A true story of analog photographic paper
There is a heat wave in Russia. The damp hot darkness of the factory floor is suffocating. The chemistry is too warm, won’t bond. Acres of sticky emulsion and unruly silver halides languish. The floor manager dismisses the workers. They exit into blazing white light and for a moment they cannot see at all – pupils contracting painfully. The door, before it slams shut, cuts a brief shaft of light into the dark cavern of the warehouse. The workers board a train that takes them a half-mile to another warehouse, another manager, and another assembly line. But there too, there is a problem – polymers won’t behave in this weather – and in the end they are dismissed for the afternoon; set free to return to TVs and children and swimming holes in empty quarries.
Serge tells me this on the phone late at night in his thick Russian accent. We always speak this way. He is my unlikely ally: a Russian importer of photography products in Southern California. For a couple of years before I knew Serge I bought his paper from B&H. As the volume and scale of my work grew, so did the orders I placed. Until one night I received a phone call, “What are you doing with all this paper?” he wanted to know. I told him I was making photographic rubbings, my own method of pressing the paper into surfaces in darkness and creating images of texture made by the weight of my body. I wanted more of it, bigger pieces; I wanted rolls of it – endless spools of possibility. So I placed a direct order.
Three patient months pass. This too, is part of my work.
The machines were built in 1980 in Japan – the year I was born - by a company that no longer exists. So when they break, a machinist must come - forge and fit new parts from steel, custom cut them to keep these behemoth rollers in motion. Each time might be the last time. Serge warns me of this. I’ve already waited so long, can’t give up now.
He calls after my child is asleep. I can tell instantly from his voice whether it is good news or bad. He describes the myriad variety of delays. This time it’s a new production manager at the factory, a woman who doesn’t understand the urgency, who he has no rapport with – doesn’t have her mobile number. He tells me I’m not the only one waiting; there is a man in New York who waits in vain as well. “Nicest guy you ever met”, and one in Texas too. I picture the three of us on a map, a triad of patience framing our country. Now the headlines everywhere reveal and accuse those who “spoke with the Russians”… fraud, treason, a coup, Putin’s puppet….
Dead Stock. The only explanation is dead stock. There was a paper mill in Germany – I learn this from a woman I meet online, a photo paper connoisseur - It was shuttered 5 years ago and no one has made this single weight paper stock since. The Russian plant must have a stash of dead stock that they gradually dole out, coat with emulsion, and release into the world. I’m beginning to doubt whether they actually still have it. Why won’t they just ship it, or admit that there is nothing left for me? None of us can admit defeat.
Six more months pass. I learn to employ an acrid balance between praise and pressure – never anger. Do not alienate your ally – basic diplomacy. This too, is part of my work.
Six hundred meters of gelatin silver, single-weight photo paper. That’s what I’m waiting for. I don’t think in meters, but I know it’s the length of my stride, so I imagine walking its distance. It’s almost a half-mile. How many pieces of art can I make from that? How long can it sustain me? Will my dark hair have turned white by the time I’ve used it all up – rationing it slowly, one painstaking photogram at a time? Or will I burn through it in a year or two – my own swan song for analog photography? I’ll have to reinvent myself again. I picture rolling it all out, papering the walls of the canyons in Zion on a moonless night. Teams of assistants hang from ropes, rubbing, pressing the paper into the cracks of the red earth. We could use it all up, burn it all down, just like that.
Two months pass. I’ll be wise, I promise, but also bold – I won’t squander this. This too, is part of my work.
He apologized to me today. He said “Klea” (he always says my name when he speaks to me, it’s a habit I notice in people. When I hear my own name spoken I feel suddenly revealed, like a bed sheet is being pulled off my body). “Klea, I’m sorry for your waiting, your suffering, for how this has hurt you, even in your soul”. I was surprised by the drama of that statement, but also by it’s truth; by the way that he sees me, knows what this means to me. In a world overflowing with actual problems: this absurd, gripping desire for a certain kind of paper. He gets it.
Serge tells me that once the paper has been coated with emulsion it needs to “cure” for several weeks in total darkness. Each August the factory shuts down for a long national holiday – two weeks by the Black Sea. My paper is alone now, locked up in the hot, dark warehouse, its surface exposed; the logistics of this image trouble me. Is it draped vertically, doubling back on itself like intestines? Or is it laid flat, rippling; it’s own dark sea swallowing acres of space? There’s no good solution. I lay in bed at night picturing this riddle and elsewhere the factory workers on holiday - awkward figures in bathing suits with crumbling Communist block apartment buildings lining the shore. My entire concept of Russia, I realize, comes from photographs: the characters and landscapes that populate that world are pieces cut from Rodchenko, Mikhailov, Koudelka, Dijkstra, Fusco, Bendikson. I’ve collaged them all into the same story.
Two months pass slowly. Blindness. There is a darkness where my obsession intersects with the absence of information and in it I invent the origin story of my paper. I see the people who make it, their lives and homes. Their devotion or indifference to this material. This too, is part of my work.
Serge tells me that the paper is made and the crates are packed. I veil the disbelief in my voice. He says they always procrastinate; they wait until Friday afternoon to pack the crates and of course, by the time it hits the customs queue, the agents have left for the weekend. So the line grows and grows and sits for days through the heat or the snow. “As far as your eye can see”– miles of train cars and crates waiting on the tracks for passage, for approval to depart the motherland – Petroleum products of every variety, plastic cups and medical devices, fertilizer, guns and photographic paper. He’s seen it with his own eyes, this endless line, this migration of objects.
Now we wait. We wait for the customs papers and the flight schedule. It is in the hands of the universe, and the logistical and human labyrinth that is the freight department at LAX airport. This too, is part of my work.
Days become weeks. With deadlines looming, my desperation has become palpable and Serge makes me a promise: “The moment it clears customs, I will drive it up to you in San Francisco. I’ll drive all night and meet you there, at your studio, in the morning.”
He is here, right in front of me. A different man than I had imagined. He has the gravelly voice of a rugged special-ops agent, so I had cast him as a dark and swarthy spy – world weary and confiding only in me. He arrives in an old silver Honda Accord and nervously tucks his sweaty shirt in as he opens the door. He is short and bald and grinning – jovial and apologetic. We hug awkwardly – like pen pals finally meeting in person. I look around for a truck or trailer, for my half mile of potential, then he pops the trunk. There they are, absurdly diminutive, six rolls, wrapped in brown paper and duct tape. I invite him into my studio where his fingertips graze the surface of my artwork. He tells me “no one else uses paper the way you do”.
This delivery, so long anticipated, has finally arrived. But with it comes the weight of responsibility to make blank paper into something meaningful, to drain away the blankness like floodwaters and find an image in it. This is my work.
A year has passed. And in that year, I have used nearly half of what I thought would last me a decade. The work has grown, as it does, to fill whatever space I allow it. 8-foot-long prints drape the walls of my tiny bathroom-turned-darkroom. I paint them with chemistry and hose them down like I am washing a car. The arc of my brushstroke leaves human-sized streaks in the dark emulsion. During this time of abundance I have missed my chats with Serge, but I have not forgotten my dependence on this man and his paper. I want to avoid a repeat of the great drought of 2017, so I call Serge to pre-order another batch. He greets me with a warm growl and in a covert stage whisper he tells me that my timing is perfect, that “the train is leaving the station and there might never be another train”. Is this code? Metaphor? Or logistical fact? I decide it’s all three, so I double my order. I’m all in.
He says it will ship out in a few weeks, by the end of the year. I don’t believe him, but I also don’t care, as long as I get it eventually. I’m at his mercy and we both know it. This too is part of my work.
Four months pass. Somewhere in this interim Serge mentions, casually, that the factory only survives by the will of the military and is kept afloat by government subsidies. He tells me this as though it has never before occurred to him to mention it – as though it’s the most normal thing in the world: for decades this factory, along with a few others, was responsible for producing the photographic film and paper used by the Soviet satellites for global surveillance. Now, of course, there are digital tools for this sort of recording, but the Soviet military is cautious and ever prepared for a technological backslide. Bracing for an unlikely and sudden need for analog resurgence, they have ordered the factory to remain open and keep these antiquated production lines operative, should they suddenly be called to duty. I am struck by my personal benefit from this…. Because of the analog anxieties of a distant, foreign military, I am able to make my art. This thought both troubles and delights me. It seems to be a riddle, a succinct example of the bizarre logic of the universe – or the even darker: the complete lack of it.
A year passes, in which innumerable text messages and emails dissolve into the ether, unanswered or unseen. He’s gone, he’s a ghost. I often scroll back and read his last message to me, which ends with “Call me anytime if you have questions” and it ends with a smile made of a colon and parenthesis. I do Serge, I do have questions!I text him incessantly: a string of green bubbles unbroken by replies. I sift through the online photo-nerd forums, which I usually avoid (aging white men giving excruciatingly detailed technical advice) to see if anyone else is discussing this disappearance. I check every photography supplier to see if they still carry his products. His company seems to have vanished. I know I should pursue this, but I am pregnant and exhausted and it is easier to just let time pass.
Serge is still not returning my calls. In the time since I have heard from him I have gestated and birthed an entire human being. That human is now eating frittata. How long does it take before I admit I’ve been bamboozled?
I simply cannot see him as a bad man. No matter what others say to me (though so ashamed am I at having been had, that only my husband and my mother know about this). My husband says, “Klea, this guy stole nine thousand dollars from you! There’s no excuse for that.” Yet in my mind there are a thousand reasons why he did it. Why he didn’t want to hurt me, but had to: Russian-American politics, customs agents, global pandemic, economic collapse, personal illness, loan sharks, cargo lost at sea… The possibilities are infinite and I insist on believing that hurting me must have hurt him more. Never in my life have I extended such blind trust to a man. Even I am baffled by my commitment to defending him within my own mind. Once you feel truly seen by someone, a bond is formed that is surprisingly durable. I imagine this is what Trump voters are experiencing; they felt seen and understood in 2016 and no matter how many atrocious, inhumane acts he has committed since then, they cannot sever the bond formed by having felt understood by a stranger. He gets me: I am good therefore he must be good. Making someone feel understood is the most disarming weapon there is. This is a direct path to loyalty.
I am loyal to Serge. I choose to believe that wherever he is, this betrayal weighs on his conscience. I imagine, years from now there will be a late night phone call or an unexpected knock at my door. Like an ex-lover resurfacing; his gravelly voice and one mile of single weight photo paper in the trunk of his car. I’ll wait for it.
Note: this story is true to my experience, but its relationship to these photographs is fictional. Photos are by Boris Mikhailov, Jonas Bendikson, Josef Koudelka, Rineke Dijkstra, Paul Fusco, Alexander Rodchenko and other unknown photographers.