Rediscovering Sarah Stup and 35mm Film

Sarah Stup is an award-winning autism advocate and author who is working on her latest book, tentatively titled “My Autism, My Journal.”

Eighteen years ago I shot a photo essay to promote her debut children’s book, Do-si-Do with Autism.

I was tasked with documenting a day in Sarah’s life and my photographs would be presented along with the original illustrations from her book, at a gallery exhibit at Stevenson University.

About the experience of being photographed, Sarah told me: “You were lots busy trying to capture my autism by watching and following and clicking. [You were] lots patient and never surprised by my weird actions. Pleased to spend time with [you]. Pleased to be friends.”

Our efforts to promote Do-si-Do with Autism were a success and Sarah authored four more books as well as multi-media packets and other educational resources aimed at bridging the gap between those with and without autism.

Recently, Sarah’s media team reached out to me, interested in revisiting the photographs that we took back in 2005 as part of the effort to rebuild her website, You see, those old photo files, just weren’t big enough!

The thrust of the photography then was to produce large prints for the show. We weren’t even thinking about building a website or doing anything else with the images.

I shot on 35mm Kodak Tri-X and the negatives were scanned as jpg proofs at a mere 1544 x 1024px and 72 dpi. I did rough Photoshop edits on these files only to demo how the optically printed silver gelatins would appear when completed.

These tiny files were never meant to be used elsewhere but they became an important component of Sarah’s work over the years.

The photos played a key role in the theme of the first iteration of her website, were picked up by the press for subsequent articles about her, and one of the photos was even chosen for the cover of Sarah’s second book, Are Your Eyes Listening?

Eventually, the internet caught up to us though. For Sarah’s new site, we needed higher-resolution files.

From Sarah: “Even though my sounding voice is broken, I want to use my loud typing voice to send messages of hope and understanding. With photos I am bringing attention to my words, really inviting people to wonder what they will find. Using many visual enticements, I can draw them to read. We use them a lot, and the choice is important.”

I could have used photo enhancement software to upscale those original files. But the scans appear to have featured a strong unsharp mask and didn’t resemble the handcrafted optical prints which were the stars of the project. I still had the original negatives in my archive and decided to rescan them.

This would allow me to not only increase the resolution but also to tastefully re-interpret the series.

When automated film lab scanners digitize a negative, they crop into the image slightly so as to avoid complications with the frame edges. I could now scan the full image frame and include the natural film border like traditional 35mm photojournalism. I could also edit with more bit depth and optical resolution. Also, it was just plain fun to revisit these old images!

To rescan the original film negatives, I used a Nikon D810 and vintage Nikkor 50mm 1.4 AIS lens mounted to a bellows and negative holder assembly to create new TIFF masters in full 64-bit RGB. The new scans are 6700 x 4600 px tiffs at 300 dpi. A huge improvement!

Of course, film is not a bottomless pit of data just waiting to be excavated by newer digital equipment. And supposedly Kodak Tri-X may only be equal to 4 to 6 megapixels. Nonetheless, I think that it’s interesting that the photos I took in the early 2000s with a 1960s Olympus rangefinder could be brought up to date by rescanning.

Working with these old images was a trip down Memory Lane for both Sarah and me. She had this to say about seeing the revised images:

“I like the photos with my old kitchen booth that was my writing place. Pleased to remember writing to find my voice which was broken for speaking but birthed in typing. With my new typing voice that marched out loudly, I felt like a real person. I felt alive when I had a typing voice to tell and ask and shout and complain and love.”

I asked Sarah if she has any advice for other photographers who might work with someone with autism.

“With autism, I see and hear too well and lights and loud clicking cause me to become confused. I am asking others to think more about loud voices and other sounds that pain me. You were quiet and gave less directions. I am very comfortable then. Pleased.”

Keep an eye out for Sarah Stup’s next book and check out for resources on autism awareness.

About the author: Johnny Martyr is an East Coast film photographer. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. After an adventurous 20-year photographic journey, he now shoots exclusively on B&W 35mm film that he painstakingly hand-processes and digitizes. Choosing to work with only a select few clients per annum, Martyr’s uncommonly personalized process ensures unsurpassed quality as well as stylish, natural & timeless imagery that will endure for decades. You can find more of his work on his website, Flickr, Facebook, and Instagram.