Respite

Respite

We piled into the car around 9 pm, eager to be in Pittsboro for the night. As cramped campus roads stretched into expansive highway, I think we all felt a quiet excitement to enter a brief respite from weekday realities. A hastily packed bag rested at my feet, stuffed full of snacks, a heavy Pentax camera, and a few rolls of film.

In the dark, the cabin glowed mysteriously—the landscape of bedtime stories. The only sources of light in the clearing came from behind thick windowpane glass and a fire someone had lit, sending smoke spiraling into the night. In the morning, the cabin became a child’s playground littered with miscellaneous toys, beautifully lopsided and mismatched. Everything inside looked strangely unfinished or out of place. It was sturdy, but looked somehow on the verge of collapse, falling apart at the seams where the walls converged crookedly with the ceiling.

 

Afternoons in the darkroom unwittingly slipped into late evening—hours spent observing blacks and whites appear under dim, amber lighting. Even after months of printing photos, the developing process retains some of its initial magic and euphoria. Watching an image gradually materialize on paper for the first time, I was awed. Even though I know there’s a lot going on in the emulsion of photographic paper, in light hitting silver particles, and in the chemicals we soak film with, there is still a surprising wonder in the tangibility of a photo.

 

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At night, it was easy to point my camera and shoot. Everyone was comfortably wrapped up in the cabin, the music, and the night of debauchery that was unfolding. It was simultaneously raucous and peaceful. The next morning, when I had to beg friends to pose in the nude, everything was suddenly much less comfortable. Yet it felt right to be in this unfamiliar place, somewhere removed from the stone walkways and buildings we pass through every day. In the bitter coldness, my hands shook nervously. We shot only for a few minutes, on a single roll of film, both of us crouched uncertainly amongst dried leaves on a sloping hill, exposed.

 

 

A collection of film canisters, strips of negatives, and prints have slowly piled up on my desk over the last few months. As I learned to shoot on black and white film, I began to see these images a bit differently, noticing and appreciating the subtleties. There are many words for an indescribable quality: ambiance, atmosphere, mood, feeling. Something about the space in these photos feels different. It’s intimately contoured, holding a moment inside carved by particles and light. Black and white removes the distraction of color, allowing poignancy in rich tones of grey. These monochromatic images are beautiful in their simplicity. The physical act of processing film and printing a photo is time-consuming, lengthening the photographer’s experience far beyond the single moment of shutter release. Through this convoluted process, I still hold the memories of taking and making many photos. Taking them was a host of days in different places—a forest, the Duke gardens, Krafthouse, my dorm room, in a car traveling to another destination. Making them was an unexpected escape, suspended moments standing solitary in the darkroom just waiting to see something, a welcome respite from the outside.

 

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Words and Photos by Rae Hsu