Life experience and documentation

Down at Dow’s, quite often I come across things to do with photography.

Not just film packets, which you’d expect, but items such as contact print frames, developing trays, and even some very old photographic developing powders


I’ve even found an old 35mm film camera in a drawer which might have belonged to one of the pharmacists or an assistant.


We can date it to the 1950’s or just possibly the early 1960’s as Neoca went bankrupt and disappeared in 1960.

In fact there’s enough photographic bits and pieces shoved in drawers to suggest that someone working at the pharmacy was an amateur photographer who was interested enough in photography to do their own developing and printing – normally a chemist offering a film processing service would send customers’ exposed films off to a big commercial specialist processing facility, such as Kodak’s lab in Burnley.

And this was how most people had their films processed and printed.

However, especially for black and white photography, the whole developing and printing process was quite open. It was easy enough to process your own films and make your own prints. Colour processing was rather more complicated, and while doable at home, you needed more in the way of specialist equipment and a dedicated lab space.
In comparison, black and white processing was simple enough to do at home, and there was enough tolerance in the process to allow a bit of inaccuracy. You could buy home use developers and fixers over the counter, and all you then needed was a measuring cylinder or two, a stopwatch, and a developing tank, plus a change bag – basically an opaque bag in which one opened the film cassette and spooled the film into the developing tank spool, and then closed up the light proof tank.

You then followed the bouncing ball, adding chemicals in the correct order and fifteen minutes or so later you had a set of negatives.

How do I know this?

Because I’ve been there.

As a teenager in the early seventies, I became interested in the social history of trains. Still am, truth be told.

And around where I lived, there were quite a few abandoned train lines and railway stations and I used to ride my bicycle out to them to photograph and document them using my trusty Regula Sprint camera.

Some of the pictures I took, I took on colour slide film, and that was too complicated to process at home, and anyway most of the over the counter brands included the cost of processing in the price.

But I also took a lot of black and white photographs, most of which have sadly disappeared.

By the time I’m writing about colour photography had become the norm, but the equipment to do home black and white developing and printing was readily available second hand, and most good camera shops would sell you the processing chemicals, making doing it yourself a very cost effective proposition.

And that’s exactly what I did. I acquired the equipment, including an enlarger to blow up images to a larger and more usable size, taught myself how to process and print black and white photographs, and even rolled my own film cassettes using bulk black and white film from eastern Europe and recycled empty film cassettes – again some of the more specialist camera shops would happily sell you a bag of empty cassettes for something fairly nominal – I think they sort of assumed that you’d come back and buy chemicals and photographic paper from them, and perhaps eventually a more expensive camera.

And then, of course, life changed and I no longer had time to do my own developing and printing, and by the time I might have had the leisure to start over, photography was going digital.

Since the I’ve dabbled in retro photography, but to be honest, it’s only been dabbling.

But strangely, while documenting at Dow’s I’ve found what could be described as irrelevant knowledge useful.

After all no one under the age of forty probably remembers pre digital photography, and amateur developing and printing was always very much a minority sport – the people who did it were either oddballs like me, art students who did it as part of their course, and some old school press photographers, meaning the knowledge was probably not that widely spread to start with.

And suddenly, years later, being able to recognise the equipment, knowing about film brands and film sizes, has suddenly been very helpful in identifying and documenting items.


About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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