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Experiments in Antique USSR Film


Want to hear a communist joke? Well, they are only really funny if everyone gets them, but if you still want to hear it, then Soviet: A worker standing in a liquor line says: “I have had enough, save my place, I am going to shoot Gorbachev.” Two hours later he returns to claim his place in line. His friends ask, “Did you get him?” “No, the line there was even longer than the line here.”

Some things date better than others, and jokes rarely stand up against the test of time. But how about film?

My first test was two years ago, when Anna picked up a box of expired film from Siberia, the youngest of which expired in 1991. It was this 50 ISO ORWOChrome color slide film:

Unfortunately, the chemical process to develop this film as transparency no longer existed, so the only option was to cross process in C-41. But none of the labs I went to wanted this film in their machines at the risk of damaging their chemistry or other customers rolls.

When film gets old, its gelatin coating can get weak, and in a warm C-41 processor, it can simply fall apart. A few years out of date is no problem, but some mystery film from pre-wall West Germany has a big question mark above it. So I developed myself with one of those Tetenal packs and fortunately, some of them worked:

I was pretty amazed that the despite being cross processed, the film had a pretty natural looking color to it in the raw scans. They may not be your cup of tea, but I love an experiment, especially with weird and wonderful film types. Coming up to the 2 year anniversary of the ORWO experiment, Anna’s brought us yet another lot of cheap, old Soviet film, so we gave it another go.

This time it’s a mixed bag of black and white film, which is much easier to develop. There’s no temperature sensitivity and the chemicals are really easy to source. The hard part is going to be just getting the film ready to shoot.

Most of you probably don’t know how lucky you are having your film pre-loaded into canisters. Back in the USSR, photographers DIYed it by loading it into reloadable shells with a bulk loader. We didn’t have reloadable shells or a bulk loader, so we had to recycle some spent canisters that we picked up from a local lab and reattach the film to them in the dark. We also didn’t have a dark bag, so I used a backpack and sweater turned inside out. Works just as well, but just to be safe it’s good to do it in under a blanket and in a darkish room.

So the film comes in these little cardboard boxes, wrapped in black paper:

This may not seem like the most secure method of storage, but so long as they had been kept at a fairly low temperature and kept dry, they should still be usable. The paper has been wound tight, and the best thing about this method of storage is that because they are not stored in metal canisters they have not built up annoying static electricity, which makes them so curly that it can be almost impossible to wind onto a Paterson tank.

So here’s the procedure I used to transfer them into the blanks (of course, you do this in the dark):

The thing about shooting expired film like this is because the results can be so unpredictable, it’s recommended that you lower your expectations because if it doesn’t work out the way you expect it, it’s a massive disappointment. It’s best to shoot somewhere close to home or like what we did, at home, and go through a roll quickly, with a range of settings to get something that works. Exercise caution by overexposing the hell out of it and never shoot in poor light. Old film loses an enormous amount of shadow detail so it will only pick up your brightest highlights.

For the test we used Anna’s Contax T3; so here are the results of our first roll, which is 32 ISO TACMA (pronounced Tasma) film. We developed all rolls in Kodak X-Tol for 9 minutes and 30 seconds with minimal agitation.

Here are the results :

This was my first roll and I was unsure whether it would work at all. The grain as you can see is bad, especially for such a low ISO film, and I didn’t go to any length to keep the dust off it. Also note: don’t even bother using squeegee tongs on film this old — you will just scratch the hell out of the base (see pictures 1 and 2)

But it worked, so I decided to give another roll a go. This time I shot the oldest stuff in the box:

The translation reads “Medium Sensitivity – GOST 64 (ISO 65); Emulsion No. 5670; Anti-Vignette; Normal; Develop by April 1959; Developing Time 12 Minutes.”

It states that it has “‘medium sensitivity” but I metered it at 12 ISO to compensate for age, powered up my flash to full and used the fastest lens I had (f/1.1 7Artisans) to see what I can pull out of this antique roll:

I was very surprised with this roll and much prefer the sharpness and contrast to the Tasma. The grain is extraordinarily fine and it has this really nice tone to it, with the added special effect of the ‘spider webs’ and water marks (this is where the gelatin had completely been stripped off the base).

So these are my preliminary tests with this kind of film. Three of the other rolls that I have tried have been completely blank — either they were completely exposed or the emulsion just fell of them when they were developing it, so ironically shooting is a bit like playing Russian Roulette. But if they do manage to work, the images are unlike anything else I have shot, so now I have a spare film body I’m going to keep a roll loaded and shoot some stuff outside of my apartment.

About the author: James Cater is a digital and analog photographer, film lab operator, and model. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Cater’s work on his website and Instagram. This article was also published here.