functioning photographic darkroom:
- Research of sustainable alternatives.
- Project-based access for artists and members of the public.
- Non-profit educational programmes and resources.
For example, 1: researching alternatives to animal gelatine. 2: Micro-residencies to photographers wishing to develop a photo project sustainably using our facilities. 3: Free workshops in home development.
We also have a small gallery space in the works and also hope to exhibit resident photographers’ work to help spread the word about sustainable photography.
A green future for analogue photography
As the threat of the climate crisis grows each day – we must strive for sustainability in all aspects of life. Analogue photography has always been eager to embrace innovation, and with environmentally-conscious alternatives. It should be no different. Now is the time to hold the torch of sustainability high, and let it lead us into a brighter future.
With the darkroom construction nearly complete, I am planning and conducting research for future projects. One major collaborative project is a worldwide plant-based developer index – encouraging photographers to make their own developers from local weeds. As part of this, I am hoping to start a small garden to grow our own plants for testing in the development process.
So if you have any planting beds (or an old bathtub!), and possibly any other gardening materials – then please consider donating them to our project.
And make sure to follow us on Instagram @northernsustainabledarkroom!
Thank you for reading and please do consider sharing your perspectives below.
Edd Carr is a photographer, filmmaker, and researcher from the North York Moors National Park. Previously a dog walker, he now experiments with sustainable alternatives to analogue techniques.