Water vs. Chemicals

Chaotic misadventures in film processing

Pete Brook
Mar 31, 2015 · 4 min read

Water provides the building blocks not only for human biology, but for human society. Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization lay between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Virtually every major world city sits beside a major water course. Yet the resource can be ruinous, too. Climate change, rising sea levels, extreme weather systems, droughts and floods all threaten our survival.

These contradictions were on Ajay Malghan’s mind as he sabotaged his developing process with buckets of H2O for the series Collaborations With Nature. By destroying his emulsions with water, he creates captivating visual abstractions.

“Humankind relies on this element for life,” says Malghan. “Water is included in nearly every ritual of our days yet somehow we’re at its mercy. How can something so beautiful and life-giving be so destructive?”

When it comes to photo processing, the destructiveness of water is quite simple. Fragile emulsions of photographic film aren’t made to withstand a soaking before fixing. Water quickly separates the three layers of emulsion from one another cracking and slumping as they go. Only after he’s subjected his positive and negative 35mm films strips to their violent baths does Malghan move onto darkroom printing.

The original photographs themselves are nothing special — ordinary landscapes shot in his local park. The final product, however, are scratchy glimpses of a color-filtered world baked in unfamiliar temperatures.

“I’m in the park early in the day with no one around. I never grow tired of that part of photography,” says Malghan. “The rest is nerve-wracking — watching an image disintegrate because my hand slipped and bumped the tray is extremely frustrating.”

Throughout his experiments, Malghan has standardized the timing in the process to avoid total wash-outs but, in truth, final results depend almost entirely on external factors such as humidity, temperature and the time since the last change of chemicals at the film lab.

Currently, abstraction — especially in photography — is not that fashionable, but Malghan who has bleached and vandalized film in previous projects will not be deterred. He gets a kick out of the three dimensional blistered prints.

Not everyone is so enamored with Malghan’s work. At a recent portfolio review event, Malghan showed a reviewer some images of squished food. The only thing that was obvious was that the thing in the frame wasn’t obvious. The reviewer dismissed the work saying everyone was lazily disrupting the photographic process for the sake of easy visual gags.

“The reviewer grouped all abstract images as one! If there are people out there putting cheeseburgers in enlargers I want to be their friends!” laughs Malghan.

A self-confessed control freak who spent his twenties holding on too tight, Malghan now embraces unpredictability and relinquishes control.

“I force myself out of my comfort zone,” he says. “The older I get the more I realize how little control I have on this planet, so I step back and let things happen.”

The playful underbelly of botched film processing is appealing to Malghan partly due to returning a bit of mystery back into life’s mix.

“In an age of digital perfection and manipulation, these images tread the opposite way and embrace chaos,” says Malghan of his abstractions.

Landscape studies have commonly been used to survey, codify and providing answers, whereas abstract art refuses literal description and category. Collaborations With Nature very simply butts those two opposing forces against one another. It is a point of pride that Malghan has managed to reference the roots of photography and all-the-while abandoning uptight, modern preoccupations such as color correction and dust retouching.

“We’re in an extremely literal society which inundates us with information all the time,” reflects Malghan. “It wouldn’t hurt anyone to leave some of that out and let them think what they want for a moment. Absence of information can be a good thing.”

For now, Collaborations With Nature is still more failure than success, but Malghan wouldn’t have it any other way.

All photos Ajay Malghan

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Pete Brook

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Writer, curator and educator focused on photo, prisons and power. Sacramento, California. www.prisonphotography.org

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