The therapeutic lessons in developing your own film

It's not much of a secret to my friends that I love film photography.

I always carry my cameras with me, and after spending a good chunk of change mailing my film out, I took the logical step of developing my own black and white film at home. It's one of the best decisions I've made, and had some unexpected benefits.

This post isn't a how-to, or a technical review of a developer or film. I learned something else in the process, not about film, but about myself.

The germ of this post came up in therapy, and it really lit up my therapist and I as we dug into it.

A member of the Jesse White Tumbling team performs at the July 3rd Wilmette Independence Day festival (July 3rd, 2017)

A member of the Jesse White Tumbling team performs at the July 3rd Wilmette Independence Day festival (July 3rd, 2017)


Light is the single most important part of photography. I know this is pretty basic, but light is also an important metaphor in life. We talk about sharing light with others, bringing things to light, seeing things in new light.

The opposite of light is, of course, darkness. Film must live a large portion of its life in darkness, being exposed to light in split second moments in the camera. And then it must be protected from further light until we've poured chemicals on it and make it immune (or at least more resistant to) light - that place in which we can finally see what the film captured.

 In the darkness we can find ourselves, darkness is something that we must grow accustomed to as we live. It is not always pleasant, but it is important, and it is inextricably linked to light. Film needs both. We need both.

No going back

Another important feature of the film developing process is that there is no "undo" or do-over. Unlike with digital where we can tweak images and reverse steps, from the moment you've exposed the film, you are now in the process of taking this to its completed, irreversible end. Sounds kind of scary doesn't it?

You carefully place the film in the camera, you take pictures until the roll is used up. Then, you have to break open the film canister (or: you can pull the film out and cut it away from the canister, both have clear connections to birth/hatching). Again, once you've removed the film from the canister, there's no real going back (and you can't "unexpose" a roll of film). 

So you have this film in a  dark place, either in a dark room or in a changing bag where there is no light- you can't even see what you're doing. You are navigating by feel, by memory. You put the invisible film onto a reel and then into a light safe container. Once it's in the light safe container you can then take it out of the bag and pour a series of chemicals into the tank. At each of these steps there is no going back. Developer starts working as soon as it makes contact with the film. You can try to make some tweaks by letting the chemicals work longer or by agitating the film by shaking the tank or moving the film inside- but again, you're just putting English on this process that is irreversibly moving forward.

After you've poured out the developer, used a stop bath (often times this is just immersing the film in water to clean off the developer), you pour in the fixer. After that, the film can be seen in the light light for what it is. That's the moment of truth, especially if it's your first time. I've only developed film a handful of times so far, but it still seems like some kind of a miracle. What should utterly destroy the negative is now not an issue at all, in fact, it's just as important now for the film to be seen as it was for it to be unseen just a few moments before.

I also appreciate that this technique that I'm performing is fundamentally the same process that photographers have been using for over a hundred years. In fact, while there are some basic dos and don'ts, you will probably get usable negatives. But that's like saying if you blow properly into an instrument you'll get a sound, it's not music unless you practice and learn. Every time I repeat the process, I learn, change, and grow.

My dad looking at an exhibit in the Chicago History Museum, March 2017.

My dad looking at an exhibit in the Chicago History Museum, March 2017.