This is What Happens When You Zap Exposed Film with Static Electricity

Our minds are so rarely silent. For those of us with anxiety disorders, the noise is constant. From what we’ll cook for dinner to the specifics of how our lives will end, there’s no shortage of things to worry about. But how does the creative mind function amid all this static?

In my self-portrait series, Static, I explored this question by intentionally shocking 4×5 film with static electricity, creating double exposures with random patterns and shapes of light. 

The static can’t be controlled or shaped. Shocking the film means giving up creative control over the final image, knowing many sheets will be lost in the process. Yet the static is also magic, allowing us a glimpse at invisible emotions and abstract concepts. I’m particularly interested in how the sparks show the intersection of creativity and anxiety.

The process requires a fair amount of risk, from wrecking expensive film to getting a few shocks. To make one of these self-portraits, I start with a general idea and also the knowledge that the end result will probably look very little like what I’m envisioning. Self-portraits are like that anyway: you need to be ready to be vulnerable and give up some control.

First, I set up a background next to a big window. I take a meter reading and make the photo – usually four sheets of 4×5 film at each session. This gives me four chances to make it work. I shoot a Zone VI 4×5 Classic Field Camera with a Schneider Xenar 150mm f/3.5 lens from 1928. All images are natural light, all shot on Ilford Ortho Plus 4×5 sheet film.

After I make the self-portrait, it’s time to wreck some perfectly good film! As most film photographers know, static during development is something film manufacturers and developers try to avoid. A spark can really mess up an otherwise great photo. But in this case, I need strong sparks to create the effect I want.

I use a Wimshurst machine, a static generator designed in the 1880s that is now a fixture in many science classrooms. It has a big crank you turn with one hand. As it builds up a charge, sparks leap between two metal spheres. If you put your hand in there, you’ll get a zap, but it’s not going to kill you.

In the darkroom, under red safelight, I use a rubber glove to hold each sheet of orthochromatic 4×5 film between the two metal spheres. Instead of jumping directly from one sphere to the other, the sparks need to go through the film. When they do, they expose a pattern on it.

I have very little control over the sparks. A sudden crack makes a lightning shape, but it doesn’t always happen where you want. If you get the film wet first, the sparks are tiny stars and the emulsion gets a little streaky. If you shock for a long time in one spot, you might get a fireball.

However, even when you try to control it, you don’t get to pick what the static will do. It might create a cool flare or an amazing effect, but it can just as easily completely obliterate the image or overexpose the whole thing. There’s a lot of luck involved, and making photos like this requires openness to failure. It’s all about experimentation.

Finally, it’s time to develop. I use Ilford Ilfotec DD-X for this. When the film comes out of the final rinse, I get to find out if I wasted a few hours and a few dollars or if I managed to make something cool. It’s always a surprise!

What I love about this process is the way the sparks can show emotion and unseen thoughts. It’s a way to make invisible things visible. That usually invisible spark is what makes a portrait or self-portrait powerful, and seeing it manifested this way is nothing short of exhilarating.

About the author: Kate Miller-Wilson is a Minnesota-based fine art photographer and writer who works primarily in large format film. You can see more of Kate’s work on her Instagram or on her website.

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