I’ve just been going through all my surviving original photographic material which was NOT among the stuff lost in our garage fire of January 2022 in Svaneti. Soon after the fire, I remembered a large plastic storage box full of negatives and slides which had perished utterly. But then this small suitcase of other work appeared in our house, miraculously reminding me that the loss had not been total.
True, all but maybe a single roll of Svaneti negatives burnt up. But much of these, too, had been scanned already, and the scans survive on various hard drives. (A set of which I MUST now move to a rented safety deposit box in Tbilisi, physically distancing them from the other set, which I keep here at home. Best practices for copies of valuable documents!)
Going through what was in this suitcase today, I was amazed at what negatives, slides and prints I still do have. Most of this work is from the UK and Canada; the Zimbabwe, Venice and Indonesia negatives are also gone, while scans of them again survive. So it’s very much a mixup.
Three slides of the August 1991 coup attempt against President Gorbachev surfaced; these I had not even remembered, and they’re not the most important ones, but they are something. A very thin original monochrome negative of my musical partner playing guitar in August 1992 reappeared. And many other less precious but still significant rolls, from my early years in Georgia (1999 through about 2004).
Having recently been introduced to a young man who is one of Georgia’s up and coming analog photographers, I now have a connection to someone with that vital space, a darkroom. Here is where negatives are printed, under a deep red safelight for black and white (the paper is unaffected by this light) or, much harder to accomplish, in total darkness for color. He seems to be working chiefly in black and white.
You can also do other, more unusual things with photographic paper. Photograms are one technique. You put objects, ranging from translucent to opaque, between the enlarger’s light source and the paper, and exposing it gives a negative on the paper. You can even project such photograms by putting something like a leaf skeleton, a feather or a thin flower right in the 35mm negative holder, and focusing the light onto the paper. Man Ray was a famous exemplar of this technique nearly a century ago.
Or, if you briefly turn on the full room light part-way through developing your paper in its first chemical bath, this somewhat randomly reverses half the paper’s tones. This is called the Sabattier effect, or less correctly solarization. Results vary from print to print, but some of my very favorite pieces are ones I have made this way, using negatives now lost. At least I can scan the prints, and make digital copies of them this way.
We are only three years away from the bicentennial of the birth of photography, which was in 1826 in France. This should be a huge event: it deserves to be. From those humble beginnings we have moved to stable black and white negatives; color negatives and slides; the miniaturization and mass-production of cameras making photography (from the Greek for “light-painting”) available for the masses. And then to digital photography; computational photography being used in smartphones; and now images which are being made more and more by AI interpreting text prompts, getting more and more as photographically realistic as photos themselves. Each leap mostly unimaginable from the perspective of those before it.
I seem to have come by my own interest in photography genetically: my great-great-great-great grandmother on my father’s mother’s side was the great Julia Margaret Cameron, Britain’s most famous woman photographer of the 19th century. Given a box camera when already in her 60s, she exposed its hand-coated glass negatives for 2-3 minutes each to give portraits of many of her day’s famous people, of whom the most well-known is Charles Darwin. Imagine the command: “Stay still, don’t even BLINK, for three minutes!” I have it easy…
BLOG by Tony Hanmer
Tony Hanmer has lived in Georgia since 1999, in Svaneti since 2007, and been a weekly writer and photographer for GT since early 2011. He runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with nearly 2000 members, at www.facebook.com/groups/SvanetiRenaissance/
He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri: www.facebook.com/hanmer.house.svaneti