October 14/98

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
stopper.

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 of film."

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 any
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. If
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 with
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 nice animal.
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.