In the Chemical
Kitchen with Steve Sanguedolce:
A Recipe for Contact Printing
by Si Si Penaloza
If processing and
developing film was like a Betty Crocker recipe
bake-off, Steve Sanguedolce would be the teenage contestant Gidget on
crack. I recently visited Hell's Kitchen (or Hog Heaven) and watched
Steve at work. In the span of three hours the man can demystify the
whole high brow technophilic altar of film processing. He does not heed
any such film handling warnings and has long since thrown out the instruction
insert on How to Care for Your Negative. There is no celluloid sanctity
in the Chemical Kitchen. He's a bit of an alchemist really, devising
his own chemistry ratios and dilutions. Sanguedolce develops his film
in plastic industrial buckets, churning it as if he were making butter.
With a rubber gloved hand he reaches into the toxic bucket and tosses
the film in Dektol like spaghetti. I was not surprised when I noticed
a black film
developing tank a la LIFT sitting, a little dusty, like a totem door
I like meeting with filmmakers who are designing and scheming alternative
processes in the interest of liberating themselves from lab. It's problem
solving enpowerment. In this spirit, they take more of the tactile craft
of film literally into their own hands. With this do-it-yourself attitude,
the filmmaker severs the umbilical cord with that mothership in the
sky that is THE LAB. Going it alone in the dark under safe light is
very liberating. You are one with your own chemicals. You are pulling
and pushing all the stops. You are a free agent. To hell with that sniveling
co-dependent relationship you once had with those fascists at the lab.
A certain sovereignty is gained in not viewing the lab as the be all,
end all light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
Lab technicians scoff in abhorrence at Sanguedolce's irreverent
manhandling of the medium. Some might say he's a madman. This is after
all the guy who, after hand developing his film, unceremoniously tosses
it in a laundry dryer set on a delicate spin cycle. Technicians are
puzzled at the scratches and strange substances (goo) that show up on
his film. It is precisely the scratches and irregularities that activate
his unorthodox filmmaking practice. He is a painter; he is painting
with light, toner, and emulsion. The effect is surreal, sublime - not
to mention hypnotically beautiful and kind of poetic. The man's a maverick;
my appreciation for his work has been so enhanced by observing his process.
He showed me a short film he "cut for the Council" about two
brothers on the road. It was ethereal, even on a Steenbeck; I look forward
to seeing it in a true projection. The colors were supersaturated. Sanguedolce's
desire is to print ultra high contrast images, this allows for a trademark
effect: a permeation of the positive/negative spaces with brilliant
color fields. The whole piece possessed a pulsating momentum of sound
and color. The hand-crafted quality of the work is unmistakable; its
organic handmade feel produces a visceral, almost primal response. To
my surprise, I responded in the way I would to a painting - appreciating
painterly strokes, gestures, and texture.
Sanguedolce's explanation of his contact printing method was actually
quite easy to follow. It all started as he was experimenting with double
exposures. It was because of this that Steve initially tried to run
two tracks of picture at the same time. Realizing his steenbeck could
take two tracks through the gate was all he needed to get the reels
rolling unto his contact printing innovation:
"... If I could
do that, then I could run my original picture on this
sprocket which is the second mag track and run my raw stock/unexposed
film on the picture track. If I shone a light through it then I would
in effect be exposing the film making a contact print. And a contact
print is exactly as the term denotes - two pieces of film together with
a light shining through. So all you really need is a mechanism that
holds your film together and moves it in unison with the registration
intact so when you shine a light through you're exposing the back piece
Steve pointed out that
the raw stock he's printing on is a really slow
film speed. He's found that with slow film, there's little chance if
of fogging. He runs the film at normal speed and uses a steenbeck
overhead lamp supply (a regular IKEA light fixture) that is domed so
light is contained and doesn't flare. The cardboard curtain is used
to make sure the back film doesn't catch any light. The cardboard is
folded slightly to fit in front of the prism. He uses a diffusion material
in the small cutout window so the light is more even. Gaffer tape is
used at the bottom of the cardboard to ensure that light doesn't seep
underneath. Steve takes a final step in the effort to control light
by draping his film change bag over the cardboard. This will ensure
the film is not fogged. "I am processing it as a negative. That
way I can do any hand tinting on the contact print and go and get a
print from the lab and the neg is untouched. It enables me to work from
my library of original sources."
I should make mention
of one slightly tricky thing in regard to this
contact printing method. Sanguedolce reviewed it nice and slow for me:
"In film there's a concern between A and B wind. Usually all camera
originals are B wind when you get it from the lab. When you make prints
of that it's A wind. Because I'm treating this as a negative I wind
it on here as a B wind. It's kind of complicated. If people have questions
about this, they should call me. It really just means - make sure emulsion
is towards you when you're exposing film. The two emulsions are always
together, facing each other."
I thought I was the
scratch n' sniff girl when it came to working with my outtakes and dailies.
I thought I liked to defile and bastardize the surface of my pictures.
In Sanguedolce's chemical kitchen I'm a
lightweight. Sanguedolce uses all his senses in working with his film:
"The emulsion side is usually the lighter color of the two sides.
you're not sure which side the emulsion is, put it in your mouth and
it sticks to your lip." At this point I watched in amusement as
he popped the film in his mouth. It did indeed stick to his lip. "I
like the taste of film." I guess that's a helpful hint if you're
trying to figure it out in the dark.
Watching him work with
his buckets and jugs of chemistry is like watching a mad scientist.
There's a certain frenzied quality to his practice that translates into
the chaotic play of the images. His darkroom (a converted laundry room)
has the intensity of a very tightly controlled accident scene. I half
expected to see chalk outlines of reels gone by the wayside. His hand
tinting method is somewhat of a chancy venture. In doing such unconventional
things as running your film through an acid bath, he runs the risk of
erasing the emulsion completely. It burns and lifts off and he's left
with a clear plastic strip. However with contact printing on his steenbeck
all is not lost; he can simply make another print of his original and
start hand tinting again.
If you're interested
making your own contact prints and cutting costs by going around the
lab, here's a step by step account of the Sanguedolce method:
HOW TO CONVERT A CONVENTIONAL
STEENBECK INTO A CONTACT PRINTER
1. Cover all light
leaks in room (cracks under doors, windows).
2. Remove Prism.
3. Turn off normal overhead lights. Turn on safe light.
3. Build cardboard curtain with small window cut-out. Insert curtain
small window in place of prism.
4. Wind original footage on the second mag track.
5. Wind raw stock on the picture track.
6. Make sure emulsions are facing each other.
7. Put a change bag or black cloth over the whole cardboard curtain.
8. Run the film at normal speed.
9. Develop in chemistry.
I would recommend any
workshop with Steve Sanguedolce; his approach is practical, his explanations
clear and candid. I wanted to linger and learn, watching him at work
all day. Unfortunately I had to get on the road to Montreal where I
was on assignment to observe an anomalous urban colony of raccoons.
They call them raton-laveur in French, meaning something like rats that
wash. It was explained to me it is because they wash their food before
eating it. But reduced to a rat? That's kind of a bad rap for such a
With these nine steps and a block of time on a LIFT steenbeck, you can
make your own contact prints. It's an amazingly simple procedure yielding
great results. Root around in your old outtakes and give it a whirl.
Then make like a raccoon and wash n' rinse.