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January 1997 Vol. 12, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Lump in My Shorts: How to Rescue Film

from the January, 1997 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Gross negligence . . . I was guilty as sin. My 16-year-old daughter had handed me her roll of exposed Kodak 35-mm, 200-speed print film while we were out hiking, and I had tucked it into the front pocket of my shorts so that I could drop it off for processing on the way home. The photo shop was closed by the time I got there, so I just headed home and threw all my clothes into the washing machine after yanking my wallet from the back pocket.

After the washer finished its spin cycle, I saw the lump in my shorts and I knew I had blown it. The photos were irreplaceable, of course (aren't all photos?), and it was too late at night to take it anywhere for rush processing.

Delmar's Film Disaster Protocol

Did I panic? Naah. I used to run a darkroom for an electron microscope facility, and I knew a few things about wet emulsion. Here's what I did, and why.

First I put the film canister gently back into cold tap water. I turned the canister upside down several times underwater to get all the air bubbles out of it, but I was very careful not to rotate the spool on the end of the roll. When film is wet, it's very easily scratched.

I left the film canister in the cold tap water for about 30 minutes, then switched it to distilled water for another 30 minutes, rinsed, then immersed it in distilled water again. During the first two rinses, I had boiled the distilled water to drive as much dissolved oxygen out of it as possible, then cooled it in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed jar. I wanted to reduce the chances of oxygen reacting with anything in the film; furthermore, nearly all chemical reactions are slower at low temperatures. I left the jar in the refrigerator overnight.

The next morning, I carried my jar to the lab and told them my sad story. The head tech said that film that had been doused was usually ready for the trash. He had never seen a wet roll come out right. He offered only one option: pre-rinsing the film to remove any unknown contaminants that might be on the roll and then developing it normally. The pre-rinse added ten bucks to the cost and essentially duplicated my overnight soak, but I had face to save, so I agreed.

A couple of hours later, it was all over. The prints from this set of distressed negatives were so good that the head tech asked everyone in the plant to come over and take a look. On nearly all the prints, there was no sign of damage.

Escape from the Maytag Ocean

Those of you who don't carry a camera around on the bottom of the ocean are probably wondering why In Depth is printing this story about trouble in the laundry room. Those who do already know the answer. No matter how careful you are, sooner or later you're going to have to deal with a flooded camera. If the roll in that camera has a once-in-a-lifetime shot (shark chasing a turtle riding on a manta, blue whale in the background), remember this little tale of parental evasion. It's more than worth a try. I escaped the wrath of a teenager. I even felt downright smug when she flipped through the prints and said, "These really look good, don't they?" I didn't even have to 'fess up.

Delmar Mesa

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