Reveling in chemicals



3 minutes reading

I started photography with the Nikon that went to the moon. Not literally the one they brought up there, but it was the first thing that the guy from the used equipment floor at B&H told me when he handed me my F2 : "This camera is so sturdy, they took it to the moon". (I've been flaunting that ever since, but without any explanation, so it's possible that many people think my camera went into space.)

The mechanics of photography fascinate me. The weight of my camera's metal body resting in my hand makes me feel somewhat bionic, and there is nothing I love more than a loud shutter - the clunks, whispers, and hisses that announce something momentous just happened. I imagine the cogs turning and the curtains opening to let in the light; and if I close my eyes, I feel them shut again like a guillotine, the film rewinding against my palm. 

But it's only when I first attended a darkroom class at the International Center of Photography in New York that I understood where it all came from. When the lights went out and I dipped my fingers in the cold chemicals, I reveled in their pungent smell like that of a long lost lover. My heart was pouncing out of my chest, and for a second I thought maybe I was high on developer. I was completely taken by the magic of the glowing red moment - my first picture appeared, and along with it came the memory, the one that had kept my chest constricted all along. 

I was 7 years old, and my cousin had just died. It was winter and the night had fallen early. Our house was heavy with grief, and my mother had gone to bed long ago. My father knocked on my door, and whispered to follow him quietly. Down to the basement, where we rummaged through boxes until we found an old craft envelope filled with pictures and negatives. From a battered suitcase he pulled out a weird metal contraption that he assembled on his work station, cleaning pieces of glass and aligning rulers. I had no idea what was going on, but it was mesmerising.

When he pushed me up to the ceiling in his arms, I unscrewed the lightbulb and replaced it with a red one. He sent me back to the kitchen to clean out my cat's litter box - who knew she'd been peeing in the tub for the developer all these years? We pored through negatives until we found the perfect portrait. It was an adventure, it was a secret. I adored every minute of it. He explained the chemistry of photography, dipped my small hands in the cold sticky liquids, and stood me up on a chair to help me pull focus. And when we got to the point where bedtime was a long forgotten notion, I finally saw my cousin's smiling face appear on the glossy paper. 

20 years later, watching my first medium format negative become a photograph, I realised; for all his speeches about "finding a real job", I am really there because of him. It was him, my father, who instilled in me the reverence for the beauty of photographic equipment; who inspired my fascination for the magic of the entire process; and especially, who showed me the incredible power held by the simple, immortal image of someone you love.

Photo by Marie-Charlotte Pezé (