This is a stage too often neglected by photographers. I have a large archive of negatives (it used to be larger – but several years-worth of work were lost in recent floods. I suspect that only a fellow photographer can truly imagine how painful that was, – and is) and I am conscious that the my relationship with this is much like that of someone exploring an extensive, varied, but half-familiar, landscape. In which you can only every be in one place at a time.
Till 2011 I worked exclusively in the darkroom and would make contact sheets of my negatives. In 2011 my life circumstances changes and made it so that I could no longer run a darkroom. Though I continue to work with film, developing it at home, I now make rough digital scans of my negatives. And, undoubtedly, evaluating rough scans on-screen is more reliable and more enjoyable than peering at contact sheets through a magnifying glass.
Though I look at my images immediately after developing it and scanning them I try to give myself some time before evaluating them, or working with them. One is still too hopeful, too much in the mindset of why one took them, to be at all impartial as a judge. If an image still looks good a few months later then I can start to trust my response.
Sometimes I will leave decades between the taking of a photograph and my printing it. With certain images it can take decades before I realise their true worth. Sometimes, whilst photographing, one can have a brief, aberrant moment of insight and inspiration which pushes you to take an unusual photograph. But because that moment of insight was transitory, when you come to evaluate those photos you will no longer have the insight necessary for appreciating that image’s true value, and so reject it as a failure.
However, that transitory insight may return and eventually become formulated, familiar and firmly established in your mind. And when you revisit the photograph in question, the photograph which you rejected, it blooms into meaning and beauty, illuminated by the same insight which drove you to take it in the first place.
Of course, this means that such photographs are unikely to be ‘crowd-pleasers’, exploring as they do something that is difficult, evanescent and liminal. But for me, this is photography at its most interesting – because it challenges us to feel new things, and to feel and engage with the visual world more deeply.
I have made the same journey with the work of other photographers, especially the work of Eugene Atget. There are some photographs of Atget which left me cold when I first saw them, wondering ‘why on earth has that been included in this selection?‘
Then a few years later, leafing through the same book, stopping at my favourites, the pages opens at that photograph and a new meaning and beauty that I had hitherto been blind to floods my vision. In the intervening time I had learnt to understand the photograph.