The hidden superpower of photography

Learning the power of an underappreciated art form

My true self is not someone who people know or inquire about. No one ever seems to know where I really spend all of my time or what I do into the late hours of the night. I am an enigma that only a handful of people at this University have managed to decipher. 

I, ladies and gentlemen, am a film photographer. 

This is nowhere near as dramatic as I built it up to be — it is not a secret that photography is a studio art major concentration offered at the University. However, it is a very tiny department and outside of my classes, it is near impossible to meet anyone even remotely familiar with it.

To start with, most of the time no one knows where the “art” part of the University exists. I always get blank looks when I mention the name Ruffin Hall (or people will correct me with, “Oh, you mean Ruffner, right?”). 

I don’t blame them, to be quite honest. The only people who ever approach that area are studio art majors, those taking a drama class or Architecture students. If people know of Ruffin, it is usually because they had a class there as a first-year, back when they were eager, young students looking for fun and “easy” ways to fulfill the College fine arts requirement. These same students quickly have a change of heart when they realize that Drawing I is not as breezy as the name might suggest. 

Though quite an ordeal, I managed to stick out Drawing I and even Drawing II. Once you do, the gateway to the arts department opens and a whole array of classes, from sculpture to printmaking to photography, are at your disposal. 

This is how I found myself in my first ever black and white film photography class, and it was not what I expected at all. Everything was so … manual. There is no such thing as a digital photography class at the University, as I later learned. Everything is film. Which meant we also were responsible for everything from buying rolls of 35mm film to cranking out gorgeous black and white pictures on glossy paper. No CVS film developing allowed here. 

The other thing I learned the hard way was that everything about film photography is immediately permanent. There is no trash can icon on my camera to get rid of a picture. In the darkroom, there is no Photoshop. The entire process is like a row of dominoes. If one step fails, everything else after grinds to a halt as well, and you have no choice but to start all over again. If you managed to develop film with pictures on it, what you saw was what you got. There was not much you could do to get your shot to look a certain way. 

In spite of all that, film photography is one of the most rewarding processes I have ever experienced. There is nothing more satisfying than watching a picture form before your very eyes, a literal appearance of the art you created. Making a picture in a darkroom requires you to dip paper in various chemicals that react with the paper. The reaction is what causes your photograph to slowly formulate, and you get to watch with great satisfaction as the true blacks, the grey tones and the brilliant white highlights emerge and come together to make your masterpiece. After a while of going through the motions of film photography, you can begin to get a sense of what makes a good picture and how to take a picture — all because you literally created it with your own hands.  

This is my superpower. I literally make photographs. I make things people see on the street appear on a sheet of paper in a darkroom and transform it into something magical just with the binary of black and white. I use chemicals and light to manually nudge and shift the picture to how I want it to look — within the wiggle room that I have of course — and it is certainly an exhilarating feeling just to be able to do that.

The only drawback is that, like all other superpowers, this one remains mostly anonymous. It is not very often that I am able to show my friends or my family where I work, how I work, what I create and the amount of effort I put into this craft. Perhaps it is a combination of the location of this building — quite out of the way for people in general — and that my small group of people indulges in rather archaic and seemingly ‘irrelevant’ processes. 

I like to think the opposite. Doing film photography has only made the world more relevant to me, and I use every excuse to take a picture and kickstart the process that has become a talent and a power of mine. 

Shree Baphna is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at life@cavalierdaily.com. 

related stories