year zero: day two

Is this what the future will be like? The long-faded memory of Past Horrors, erased by sunshine, whiskey and Bicycle-Powered Cinema ? Will there truly be a time when we don’t have to fear, not watch our backs? Even the Zombie Sympathizers seem quiet, lost in their own world up the hill to develop whatever diabolical plans they might have. We, too, have been busy.

Yesterday was a fog, and began gray as the day before, but we barely noticed. Everyone, including me, was busy building, re-building and perfecting their homemade cameras. The highs of the day before were surpassed, new ideas gave birth to new ideas, and by the afternoon it was as if we had willed the sun to appear. And it did. I took the opportunity to delve into some of our leftover chemistry and, drawing from the items in our First Aid kit, was able to show them simple Salt Printing. Soon they’d be able to take their homemade negatives and print them as many times as they liked. The whole world would once again see beautiful images from the Mountain.

All is not exactly back to the Old Peace, however, and there is enough strangeness afoot to keep me wary. We have received some Mysterious Messages, from one Javier Mojundo of “Schlafwandler Industries”, that match several sheets we had found the night we reclaimed the studio, yet had ignored. Most of them seem to be tracking the rise and fall of the Infection’s spread, but others contained strange codes. It seems that Señor Mojundo was the one last here before us, and whether trapped and Changed or now Free, he has left help to guide us. By the end of the day, just as we were running out of the last film and paper for our cameras, the latest missive was deciphered. 039039039039… It was a code for the combination to locker 12. (0+3+9=12) Inside were two boxes of late-21st-Century Lith film. The work shall continue.

The evening was full of entertainment, reminiscent of days older than I, even. The Rural Academy’s stage was drawn up by two horses onto the lawn outside the Pines, and after dinner we all sat wrapped in blankets and warmed by tea, whiskey and each other while our visitors told stories from our distant History. They said nothing of Zombies or Danger or Death, and everything seemed right again.

year zero: day one

Spirits were high on this new morning after our successful night, despite a sudden challenge to our authority. Some other new recruits, here to remember the dead or something, have declared their allegiance with the Zombies, though they clearly don’t know what they’re talking about. Aside from Whatever we have locked in our back darkroom, the school seems quite clear – although the Infected could be among us. To be honest, I have no idea what these Zombie Sympathizers are after. A zombie knows no allegiance but to devouring the Living, so whomever they think they’re “protecting” are impostors, or worse. I fear they have some devious plans of their own… I was personally called out over breakfast in an awkward moment – me, barely conscious from rather pleasant dreams – and I had to stop and steel my eyes. “Challenge accepted,” I said as calmly as I could, and went to get some eggs.

Nevertheless we Photo Phighters had a great day. The power was still out through the morning, but we don’t need it anyway. The first step now that the studio is ours was to build up our defenses, and with military speed and precision, our teams whipped up a room-sized Zombie Observation Station, faster than I have ever seen it done. Not only can we secretly spy on the wide world below Northlight, but I can also demonstrate how to build our own cameras from found objects. Each element of the Station can be used to explain the physics of simple optics and camera-building, and offer ideas on how to alter these elements for individual expression. The students end up even more fired up for getting to work than I could have expected.

It was a busy day of scrounging and building and cutting and painting and taping until every team had at least one camera, and some had three! We used up almost all of the found paper, and some started in on the few leftover sheets of film. This may be the last film any of us will ever see, so I suppose it’s time to show them how to make their own negatives from scratch. We’ll have to go through all our available chemistry first…

There was no further word from our Enemies, so we were able to work in peace until well after dinner. Some plans for attack and defense are being worked out, but nothing is clear yet. It has become all the more important to gather more to our side, and I have given many white armbands to the trusted Others… They have all ben invited to tonight’s Training Film, too: Night of the Living Dead. Despite its misinformed understanding of zombie-ism (not to mention its sexist depiction of female fear, and the harsh commentary on American Racism) it’s a useful movie for us all to watch. There are key lessons here: how important it is for Survivors to work together; how dangerous it is to leave a Safe House not thoroughly cleared; and how Fear and Panic can cause good plans to go awry. I hope my students – and our new comrades – were paying close attention.

year zero: day zero

I don’t dare go in the Studio yet. There are enough signs and warnings about (and I mean, like, actual Signs and Warnings!) to keep me from being foolish. From now on, no more mistakes, only caution. I have other lives to look out for.

My students are trickling in today, and we will gather at Northlight before dinner. Tonight, the real work begins. There is a pile of desks barricading the entry from the old Print Studio, and a solid 2×6 nailed to the Photo Doors. Who knows what they were keeping out, or, I fear, keeping in… I won’t do anything more until we’re all here. We can move safely in numbers and, I hope, restore power to the rooms and reclaim the Studio as our own.

There has been nervous laughter from the others at the School, as they know what we’re here to do. My white arm-band lets everyone know that I am still healthy and Living, though I wish others would follow my lead here. Nevertheless, I know that any remaining threat can be quickly taken care of, and in days we will be a well-trained Art Squad, ready to bring Truth and Beauty back to a world reborn. It will be primitive, of course, but I aim to show the pure wonder of the simple and the small, like a tiny bud pushing through the frost.

I have a good group of twelve comrades, including Jimmy The Fix. They may not all look strong, but I already sense a breadth of knowledge and a seriousness of purpose in each, and I am given hope. We meet briefly before dinner to make a plan of attack, and to assess each other’s best skills and strengths. While eight people have experience in Photography – and many of them having been here at Penland – only two admit to any experience fighting zombies: Mark, a veteran of both worlds, and clearly a formidable ally; and Crystal, a local with a deep understanding of life since the Apocalypse. She is the Loremistress. She is the Knowledge.

At dinner I sense a real pleasure at the days to come, and it makes me happy. Other new Warriors have arrived at the school (although I cannot trust them yet) and the extra noise and camaraderie in the Pines is joyful to hear. I already love my students, and seeing them gather on the couches before we attack, I feel like a proud father. I had put out the call, and they answered. We joke and laugh and tease, as only those who know no fear can do, and bond our group with a White Armband for each – we are Pure, and Unbitten and Alive.

It is dark – not a time one usually wants to clear an infected area – but it is a good time for us. I make sure everyone has a partner and a light, and I give a few pointers on the dangers of zombie combat in close quarters. My heavy tripod, for instance, has seen me through many scary situations, but it will be no good in the gang darkroom. We shall move slowly and carefully to clear the place and see what we can scavenge for our Art.

The studio is a mess. It was no short massacre here, I think, but a few humans battling the Turned. Tables and cabinets are tossed about and upended. Was someone trying to flee? Was someone trying to hole up here? It’s not clear – the windows are papered from the inside, suggesting hiding, but the doors are barricaded from the outside. Either someone thought they could survive a bite and keep doing their work here, or another person sealed up someone they knew and loved, unable to finish what must be done. I have seen it so many times, and it never ends up well for anyone.

With only two small exceptions, it seems safe and clear in here. There is no power yet, but we are Photographers and unafraid of the dark. Hell, we’re used to it. With our few torches and lanterns we manage to clean the place up and go through what’s been left behind. First, however, I must deal with the chunk of bloodied flesh sitting almost ceremoniously on the steel table. (Why was it left here? Why not eaten?) The second problem is the last small darkroom, which is locked and taped with warnings. A long smudge of reddish-brown leads from the door down the hall. Several students swear they hear breathing inside, but nothing shuffles or thrashes behind the door. We will board it up and leave it until daylight.

There are eight or nine boxes on the palette. One has white towels, although two are bloodied. Another one, knocked over and spilled, seems full of sweets, and beer, and little bottles of vodka – and one sad shoe. There is a box of paints and tapes and rolls that say Caution and Danger. We can use these to mark our safe territories, I guess. (Are there other studios we should quarantine…?) One box has a 35mm camera, but it is smashed; the lenses could be useful for us, however. Another small box has a compass, magnifiers and a map with disturbing markings – numbers and whole cities of the United States circled and highlighted. There is a sad box of Christmas gifts and lights, and one with just beans and coffee in it. The biggest box is a treasure trove of First Aid supplies… We can certainly use these to make our work.

The last box is a small plastic bin, padlocked tightly. It seems battered but unopened. We search the dark studio for a key, but find none. Someone suggests unscrewing the hinges, but it looks to be rather complicated. Finally Crystal takes the hatchet to it, cleanly snapping the hasp with the lock on it. Inside is the saddest sight yet: the last personal effects of someone – probably a younger boy – who just couldn’t leave them behind, I guess. There are playing cards and toys and odd meaningful knick-knacks, a strange group of Japanese Anime pictures of girls, some sparklers… There are also several keys. These, it turns out, open a few of our cabinets, which hold papers, bottles, and chemistry of all kinds. It’s not a full treasure for us, but much of it will be useful.

We will have to go through it all in the morning when we have light. For now, the studio is safe, and ours.

year zero: day minus one

Why does no one seem worried? Have they bought the whole Cover-Up that easily? Is it just too beautiful here to believe in the End of the World? Just because they survived the first wave of attacks here doesn’t mean it’s all over… For all we know there are Undead lurking in every dark corner and behind every locked door. All it would take is one to destroy us all.

Me, I came prepared, not least with Knowledge. I brought strong Acetic Acid (stops the risk of a spatter-infection), plenty of safety equipment and my heaviest tripod, which I’ve practiced swinging each morning, aiming straight at head-level – the only way to take a Zombie out. I don’t dare explore the Photo Studio yet – it’s still barricaded and quarantined – but I can prepare until my Team arrives. There is excellent food here, and plenty of it. I am going to be building my strength every day. It’s still hard to tell whom to trust here, but these are good strong people with survival skills and a hell of a lot of tools. I think I’ll have Iron Daniel make me a bayonet for my 4×5 before we start… They can make anything here; here we can rebuild the world.

I have a secret weapon, too: my friend and comrade James J. “The Fixer” Williams III. He was stuck behind in New York training a young squad of Art Fighters when I left, and so he risked the crowds and confinement of air travel to get here and join my crusade. He may not be wise, but he’s smart. Good with a sword too, or so he tells me.

The Fixer got here last night just in time for the All-School Gathering to celebrate the Core – the young artists who have lived here year-round and in many ways have kept the School running while the Chaos fell around them. It was quite a party, until early in the morning, in fact, and I know the extra fury of our drinking came from the widely-held belief that a high BAC can keep you safe from infection. It’s probably not true, but it can’t hurt. We need some dancing and joy in these dark days, tho I can’t seem ever to let go of the Fear…

My nerves were up being around that many people in one place, but I figure it gave me a chance to check everyone out. The current wave of Zombies seem to be from another strain, from what I can tell, one without the speedy death and decay we saw at the Beginning. The slow gestation of this virus adds another level of fear. How do we know who’s been Turned if it takes days…? I’ve been driving down the mountain to get supplies for our class and everywhere I go, especially Wal-Mart, I think I see the First Signs. I swear there are Lost People shuffling all around the regular folk, but no one pays any attention to them, and they don’t seem to notice the Living. Not yet, anyway.

Even here, I swore I saw zombies everywhere this morning, but I suppose they were all just hungover…

year zero: day minus two

I swore I’d be smarter about things since the Beginning of the End, but how many warnings have I already ignored? How many of my own rules have I already broken? If these end up as my last words, understand this: I died from my own stupidity.

First of all, never leave home. I was pretty safe in my brick Brooklyn fort, but still I packed up the car and drove 666 miles south to the mountains of North Carolina. It’s crazy but I know I’m needed here. If Photography is going to live on through these survivors – what the hell, if Art and Beauty too – then I’ve decided it’s I who will lead them. Rule one, broken…

Second of all, if it seems dangerous, it probably is. There is still too much about the Zombie Apocalypse that’s being covered up, I know. What is wrong with these people? “Isolated outbreaks”… “The worst is over…” “We have already begun to rebuild…” It’s ridiculous, and false, and scarier than anything. I’ve heard Washington has already fallen, the zombies parading on television even, as if everything is ok. No way was I going to drive on I-95 through the middle of _that_. I headed west and gave it as wide a berth as I could. The problem was, I was blatantly ignoring some obvious signs. Just as I was getting on the road, my meeting with the Community Leaders here was almost postponed, due to The Architect coming down with the “flu.” (Are you kidding me?) And yet, I came anyway.

I had plenty of chances to turn around, too, as if Someone were really trying to make it clear that I was being foolish: the “accident” that completely closed long stretches of I-78, for instance. I took an enormous detour around it all, speeding through country hillsides trying not to imagine the screaming and the carnage of what was surely a frightening rampage. Later, I almost ran out of gas, and as dusk fell I found myself lost on small shadowed roads in a panic, hoping not to see anything shuffling in the dark. Hell, even as I was trying to leave the house, my cat got sick. Are there Cat Zombies yet? I don’t think I want to know.

I did end up making it to the mountains without incident, having slept a few hours locked in my car at a rest stop. I knew how to be safe – totally covered in a blanket, the new car smell masking from any marauders the scent of living flesh – but it was hardly a restful sleep. Nevertheless, the last winding curves up the hill to Penland can always swell my heart, and this time they did even more. This place has been home to me so many times, for so many years. I have worked here, and loved here, and I have been my best self here. If the world ends now, I can think of nowhere else I’d rather be.

The meeting went well, though I was wary. I sat well away from The Architect as he spoke about building the future. He didn’t seem to have any of the usual Symptoms – no sluggishness, no sweats – nor could I see any dark bruises or bites, but they could have been hidden. That’s the problem with the coming of Fall. The cold weather means festering flesh is covered up, that first telltale stench blending in with the general autumnal decay. More to worry about… In the end, I think he’s probably not Bitten, but it’s good to be reminded to be careful.

The Coordinator was also at the meeting, and once she and I could be alone and walk in the bright sun towards the studio, I could finally relax. The studio was a disaster, she said, and it was possible there was still Something locked in there. Oddly enough, she didn’t seemed worried at all. I know I’ll rely on her strength for the week to come. For now, I’m going to pile up the desks outside and nail the door shut while we prepare. I would have to wait for my own team of Survivors to arrive before we’d dare go in.

goodbye, all


(I never did finish writing about my trip to Lacock…)

Unfortunately our last day of the workshop brought back the rain, and quite a few other problems. Our plan had been to take advantage of the Abbey being closed to visitors, giving us private access to Talbot’s home with just a few cleaners around to dodge our bulky cameras. We’re all moving a bit slow this morning, and it takes time to sensitize our paper, and to organize our cameras and tripods and raincoats and umbrellas. It seems ages before we’re all able to trudge over to the Abbey. Maybe we’re all just tired.

Inside, it’s quiet and gray and gorgeous. The smell of the great Gothic banquet hall reminds me of my grandfather’s old house in Virginia, and I just want to sit here all day. Matt and Richard and I all set up to shoot in the room, either looking at the still lifes staged for the tourists or at the amazing terracotta figures on the wall. Malin wisely chooses to make an exposure outside, which will be much more quick despite the rain. Inside we’re looking at twenty to forty minutes, I think, depending on how far in from the big windows we are – a real risk for the paper drying out and fogging.

We wait and wait, but don’t have much luck – fog and not much else. I’m guessing we’re just pushing the paper too long, what with the added time to walk over from the darkroom and set up and all, but really it should work. Some of my first successful experiments were long exposures, and the wet weather should be helping out by keeping things moist…

At some point I realize that only the first ones we iodized the night before show any promise at all, and as we dig into the later sheets, the fogging just gets worse and worse. I think the long abandoned wash while we went to dinner was a huge mistake. Instead of making things cleaner or slower with the extra wash, we have fog from leaving the paper unattended. One of the first things I tell the students is to keep flipping or shuffling the papers in the iodizing wash, and now I know just how crucial that is. Only Malin’s first sheets – the ones we were there to agitate – are any good. It’s a huge disappointment for us all.

We get a break after lunch though, perhaps a gift from a sorry God. The rain stops and a bright blue sky with puffy clouds appears, the perfect weather for printing. It’s rather nuts, actually, trying to cram in the waxing of negatives and two versions of salt printing in the four hours we have left of the day, but we do it, and everyone manages a good print by the end. I think we all feel the exhaustion fighting with the desire to keep working, but we’re even trying to cram in a stop by the Museum to see a few things before we go, so it’s time to clean up and be done.

Over at the Museum, Roger shows us a full set of paper negatives, made in a few different formulae (both British and French) by Jonathan Kline in order to show the variations in each version. It’s fascinating, but I see eyes glazing. It’s really time to say our thank-yous and goodbyes.

As I walk back to my room, I realize all the things I didn’t do here: I wanted to re-shoot the Open Door but with an umbrella instead of a broom. I wanted to do a drawing, in negative, of the Oriel Window. I didn’t even get into the amazingly adorable used bookstore right next door to me. Just too busy, I guess. I must come back someday soon, with more time to myself.

The light is still pretty, rain-washed and golden, as I walk to the Bell for dinner. The flooding from the Avon has retreated a tiny bit, even with the influx of water from the morning, but there are pools and ponds everywhere on the way, reflecting the blue and the clouds. When I come back, I want to hop right on off this path and over to the Cotswold Way. It’s only 102 miles…
reflections from the Avon


I get in another wonderful dinner at the Bell, playing cribbage with Roger and Laura and Rachel, and I can’t quite believe I’m leaving already. A couple of nice Scotches again, and soon it’s back to the Abbey to pack and sleep. In the morning I’ll be off to London for a couple more days of friends and fun before I fly home.

hello, sunshine


Last night was really so wonderful, and I wake up smiling. What’s more, I’m breathing freely – the Elixir works! It’s a gray morning but the sun soon comes out, and it’s glorious, really beautiful. We had been planning on shooting at the Abbey before the tourists showed up at 10:30, but first I want to make sure Malin and Matt really have the process down. It’s mostly just little procedural things now – how much chemistry to lay down, how hard to brush, how long to wait… And of course our last few comet gremlins. It seems a good moment to go over everything once more, and to consolidate all that we’ve learned here.

One thing I learned from last night is how much heat affects our negatives… In my experience with wet Calotypes, heat is bad before exposure, but good for development. However, I’ve decided it’s causing the bulk of our comet problem. There’s one of the three coating stations in the darkroom which has a heater at the baseboard right under it. This has been mostly great for us. It’s kept the darkroom dry in all this wet weather (and warm after shivering in the Abbey) and allowed us to have dry paper to use pretty quickly after iodizing. However, whether it’s from heat and static drawing dust to the paper (or Mylar) or just some spontaneous development, it’s at that station that the problem with comets has been the worst. By making sure Matt and Malin work at the other stations away from the heat, I think we can stop the gremlins.

I start the day by going through the process from start to finish, shooting a quick portrait of Richard outside the darkroom (and, in the process, pretty much proving my heat hypothesis – last night’s image done at the other station was perfect; this one, done over the heater, has a big fat comet over Richard’s hat.) Next I thought I’d just hover over each of them as they did their first one of the day, making sure they have clean mylar and careful brushstrokes. No need to do any more tests right here, we thought. Let’s just get to the Abbey! Our goal was for them each to get a great one today, and to troubleshoot every small thing that comes up.

Once again Richard is helping Matt, carrying the heavy tripod and consulting on exposure, while Addison is at Malin’s side. I am bouncing around, trying to guesstimate the right exposure times for the different (bright!) light, and to try and shoot something of my own. I test out one of Richard’s single-wash iodized papers which seems such an obvious advance over Talbot’s method, but it doesn’t give me the contrast I’m used to getting. I may be too stuck in the old way.. It’s times like this that I wish Richard and I (and the rest of the Calotype Society ) had a week or two here to try out every possible combination. The fact that the paper negative was pretty quickly superseded by wet collodion means that it’s a technology that stopped developing before its time.* There must be more to discover and invent, somehow. It may take the 21st Century to do so.

We had talked about doing some initial Salt Printing today, to take advantage of the light and to give us time to shoot inside the Abbey rooms tomorrow morning, but the students are having too much fun – and too much success – shooting today to stop. We need to be iodizing papers too, or we won’t have any to shoot tomorrow, but it’s just so damn gorgeous out for a change. The flooded Avon has washed all over just beyond the Abbey’s ha-ha, it seems, and the world looks bright and green and newly born. We just want to run around in it, so we do.

Both Matt and Malin get four excellent negatives today. We managed to accomplish everything we wanted and then some in this light. And you should see Richard’s gorgeous negative of the tree, done with Pelegry’s process, putting us all to shame. It really is cleaner, easier and slightly less fickle than what we’re trying to do. I only hope the students don’t regret fighting with my (or rather Talbot’s) crazy hand-brushed version. I like to think the inherent hand-made quality has its own attractions, but I worry that that is my own unshared bias.

What we haven’t made time for is iodizing paper (the aversion to the grunt-work another bias they have already picked up from me) but we have to do it to shoot tomorrow. It’s well after class time that we’re still coating, soaking and washing, and we end up leaving our papers in the water and running to dinner, figuring an extra-long untended wash will equal my usual two hours of babysitting.

Tonight is a special night, however, since Roger Watson and his wife Laura have invited us all over for dinner at theirs. I get to the one local shop before it closes, but the wines on sale leave a little to be desired, so I grab a bottle of Jameson Whiskey to bring to the house. I just hate arriving empty-handed…. Richard and I walk up to the Bell to be picked up by Roger, and driven out to the farm. Rachel lives there too, in a trailer that must shake like hell in these storms. Malin will miss the party to stay with her baby and her mum, but Matt arrives a little later, and Addison and other neighbors round out a really lovely group of people. I stuff myself on Laura’s fajitas (and the whiskey, of course) and get into great ranting conversations about Rochester, Eastman House and historical processes with Roger.

By the time I get back to the darkroom, it’s past ten-thirty and the paper has been washing for four hours (a time incidentally suggested by other practitioners, according to Roger) so I assume it will be well-washed and fine for tomorrow. I am exhausted, of course, and breathing freely for the first time in days. I sleep well in the old Abbey.

*This is not strictly true, of course, as evidenced by Richard’s own foray into Pelegry’s dry-paper process from the 1870′s, which is gaining adherents in this tiny community for its stability and ease of use.

big plans


There are certain natural systems that can make one really believe in the Divine Plan – opposable thumbs, sex, a damn good apple – but one that keeps coming up here for some reason is the theory that poisonous plants grow quite near their cure, like Stinging Nettle and Dock Leaf, or Poison Ivy and Jewelweed. And so, I thought, it is with England and Elderflower. They have Elderflower cordials and flavors in every shop here, it seems, and it was either champagne or Elderflower at the museum reception on Friday. I remember reading recently that a thorough study of natural cold remedies revealed that most things, like zinc and vitamin C, did little if anything to help, and that only two remedies showed any promise – gargling with salt water, and Elderflower. Both are rather in abundance in gray rainy England, and it must be to cure bloody colds like this one…

Yes, it’s another gray rainy morning, and I’ve shivered through the cold empty rooms of the old apartment and into the kitchen to make my English Elixir – hot water, lemon and Elderflower – and get to class. A good strong coffee would help, but I’m way out of my coffee habit here. It’s usually one cup in the morning to get me going, and maybe, but not always, others in the afternoon as a purely social experience. There is good coffee here, especially at the bakery on Church Street (one of the four lovely streets in the village) but they never seem to be open when I need them to be, especially on a Sunday.

At the darkroom, we have several trays filled with collected rainwater, and the tent has withstood the night’s storm. Neither Addison nor Rachel has slept much through the howling winds, apparently, and everyone is moving a little slowly. If this keeps up it will be hard on our spirits as well as our work. Nevertheless, we have big plans today to shoot at the Abbey itself, and there’s nothing to do but keep at it.

We are prepping paper every day, so that we can always shoot when we want to. It’s a long and boring process, and easily my least favorite part of Calotypy. There’s no reason to complain – it’s simple enough – but I have some Pavlovian response to the safelight on and the Iodide out. The problem is that I usually do it at the end of the day, when I’m already quite tired. The chemistry is easy enough – brushing on the silver, waiting an interminable few minutes while it dries, then bathing it in iodide for three minutes. I do get crabby at even this simple procedure, but the problem comes from the wash. It needs to be in running water for two hours, and you can’t ignore it. Every ten minutes or so, I make sure to shuffle and flip the papers, and watch for a telltale purple stain of iodide (from starch in the paper, perhaps?) that tells me everything is working ok. But at the end of the day, as I usually do it, I am often already tired, and two extra hours of half-vigilance is deadly to a tired mind… Now, even when we idodize in the morning, I become tired and cranky. Especially on a gray day.

The rain is still intermittent when we finally shoot, but not terrible. (I am glad I got some new wellies for this trip, as they are now my Everyday Shoes.) It’s gorgeous at the Abbey though, especially in the cloisters, where Malin and Addison are working. Matt and Richard are in the courtyard shooting the pear tree against the wall. The light is still quite soft but his exposure is only 20 seconds or so, which is great. Malin’s will be more like 5 or 10 minutes, but still, not bad for indoors. I’m trying a twenty-minute exposure of the Sacristy Window. We’re all getting odd stares and polite questions from the tourists coming through, but I bet it’s less from the big cameras than it is from our matching blue rubber gloves.

Things go pretty well today, and I’m mostly just trying to fine-tune the students’ brushing technique. There are a few missed spots in iodizing and/or sensitizing, and I think they’re just not used to overlapping the brushstrokes as much as they need to, but they’re learning. More disturbing, however, is an increase in the amount of what I call “comets” – little streaks of developing silver not unlike what happens with wet collodion. There are a few reasons these could happen, but I must confess I don’t know exactly what causes them every time. The artifacts of a process are sometimes my favorite part, but not if they take over the image or go wildly uncontrolled, and that’s what’s been happening to us.

I do know from past experience that brushing chemistry back-and-forth past the edge of the paper can easily drag in foreign matter or damage the cotton ball in such a way as to leave a spot. The comet seems to be a high spot of dust that collects developer which then drags across in the direction of the brush, sometimes in all four directions (creating a “star”.) Since our developer includes both physically-developing silver and chemically-developing Gallic Acid, it’s just trouble. It is partly to avoid this problem (and partly an aesthetic choice) that I like to brush well within the edges of the paper, giving a distinctive rough edge (which can be trimmed if you don’t like it. I do.) However that’s not the only obvious problem. Often, to get the paper to sit flat in a camera, one would sandwich the wet paper between sheets of clean glass, but I use stiff archival mylar sleeves. Glass is much easier to clean, of course, and the mylar could build up static that draws in the dust… Hmmm.

comets in the sacristy

lots of comets in the Sacristy

By late afternoon I have Matt and Malin being much more careful, cleaning the mylar and trying to stay within the edges, but we’re still getting some comets here and there. In fact, on a couple of shots, I’m getting them worst of all! Malin can’t seem to help herself and is always crossing the paper, and indeed she does end up with more comets, so that still seems to be true, but whatever else is causing them is still a little baffling. At the end of the day, we do manage a few good shots, and sometimes, even the comets look good. Tomorrow, we will go through every step once more, very methodically, and see how we do.

Tonight after class it’s back to the Bell, with just Richard, Rachel and I. The owners, Alan and Heather, really are the loveliest people, and tonight it’s a proper Sunday Roast Dinner, so coming to this pub really feels like home. The river Avon has quite flooded, as it often does, so the walk back to the Abbey is strange and beautiful in the late evening light. There’s even some peeking sun – the first I’ve seen in ages – and everything looks green, washed and gorgeous. I’m restless and inspired now, warmed by Scotch and sunlight, and Richard urges me to take advantage of it. I still need rest, though, and head back to my room.

Standing at my window, I see the most beautiful light hitting the overgrown walls of the old stables below and I just can’t stay in. Wellies back on, I fairly run over to the darkroom to sensitize a sheet and hurry back with my camera. The sun’s almost down, and I may have missed my light, but as the 30-second exposure begins, it peeks back at me once more. Also, I think I may have figured out what’s been giving us so many devilish comets…
a window at the abbey

This is the best I’ve felt in a long time. I’m listening to Smog, the old standby, on my iPod and walking through Lacock Abbey completely alone. I am teased by golden sunlight, inspired by work, challenged by the chemistry, and it is good.