Developing Film With Beer and Other Nostalgia

I had been working at a liquor store to get away from myself and all the photography things I knew well. The extra money was nice, however, my photography burnout had my creativity hostage and didn’t seem to have an end anytime soon. So when Dogfish Head announced their Super 8 Beer and the claim that you could develop film in it, I had to try it. Not actually develop film in it — hell no! I’ve been digital for twenty years and a film cameras’ place was on the shelf for decoration and memories.

The first can of Super 8 reminded me of my time in college and the adventures of the 10th floor. I remember wanting to coax the underclassmen to drink the developer. The plan was to switch the Kodak measuring beaker with Dektol for a shot of vodka however I never could convince the other upperclassmen to go along with it.

While drinking the second can, a little voice from the shelf started to call my name. It was the Rolleiflex 2.8E. The beer wasn’t that strong but the character and charm from a Rollei is.

By the third can of Super 8, I was no longer in control of this project the Rollei mystique was in full swing. I pictured the work of Diane Arbus, and how it would perfectly suit the characters at the liquor store. I could develop Kodak Tri-X film in the Dogfish Head Super 8 beer at home and scan the negatives into the computer since my Besseler 45MXT was currently propping up a shelf in the basement. Lastly, I would print the photos out on Hahnemühle Fine Art Baryta paper to enhance that classic black and white look.

Clearly, I should have eaten something before I started drinking.

I was going to run a roll of film through a camera that has sat for nearly 20 years? Try to mimic the work of one of the masters while neglecting to consider that I HATE TAKING PICTURES OF PEOPLE? Develop this film in beer? BEER? There was no way in hell that I was going to attempt this crazy project no matter how those twin lenses stared at me. So I ordered the supplies from B&H before my buzz wore off and that was that.

So I brought my supplies into work and explained my idea. My manager loved it, she gave me free range to take pictures in the store as long as it didn’t interfere with blah blah blah normal manager business-speak stuff. Unfortunately, she was my last hope to get out of this.

Now, I’ve been very fortunate to shoot with hundreds of cameras from the late 1800s to digital large format scanning backs. I never believed that the camera made much difference, especially since no matter how hard I try, all of my photos look like John photos. This, my friend, was like a possession. Seriously! Never underestimate the will of a 60-year-old Rolleiflex camera.

Honestly, I thought of the concept and admired Diane Arbus’ work, and came up with this plan but had no idea on how to approach my friends to capture their character. So, I just handed them the camera and the Rollei took over from there.

They would always look for the screen on the back and I had to explain that that technology wasn’t around in the late 1950s. They would freak out a little that I trusted them with this “treasure” and wanted to hand the camera back. I just wouldn’t accept it until I showed them how to focus and compose. They would hand it back, I would check the exposure, focus, and press the release. That’s it.

The developing experience was a little more challenging. I really had to dust some of the cobwebs out of my mind to get this to work. Followed the directions on the first roll but the images were so faint that they were unusable.

Luckily my obsessive-compulsive nature kicked in and I ran through all the variables then tweaked the numbers until it made sense. It was really a great experience to think again without looking at the screen and saying whoops. I also forgot about the awfully wonderful smell of fixer and how it lingers on your hands for days.

The last part of the project and the most important was the printing. A photograph is not finished until it’s printed. It’s an art form that is being forgotten and we loose so much for letting it go. It’s how photographers communicate with others, and I can’t relay the joy I saw in my friends’ eyes when I handed them a 16×16 inch print of themselves. Somehow a 1×1 inch Instagram picture on the phone just doesn’t compare.

The best gift you can give someone is a photograph you have worked from start to finish. It’s like really seeing how beautiful someone is and trying to reproduce it so they can see how beautiful they are in your eyes. For that kind of passion, only the best paper will do.

For this project, I chose the Hahnemühle Fine Art Baryta for its gorgeous qualities that never let you down. It’s the closest paper I’ve seen to the classic Black and White Fiber-Based papers and just glows when the light hits it. There is this depth to your image like your subject is just waiting to be discovered by the viewer. It’s one of my best voices when I speak.

People always ask me “What is the point of printing photographs in a digital world?“ and I think of these beautiful Hahnemühle Fine Art Baryta prints now hanging in my office casually thumbtacked to the wall.

I look at Pete’s photo and I remember how I always looked forward to the days we worked together, our crazy talks and that long-running joke about date night. I remember the day he left for another store and I tearfully joked that at least I got to keep Parker in the divorce.

Looking at Parker’s photo I remember the day he left and eventually I think about my last day at the liquor store. It’s that Baryta glow that gets me, similar to those nostalgic teary eyes that come with fond memories. It enhances their portraits and allows their charming shenanigans to console me on my lonely days.

They are my printed memories of times and people I cherish and don’t want to let go. I think; how can I NOT print my images, my memories, and my moments especially in a digital world. Social media can be great for the passing pick-me-up. But the “like” or “heart” one day and forgotten the next can be cruel. I’m easily overwhelmed by the many who don’t have the time or the depth to be nothing more than a fading memory.

With my prints, I just need to look at Christine sitting on her beer throne to feel that comforting thought that she’s still there, waiting for the next time I visit. Even if is only in the Edward Hopper liquor store painting in my memories.

About the author: John Granata has a long 28 year storied history with photography and currently teaches printing classes at Richard Strongberg’s Chicago Photography Classes in Chicago, Illinois. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors. He presents a unique argument with an odd mix of technical and emotional reasons why printing is essential to every photographer and has a strong passion to create prints that speak to the viewer. Past projects include photographs taken and processed with that “John” look with several unique alternative printing methods and materials. He has a website that surely needs to be updated and possibly reworked. Currently, he is on hiatus from actively working photographically but is telling stories about past projects in order to rediscover his vision for new ones.

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