Even before hitting the age of adolescence, Lomographer Quinn Balazs, a.k.a. qbalazs has been shooting and developing his own films. The photographer enjoys the best of both worlds of digital and analogue, and has taken multiple endeavors in photography. One day, Quinn went to an antique shop to find some lenses for his camera, eventually stumbling on the shop dumpster where a leather bag filled with old, undeveloped Panatomic-X films and nitrate-based films. With a total of 87 films rescued, developed, and now under his care, Quinn shares his story about these rolls and his plans for them.
Hi Quinn! How are you lately and how's life as a photographer nowadays?
These days I'm doing fairly well, I feel with the insanity of the outside world, I'm able to cope as well as anyone. Life as a photographer... The one thing the pandemic didn't get in the way of, really, was photography. I ended up in a lot more natural settings than city settings, and that changed the way I saw those natural settings. I find that seeing things through the lens of a camera can be wholly different than just "seeing things". I've tried to make this "new" normal my normal, but not doing a single studio shoot the entirety of the pandemic, which is still ongoing, was rather strange. I've taken every photography class offered by my university, we did lighting design, intro, experiments with light and time. and alternative process, everything but experiments with light and time taught by Sonja Reiger, Experiments in Light and Time taught by Jenny Fine.
May you share with us how you got into film? How did it all start?
From a very early age, I was into film, when I was eleven I started shooting and developing film under the guidance of Micheal Sheehan at Indian Springs School, By the time I was 15 I was shooting and developing at home. I got a DSLR for Christmas the year I turned 11 and my mother asked Micheal if he'd give me lessons. The very first thing he said to me still resonates with me, he said something to the effect of "You can't do digital first. That's a mistake I'm not going to let you make." So, really it all started there, next time, I brought the film camera I still use, my father's Canon AE-1, he showed me how to load it and operate manual aperture settings and shutter speeds. I was entranced with this that I immediately started shooting. The summer before the pandemic, I went to Scotland (could have brought a DSLR) and only brought my 35 mm film camera and enough Ilford HP5+ to get me through. I've grown up on a weird mix of analogue (Canon AE-1) and digital. This all started because I was curious as to what things on my digital camera meant, and my very wise teacher introduced me to the film bug. Which has latched on and kept me shooting and developing at home for the last 14 years.
Recently you uploaded some albums of your film rescue of some Panatomic-X films. May you recall with us how your day went by when you stumbled upon them?
It was a pretty ordinary day, I went to Downtown Birmingham, Al, and grabbed a beer at a local brewery. Just by chance, I stopped into What's on 2nd? Which is an antique and knickknack store, looking for not too badly scratched up lenses for the Canon AE-1. They always have a discard pile, stuff that is going to the dumpster, they also of course have the literal dumpster. I was looking through the (large) seemingly random pile of discards I had almost reached the bottom when I found a beautiful leather bag, and it was heavy... I was intrigued, I opened the bag and found it full of aluminum canisters, and in each canister a roll of shot but undeveloped Panatomic-X film. 87 rolls in total, 82 rolls of Panatomic-X, and 5 rolls of old Nitrate based film. I asked the guy running the shop for a price, he said, “I don't know, we were just going to toss it because nobody develops film anymore”, I gave him 8 bucks because that's what I had in my pocket, forgot I came there looking for lenses and took my discovery home.
I laughed a bit on the way home at the “nobody develops film anymore” line. When I got home, I took everything out of the bag, took the cartridges out of the canisters (attempted) to arrange them by age. Then I thought for a moment about developers, I thought about D-76, the old standby. Realized it wouldn't be the best choice, due to the speed of the film 32 ISO! The slowest thing I've ever dealt with. Instead of mixing up D-76, I mixed a batch of ilfosol 3, and dropped the first roll. I was elated by the end of that first day when the first roll had an image, not only an image, but a well-developed image. That ended the first day and I went to bed pleased with myself.
Were there any challenges you faced, or minor hiccups when attempting to develop/rescue the films?
There were some minor issues in development, due to the age of the film, I developed it at half of the box speed 16 iso, which meant I had to do all the conversions and math and a little bit of guesswork as there was no precedent for film that slow in Ilfosol 3. I also had the issue of the developer (Slightly) overdeveloping the film. After the first roll I corrected that by adding 1.125mg of Potassium Iodide per 500ml of the developer. Potassium Iodide is a reducer and reduces the capability of the developer to develop. The math is quite complex and involves chemical formulaic equations, but I discerned on the second day of this project that I could add 1.125mg of KI to each 500ml of the developer to cut the developer by 1/6th in power.
The other big hiccup I had, was initially, for the first roll I had used fix without hardener, which of course didn't work because the film was too old to have a built-in hardener. So, for the first roll, the emulsion just scraped right off. I went and for the second roll mixed up Kodak Rapid with Hardener.
I didn't, due to film cartridges not being light tight over the period of decades, get images out of every frame, some were washed out due to light bleed. But the majority survived. I did notice some grain in the images developed using Ilfosol-3 and about a quarter through the project I swapped to Acufine as an ultra-fine grain, high acutance developer, and It's served well. I still add 1.125mg of KI per 500ml of developer.
What's your plan for the films next?
What are my plans for the films next... That is a very good question. If I could find the estate they belonged to, I'd love to reunite them and their scans with those they belong to. In light of that being difficult, the person at the store had no details beyond them being found at an estate sale, I'll keep the negatives in archival storage in a high nitrogen environment as I do with my own negatives. From the beginning of this process and will until the end, I intend to continue posting the images of the people captured in these memories on local history groups on Facebook, hoping someone recognizes someone in an image and can point me in the right direction to getting these negatives back where they belong. And I firmly think that back where they belong is back with the estate of the surviving members of the family.
You mentioned the films may date back from the '80s, or '40s. Have you drawn some assumptions about who might have owned these photos, or what kind of photographer/person the original owner of the films was?
Yes, I have every Panatomic-X cartridge design from the introduction design in 1940 to the end of use design in 1987. The photos span that distance, I also have several (not many) rolls marked Super-X Nitrate, which is probably the oldest and technique-wise the strangest films I've ever worked with. Quickly, with nitrate it can literally burst into flame, has to be developed without acids or bases or you might get a fire, and I processed all nitrate outside, after loading inside, with a chemical fire extinguisher at the ready.
I have drawn some conclusions about those who owned and shot this film. They were relatively affluent, traveled the world in the 50s and 60s, when air travel was for the wealthy, and as of the photos of them on the plane, let it be said, they were not in coach. Whoever shot these was an amateur photographer, but a darn good amateur, something akin to how I think about myself, an amateur, but an amateur who knows how to properly gauge and expose an image to get the best possible end result. This person is a mother/father, there are sufficient pictures of children for me to draw that conclusion. While they may be wealthy, they don't necessarily live that way in every regard. The house is modest, and around the US, they took more trips in various campers than they flew.
This photographer liked the outdoors, there are a plethora of photographs taken out in nature, but there's also a fixation on architecture, something that this individual and I share. These negatives did not come from Alabama, which I can say for sure. There are no notable shots of any prominent architecture/monument in this state. How they got here then, just deepens the mystery I'm trying to solve.
Please share with us, have you learned or gained some insights about this project?
I have gained tremendous insight into how to handle older films, I'd never attempted anything like this before. I have also gained insight into the people depicted, while above I wasn't able to say much, there's a feeling about some of these shots that just draw you in. I've grown to be more patient with film, sometimes it needs a little extra care (like the potassium iodide), or perhaps a little less agitation than normal. I have gained additional insight to the actual chemistry involved in developing film. I can — with limited capacity — see through the eyes of the person taking the picture, enter into their world and see it through their lens, much like when I put a photograph out, I intend on the viewer to be able to enter just a tiny bit of my world, see things my way for as long as they're looking at the image. I think I can do the same with these images, entering just a little bit of their world. seeing things through the lens of another photographer.
What's next for Quinn?
How about a Hasselblad X1D II 50C... That's going to be my next digital camera. and I'll rock the AE-1 still, of course. Probably rock the AE-1 until I can't repair it or film vanishes, whichever comes first. I've had work in a juried show, would love to do that again. Don't know if I can, not being in the Art department at college... Hope I can, I really enjoyed being part of the juried show. I'm still working tirelessly on developing these rolls, I bought an 8 reel paterson tank to speed things up. I'm going into the field of history, but that will not alter my commitment to photography and in particular my commitment to film photography.
Film won't die if we don't let it die. At least, I hope that's the case. I am, as Micheal would say, "a professional amateur." One thing is clear, I'll keep on shooting both digital and analog wherever this career takes me. I've developed film in a closet before and all these rolls are being developed in the bathroom in my basement. I shot a series on a Ford Edsel in Portra 160 that I'd like to see in a gallery somewhere. But really, I don't know what's next besides a move to VA after graduating. I find this lack of knowing both anxiety-provoking and exciting. I have a job lined up, I have an assistance animal. Her name is Grace, she's been to two years of high school and all of college with me, I've just gotten permission to bring her to work with me, so that takes a little of the unknown out of the picture.
Check out Quinn’s LomoHome for more updates on the film rescue and his other works!