So what do you do when you find an old roll of black & white film? A roll that has sat, exposed but unprocessed, for years, for decades.
You could throw it away. But that would be a dumb thing to do. There is another option.
Back in July 1991, my old pal TSH (a regular Tracking the Light reader) and I made an epic two and half week trip across the American West.
On that trip I exposed dozens of rolls of Kodachrome 25 slide film using my Nikon F3T. But I also brought my Leica M2, and exposed a few rolls of black & white film.
While I processed some of the black & white shortly after the trip, for reasons I can’t justify, two rolls of Ilford FP4 remained unprocessed.
These have followed me through the years. I had them so long that I’d forgotten when I’d exposed them. They were mixed in a bag with other unexposed film.
Several years ago, I worked out a special process for getting good results from old black & white film. I’ve processed rolls up to 40 years after exposure and found presentable images on them.
Although the latent image remains in the film’s silver halide crystals for decades, simply processing the film in the ordinary fashion won’t yield desirable results.
I’ve found it necessary to work with multiple stage development, which requires unusually long process times. Key to making this work is a carefully measured antifogging solution. I will detail this process in future posts.
On June 14, 1993, the world’s largest operating steam and diesel locomotives worked together on the Oregon Trail Special. Brian Jennison and I photographed these massive machines at Quartz on their ascent of Union Pacific Encina Hill east of Baker City, Oregon.
It was a fresh clear morning in Oregon. I was photographing along the Oregon Trunk on advice of Brian Rutherford. This route was jointly used by Burlington Northern and Union Pacific and traversed some stunning scenery.
Having hiked into a choice location in Trout Creek Canyon, I was rewarded with a Burlington Northern grain train in nice light.
I was impressed by the solid consist of freshly painted company hoppers.
The next day, Burlington Northern and Santa Fe announced merger. Although a year of merger machinations and approval processes would entail before BN+SF was consummated, it was the end of an era for BN (and Santa Fe).
Southern Pacific’s streamlined Daylight was one of the great classic American trains. It was so popular that a recreation of the train was assembled in the 1980s using traditional equipment, including one of the last surviving SP 4-8-4s, the often photographed engine 4449.
In April 1991, I was traveling with Brian Jennison and J.D. Schmid in pursuit of various steam locomotives converging on Sacramento, California for RailFair 1991. Earlier in the week we’d made images of Union Pacific’s 844 and 3985 working former Western Pacific lines.
We’d driven overnight to this location just north of the California-Oregon state line. While I’d photographed SP lines in Oregon the previous year, Worden was new to me. The location was selected for the sweeping curve on an upgrade, which was hoped to produce a bit smoke. The location was selected for the sweeping curve on an upgrade, which was hoped to produce a bit smoke.
We knew that 4449 was on its way. I was fascinated. While I was very familiar with SP’s magnificent class Gs4 ‘Golden State’ 4-8-4s, having often seen them in photographs and magazines, this was my first experience with the engine in person.
By the time the train came into view, at least a dozen photographers were on site. A helicopter had landed on the far side of the tracks with video crew on board. This was more than just a train, it was an event!
I positioned my Nikon F3T with f4 200mm lens on my 3021 Bogen tripod loaded with Kodachrome 25. I also made exposures my Leica M2 handheld.
I made a selection of images as the train roared by. My favorite is this view, which has been various reproduced in books and other publications.
I deliberately broke a variety of conventions in the composition. Traditional steam photographers might shake their heads in dismay. I’m positioned on the ‘dark side’ of the tracks. I’m using a long telephoto lens. Instead of a centered view, I’ve positioned the train toward the left side of the frame.
Probably the most unusual thing was with my focus point. Instead of setting the focus on the front of the locomotive, I aimed it more toward the tail car. The combined result of the compositional effects is a peculiar tension that draws the eye toward the back of the train and to the scene, despite the dominance and drama of the engine.
Unhappy with this? Well, I also made a rather straightforward 50mm view. And, if that’s not good enough, did I mention the other dozen or so photographers?
Southern Pacific Gs4 4449 in the classic Daylight livery works railroad-direction west near Worden, Oregon in April 1991. Exposed on Kodachrome 25 slide film. Exposure calculated manually using a Sekonic Studio Deluxe handheld photocell.
Between 1990 and 1992, I made a series of trips to Southern Pacific’s Siskiyou Line in northern California and south-central Oregon. This fantastic stretch of railroad was characterized by exceptionally steep grades, sinuous alignments, stunning scenery and ancient lower-quadrant semaphore signaling. As a signal enthusiast, I was fascinated by the large numbers of active Union Switch & Signal two-position semaphores used in automatic block service. While these vintage signals could be found elsewhere on SP’s system, there was no greater concentration than on the Siskiyou in Oregon. Another attraction were SP’s collection of classic Electro-Motive diesels, including 1950s-era SD9s (technically SD9E after overhaul) and my favorite 1960s/1970s-era SD45/SD45T-2s famed for their powerful 20 cylinder 645 engine.
At the time I was in a photographic transition: I had just discovered the virtues of the Nikon F3, while still working with my old staple tool, a classic Leica M2 range-finder. This moment of transition and discovery of Nikon’s single lens reflex (SLR) system made my early Siskiyou trips especially exciting. There’s nothing better than have a new tool in a new place! The flexibility, functionality, and ease of use of the F3 SLR was a revelation. Everywhere I turned I saw new photo possibilities! Among the lenses I played with was a Nikkor 35mm PC ‘shift’ lens that allowed adjustments with the front element to correct for linear distortion often associated with wide angle lenses—a tool valuable for keeping semaphore masts parallel to the film plane, and thus avoiding the effect of them visually ‘falling away’ when photographed relatively close. And fun for making skies more dramatic.
More than twenty years later, I still work with my F3T occasionally, as I find it’s strengths are not afforded in any other system. With more than 2,000 rolls through its body, and working on shutter number 3, this old work horse owes me nothing. Like SP’s SD9s, the F3 is tool that has its place, long after more modern and more powerful machines have been acquired to supplant it!
My visits were well-timed too! SP’s operations of the Siskiyou route were about to wind down. I caught the last gasp of big-time railroading on what had once been SP’s primary route to Oregon, but which had been supplanted more than 60-years earlier by the Cascade route’s Natron Cutoff via Klamath Falls and Cascade Summit. All of my images were exposed with Kodachrome film, primarily K25 (ISO 25). I’ve scanned my images using a Epson V600 flatbed and scaled and optimized the scans for digital display using Adobe Photoshop.