Nineteen ninety-nine. I returned home for a long weekend part-way through the Army trade photographer’s course at RAF Cosford near Wolverhampton. At five the morning after arriving back in the North East, I was climbing up the narrow stone steps which wound their way up Peel Crag in Northumberland. At the first twist, I turned back to look out at the view across the rolling hills. The sun was just pushing it’s way above the horizon, the first stray rays of light began to bathe part of Hadrian’s Wall which sat neatly in a dip in the landscape before me.
Quickly, methodically I unfolded my tripod and found a secure platform for it among the bracken and ancient stones. The Hassleblad 500CM that was in a bag slung over my shoulder, was loaded with a roll of Ilford PAN F 50 black and white film. I secured the camera to the tripod and quickly composed the image that I had been thinking of for days. My Weston light meter reliably informed me of the correct exposure. I quickly calculated adjustments for the zone system and dialled the aperture and shutter speeds into the wide angle lens. I screwed the cable release into the shutter button and removed the dark-slide.
I stared down into the waist level finder on the camera, waiting. With each moment more light pierced the horizon until the valley and the wall and the crag were all bathed in warmth. Gold enveloped the valley casting long shadows from the trees and stone walls.
Taking a deep breath I released the shutter. The slow clunk, click of the leaf shutter opening and closing, sounded deafeningly loud. I wound on the film, recomposed ever so slightly and took a few more shots, but I knew already that first image was one that would change everything for me.
Monday morning and I was in the darkroom early with my tight rolls of one twenty film. I carefully, meticulously mixed the chemicals, checked temperatures, agitated the black plastic cylinder. The process seemed to take longer than it had before. After the final rinse of water and whetting agent, I carefully unsealed the container and unwound the thin strips of plastic from their reels. I could see immediately that they were good negatives, low contrast, grey, full of detail, full of excitement. I waited impatiently as the negatives hung in a drying cabinet.
After what seemed to be an eternity, I was able to slide that first negative into the holder. A grey blurry image was projected onto the baseboard as I switched on the lamp. There was apprehension as I focussed the enlarger lens. The image came into focus. It was sharp from front to back, crisp and clear and the entire scene was filled with detail. A quick test print gave me an exposure of twenty seconds. I slipped the paper into the developer and watched as the image began to appear under the red darkroom lights.
The image printed perfectly at grade two. Detail in every corner, every shadow and highlight. A perfect range of tones. It was the best image I had created up to that point. I had been taking photographs for years, but suddenly everything had fallen into place. All of the terminology and technique and theory had finally come together. I knew that I was no longer just taking photographs, I was now creating beautiful images.
Almost sixteen years later and I find myself on the side of the same crag, looking down onto the same view that had been in that image. The conditions were very similar, warm low light saturating colours, casting long velvety shadows. This time though the wind was blowing hard and cold and in the distance the hills were covered in a fine dusting of February snow. No roll film this time, no film at all. I composed a similar shot to that one years ago, this time with a Nikon digital SLR. This time accompanied by my wife, who all those years ago would not have wanted to climb up a hill in the cold.
Again as the shutter clicked something fell into place. There was a reminder of the excitement I had for photography all those years ago, perhaps a spark of that enthusiasm returning. Ten minutes later, we were being bombarded by a blizzard and decided to head home.
It was the first time in a long while I have spent so long editing. It was the first time that I was particularly interested. Just as it had been sixteen years earlier, I spent hours in my darkroom, albeit a digital one, watching as gradually with each slider pushed and each button pressed the images that I wanted appeared.