Portraits of a Monsoon: Making the print, part 2

Continued from Part 1

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There were several problems here. All I had was a flatbed scanner (Canon 9900F) which came with both 35mm and medium format film holders. None of them worked as designed. After much frustration and tests, I learned that I had to place the film flat on the glass to get
sharp usable results. The holder raised the film a few millimetres off the glass and resulted in mostly out of focus scans. I sawed the edges off the holder and was now able to press the film directly onto the glass. A dedicated film scanner was impossible as it could only hold a small section of film at any time.

The edges of the flatbed was slightly raised from the glass so there was no way to press the uncut roll of film down flat on the glass without damaging it. Plus, it would only operate with the lid down and this was also impossible to do with an uncut roll of film. Getting a continuous scan from a seamless roll of film quickly became a physical impossibility. I dreaded at the thought of having to cut the roll into scannable segments, not when the whole point of the project and all the trouble earlier was to produce a seamless roll.

There was one final option; Print the negative directly onto paper and skip the digital scan. I spoke to the only person I knew who did it and while it was technically possible, the cost would have been astronomical. We would have to ship in rolls of paper to experiment with and even the slightest mistake would have cost thousands of ringgit. It would have been nice to complete the entire process in an analogue workflow.

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So I did what had to be done. I stretched the roll across the sky and took a picture of it before snipping it into smaller segments. The scans started to come in, as well as more problems. The files were huge and the buffer of the scanner (or software I’m not sure) stopped transferring data after scanning a certain length. This forced me to scan each segment of cut film as multiple frames to allow the pipeline to transfer that massive amount of data accurately. Things would only get more challenging from here onwards.


I can barely recall how many segments of scans I had for a single roll. It must have been between 15 and all of them had to be stitched back to recover the seamless roll. Multiple attempts to stitch all of them in one pass ended with the fragile fabric of time and space slowly tearing apart, at least for my humble Apple workstation. The only way around it was to stitch according to the segments of the negatives as they were scanned. Down from 15, I now had 5 huge files that could only be handled if they were flattened and exported as jpegs. So just to recap, the seamless roll of film was cut into segments, scanned into smaller segments, stitched back in TIFF, and final assembly was done with full-res jpeg files. Far from an ideal workflow but there wasn’t much of an option. With a much more powerful workstation the entire workflow could have remained in TIFF, contained in a .PSB document (Photoshop Large Document).


I remember the first time I spoke to Mark over the phone “Sorry, how long is the print again?”. He promised he would check and thankfully it was technically possible to print such a lengthy piece. I sent him the jpegs by email so he could do some test prints before the actual print. Apart from getting the contrast, tonality and all other print quality related criteria right, the biggest concern was making sure the both the software and the printer driver was able to handle such a taxing print job. I remember reading about a photographer in the States who attempted something similar and had to restart the print job after it failed mid-print 4 times. We started the print and we scheduled to meet up the next day for me to pick it up. Fingers crossed. The deadline for the exhibition was close. Thankfully the print was a success on the first try. I had the roll of paper in my hands but thanks to how long it was, the only space where I could unroll it was at the gallery itself. 



How the hell do you mount an 8 meter long roll of paper? The initial idea was to rig up a steel cable and suspend the print horizontally using clips. I would start in the middle and work my way to both edges of the print, with the clips hanging on metal loops so I could later adjust it if the print started warping as it rested. In my mind the sketch worked and it was only after I bought all the necessary items that I realised how impractical the whole thing was. Back to the drawing board, I settled with magnets. The idea was to ‘clamp’ the print using really strong magnets attached to a steel bar, which was screwed into the wall. All the magnets were painted white so they wouldn’t be distracting.


The print was unrolled entirely on the floor, covered with a sheet of protective paper and left overnight to flatten itself. The next day, with gloves and abated breath, we started mounting it. The print was rolled towards the middle from both sides, secured with magnets on top and bottom, then slowly unrolled and secured with more magnets, right side first. Once we did the same with the left side, coordination and communication was key in adjusting the print, a little to the lift, a little bit more upwards, to get it right.



The moment it was up, I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face. I took many steps back and took a good look at it. It was almost exactly as I had imagined it, even before capturing a single frame. As I wound the film and felt the roll of film tighten with each frame, I knew exactly how it would turn out. And now it’s up on a wall.


The exhibition

Friends traveled from far and wide to see the print, which could only be truly appreciated if you stood in front of it. Part of the idea was to re-introduce the element of theatrics in the world of photography. A work so ridiculous and larger-than-life that there was no other way to experience it but to confront it.

I distinctly remember describing the photograph to a blind man. It was such a fascinating experience, using words to recreate what I’ve captured in this mans mind. It was the ultimate test. None of the challenges I faced with scanning and printing mattered anymore. If I can’t translate this experience in the one dimension that I’ve excluded from the show, then I have failed.


Most visitors were curious about the frames overlapping each other. While making the shots, I kept an eye on the position of the waves and timed it so the crest would overlap from one shot to the next. This gave the illusion that it was a panorama of the beach, until they noticed the shifting clouds. It was incredibly confusing for many of them, exactly as I had intended. The subject matter was universal: dark clouds, waves and the horizon but the overlapping frames challenged the way we observed the world and disrupted our perception of time.

Unsurprisingly, there were a few familiar faces who didn’t even bother to look at the piece, let alone come anywhere close to it. Why bother attending the opening of an exhibition if you’re not going to at least acknowledge the works presented, I will never understand. Must have been the lure of free alcohol and mutual masturbation.

The next chapter

My biggest lesson from this exercise? To create anything of creative merit, you have to be stubborn, so fucking stubborn and headstrong in believing in your own ideas and doing whatever it takes to see it through. Along the way, there will only be obstacles and suggestions to compromise, to do things the easy way, to follow in the footsteps of others before you. Succumb to any of these pitfalls and be forever swamped in mediocrity. 

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