Philosophy & Reflections

Northern Sustainable Darkroom: Helping Analogue Go Green – By Edd Carr

January 17, 2021

When you think of analogue photography – certain things come to mind. The beautiful dance of grain, the methodical snap of a 1960s shutter, and the red light of a still darkroom at night. But one thing that might not emerge is the environment. And more specifically – the impact of analogue photography.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock – you’ll have probably seen the photos of what our digital addiction is doing to the planet. Endless dumping grounds of e-waste, as far as the eye can see. Local residents stumble about stripping the gold, as if survivors of some smartphone-infused tornado.

So when seeing these images, it’s easy to think that analogue photography – which often relies on an economy of recycled tech – is the yang to digital’s yin. And that’s true, to an extent. Analogue photographers aren’t beholden to yearly kit updates, instead scouring eBay for their favourite retro finds. And with analogue as a much more physical practice, photographers are more mindful of their consumption – putting thought into every shot.

But behind the irreplaceable film-look that we all know and love, are a number of issues that may give you some ecological food for thought.

Going Green – What are the Alternatives?

First up, is one that should be obvious to any that have delved into the murky real of home developing – chemicals. It doesn’t take a darkroom genius to see that your standard chemical set isn’t exactly fit for human consumption. In fact, all you have to do is read the label to know that these chemicals aren’t to be messed with, containing a variety of nasties that can be harmful to health if handled improperly.

Whilst most darkroom aficionados are able to minimize these risks through proper use, other species don’t have much of a choice when they are poured down the sink and mingle with water systems. Although proper disposal is legally enforced and encouraged – photochemical waste was a huge environmental issue when analogue was at its height. And with analogue once again growing in popularity, the risks to the natural world inevitably increase.

To counteract this, an entire subculture of making home-made chemicals has arisen. Caffenol is the most popular, made from instant coffee and a few other household ingredients. Despite its unholy stench – caffenol develops black and white film to the same standard as any professional developer. And what’s more – its sustainable, and super cheap to make! So much so, that there exists an entire ‘Caffenol Cookbook’, with information and recipes for all different types of films.

Trees atop Cliff Rigg Quarry, North Yorkshire. Shot with a plastic lens using bulk stock, and then developed in caffenol. © Edd Carr

For fixative – pioneering photographers have had success using iodized salt mixed with water. But if this sounds like too much of a risk, acid-free fixatives are available from certain companies. However, the fix will still be full of silver particles after use – and should not be poured down the sink at all costs. Some have had success extracting the silver, by leaving it in a bucket or bottle with steel wool for a week. Or take your spent fix to a local lab, where it can be safely disposed. And for your stop baths – just use water!

But beyond chemicals, there exist a few other impacts to be considered. Waste from used rolls of film can be countered by purchasing a bulk loader, to make your own rolls of film. Equally – if you’re concerned about mountains of waste acetate – some indie film producers are starting to make rolls out of paper.

The Ecology of Grain

Another less evident impact from film is animal gelatine. This was something I only became fully aware of when writing my thesis ‘The Ecology of Grain’. Doing my research, I found that a majority of analogue users were also unaware, with little information existing on the subject. Whilst the amount per roll is tiny, it snowballs into a weighty gelatinous mass for the entire industry. About 6700 London double-decker buses worth, by 2025.

And with the growth of environmental awareness and plant-based diets, the demand for a plant-based alternative to film is at an all-time high. But at present, no such alternatives exist – with producers such as Kodak stating they are not commercially viable.

This research caught the attention of London Alternative Photography Collective, who commissioned me to write a follow-up paper – ‘Stare Into the Caffenol to Reveal Your Future’. In this, I propose an alternative future for analogue photography, based around a network of grassroots darkrooms prioritising and pioneering sustainable methods.

The Northern Sustainable Darkroom

That led to me and my co-collaborator, Emma Bentley-Fox, setting up the Northern Sustainable Darkroom in Leeds, UK. Funded by East Street Arts, the facility’s aim is to green analogue processes, bringing them into the twenty-first century. For example, one of our first projects is to experiment with plant-based alternatives to gelatine. We also hope for the space to be open-access, spreading the word and knowledge on sustainable photographic goodness.

Our hand-built sink, in progress!

Facing a nail-biting ecological future – with unmitigated wildfires, mass species extinction, and habitat destruction under way – it is more important than ever that we strive for sustainability in all aspects of life. As recent climate action has shown, change is possible – and well within our reach. Analogue photography has always been eager to embrace innovation, and with environmentally-conscious alternatives it should be no different. So now is the time to hold the torch of sustainability high, and let it lead us into a brighter future.

We’re still constructing the darkroom – but are doing some research in the meantime. So if you’d like to take part, fill out our five-minute survey.

And make sure to follow us on Instagram @northernsustainabledarkroom!

Edd Carr is a photographer, filmmaker, and researcher from the North York Moors National Park. Previously a dog walker, he now experiments with sustainable alternatives to analogue techniques.

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15 Comments

  • Reply
    Ralph Turner
    January 17, 2021 at 11:02 am

    A good article, thank you. My rekindled interest in film photography that more or less kicked off about a year ago has been tempered somewhat by my concerns with it’s environmental impact. I decided that I would stick mainly to b+w to minimise the number of chemicals involved in the process and send my film for processing to a lab, where they use Xtol developer and all spent chemistry is duly treated for minimal impact, the residual solids reduced to relatively harmless cake of salts, the silver having been reclaimed (this is as far as I understand, based on the lab’s comments to me). I also look to using film with an acetate base rather than polyester as it’s a naturally derived material and will ultimately break down relatively harmlessly (though hopefully long after I have any further need for it). I usually hold on to the little 35mm pots as they’re quite useful (presumably, they could potentially be reused for films?). I also tend, more often than not, to lean towards using cameras that have relatively little or no dependence on batteries in preference to fully electronic models. As you say, there are so many environmental ills happening globally, so I try to tread as gently on the Earth as I can with my hobby. I look upon it as a bit of a guilty pleasure 🙂
    PS I’m always keen to find out more about the eco impact of my photographic endeavours and potential ways to reduce it’s fallout, so your project sounds very interesting. Thanks again.

    • Reply
      Edd Carr
      January 17, 2021 at 1:09 pm

      Thanks Ralph, really interesting to hear how you and other people are determining ways of greening the medium. Keep it up!

      • Reply
        Ralph Turner
        February 22, 2021 at 8:47 pm

        Edd, quick question… if I wanted to start developing my own films again, do you know of anyone in the Northeast who will take in small quantities of spent chemistry for silver reclamation and treatment to render the remaining chemicals inert/safe? Thanks in advance

  • Reply
    David
    January 17, 2021 at 1:17 pm

    Sustainability, to me, is one of the reasons that I have been put of by film.

    I love film, but the cost is heavy in almost every way.

    • Reply
      Edd Carr
      January 17, 2021 at 4:11 pm

      You could try cameraless processes – cyanotype is easy and pretty sustainable! Thanks for reading 🙂

  • Reply
    Lasse
    January 17, 2021 at 2:06 pm

    I too feel a greener movement is due for analog photography. How can film photography become mainstream if it doesn’t become more future proof, environmental friendly?
    Keep up the good work!

    • Reply
      Edd Carr
      January 17, 2021 at 4:12 pm

      I agree completely – if other industries are expected to go green such as energy, why not the arts? Thanks for reading :))

  • Reply
    Peter
    January 17, 2021 at 4:36 pm

    Thank you for introducing me to this!

    My switch to digital in 2007 came from guilt regarding the environmental and economic (when I lost all access to a darkroom). I still shoot film 1 roll a month and roll my own film into reusable canisters to assuage this guilt as I love my using M2 and Rich “35” and the je ne sais quoi of film vs digital images but….

    Your article has given me hope for the future and perhaps a full time return to film!

    • Reply
      Edd Carr
      January 17, 2021 at 5:22 pm

      Thanks Peter – give home developing a go, it’s super easy! Thanks for reading.

  • Reply
    Joris
    January 17, 2021 at 5:20 pm

    Thank you for the article, I’m
    Keeping a keen eye on this! Is there any place online that gathers resources on what we can do in each step of the process to make them more sustainable? It seems everyone is still
    doing a lot of experimenting.

  • Reply
    Alexander Seidler
    January 17, 2021 at 7:21 pm

    Hi Edd, I like your article and thoughts. Also very beautiful pictures seen on your LAPC site.
    Im not shure if i understood everything correct. Do people in your country pour chemicals into the sink ?
    Nobody ever would do that im my country, im shure.
    The impact of film cans is ZERO. This is no argument in a world of nespresso and red bull.
    I think the mature impact is the consumption of electricity.
    So film users also use a lot for post processing and especially uploading to platforms for sharing –
    so the main impact, in my opinion, is a question of quantity. Nothing a film photographer is trying to produce.

    • Reply
      Edd Carr
      January 17, 2021 at 10:43 pm

      Hi Alexander, I really appreciate your comments and understand where you are coming from. I would urge you to read my papers on the subject that are linked in the article, if you have the time of course! They go into more depth about the questions you have asked, and especially in terms of scale of consumption and the ethics around this in relation to volume. Thanks for reading and responding, really appreciate it! Edd

  • Reply
    Andrea Bevacqua
    January 17, 2021 at 9:35 pm

    Edd,
    I have to dig out more about this matter because the impact to the environment has been a very important matter to me, since the beginning. At the moment I’m collecting the chemicals in order to bring them to the recycling centre time by time. I swapped the stop bath with citric acid powder (maybe not perfect but hopefully kinder to the environment) and I am going to replace the fix bath with sodium thiosulphate (again, hopefully better than chemicals). I want to know more about what you do because I can’t hear anymore the usual sentence “your little dilution is not going to be a problem “. The world is changing, and hopefully not only in worse.
    Bravo Edd.

    • Reply
      Edd Carr
      January 17, 2021 at 10:43 pm

      Thank you Andrea, keep up the good work!

  • Reply
    Dmitry Zhilyaev
    January 18, 2021 at 1:18 am

    That’s nice to see some sustainability awareness growing among analog photographers! I have a sustainability background myself and shooting film leaves me with a bit of a bitter feeling. But then shooting digital is not perfect either. So I’ve had this question for a long time: “If you compare shooting a digital and a film camera, how many photos you should take until digital would become a more sustainable option?” It is not easy to answer it, really, and we should look at the whole cameras’ lifecycle. Since there is basically no production of new analog cameras, all we do is reuse already produced ones. On the other hand, a digital camera will need to be produced first (I’ll assume here we buy a new digital camera). That will result in a large environmental footprint since the production of electronics is quite material-, water- and energy-intensive. So at this stage, an analog camera would be a more environmentally-friendly option. But then the use stage comes and that’s where digital would start catching up. For analog cameras, as you wrote, we need to produce film, we need to produce and dispose chemicals, water to develop and wash, etc. For digital – we only need a memory card and some energy to charge the battery. Then the disposal stage comes and I would expect a digital camera to have a higher impact again since it has way more elements in it and is generally harder to recycle. And then there are more considerations like how long a digital camera used compared to a film one or how much time you spend processing digital images on a computer (processing = energy consumption = CO2 emissions) vs. analog? So, yes, it is a complicated matter. However, I have a feeling that if you are not shooting much, film might actually be a more environmentally-friendly option. But it would be really interesting to know what this “much” actually is.
    So what is needed here is a life cycle assessment (LCA) of film vs. digital but when I was looking for one, I couldn’t find any. Have you maybe stumbled upon something like this?

    P.S. Saying that shooting film might be a more sustainable option compared to digital doesn’t imply that we shouldn’t try to minimize our impact in any case, of course. So keep it up, I would be interested to see what you will come up with!

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