Schrödinger’s Film

As I was developing a few rolls of film recently, it occurred to me that the developing tank is akin to Schrödinger’s Box, with the film taking the place of the cat (rest assured I did not try to stuff a cat in the developing tank). If I’ve already lost you, Schrödinger’s Cat refers to the thought experiment proposed by Erwin Schrödinger whereby a live cat sealed in a box with a radioactive poison exists in two states – alive and dead – until such time as the box is opened to observe it. Similarly, film in the tank with the developer is both developed and undeveloped until you open the tank and have a look. The isotope decays, the developer develops, and you know it will happen in theory, but in practice the closed container prevents confirmation, and thus both cat and film exist, respectively, in two states simultaneously.

By the same logic, film in a camera also exists in two states – exposed and unexposed. Just as we know the poison will kill the cat, so too do we know that the shutter will expose the film, but we cannot confirm that it has happened without examining the result. One might argue that releasing the shutter is a more positive action on the outcome than simply placing the poison in the box – indeed, I would make that argument – but the uncertainty remains.

This observation, like so many of the things that run through my head and occasionally spill out, is fairly useless. I find it an interesting thing to consider, however, primarily in the psychological sense. How does the dual state of film affect they way photographers shoot it? How has this changed since the advent of digital photography, i.e., now that a more certain alternative exists, how does the deliberate selection of a medium that by definition must exist in an unknown (or dual) state from the time the back of the camera is closed to the time the developing tank is opened reflect upon the type of photographer that prefers this to the reassuring and instant certainty of digital? What is the appeal? Why do some photographers embrace uncertainty?

The prosaic answers, focusing on the physical objects, are that film looks different than digital, or that the cameras are more fun to use, or that one likes the process, but I wonder if it’s more than that. Is it the promise of the endorphin rush of pulling freshly developed film from the tank? Is it the gambler’s stake of having something to lose by screwing up, or simply by the whims of chance (light leak, expired fixer, whatever)? Is it the displaced manifestation of a latent hatred of cats? I don’t know that there are clear answers here, even for me (except for the last one – I like cats), let alone any universal truth, but I think the question is valid.


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