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Bad Negatives: California Coast and the Redwood Forest

Juras­sic Park had just been released in Pak­istan, and Dino-fren­zy ensued. The Chip-Kidd designed logo cov­ered every inan­i­mate thing in red, yel­low and bone. Wrapped up in the fren­zy, I begged my par­ents to fill my life with dinosaurs. They bought me a T‑Rex, a veloci­rap­tor, and a tricer­atops. Once I had the toys, I decid­ed to go a step fur­ther; I con­vinced myself that *I* was a dinosaur, and so in every pic­ture, for almost a year, I would fero­cious­ly open my jaws tall and wide, ready to bite with vicious ani­mos­i­ty. It nev­er worked out how I imag­ined though because my teeth had­n’t come out yet.

One day, dur­ing our lunch break at school, one of the kids who had just come back from a sum­mer vaca­tion in Amer­i­ca yelled: “I saw the dinosaurs!” All the kids hud­dle around him. “I went to a place called the red­woods, where they have the tallest and old­est trees in the world. The trees are so tall, that they extend beyond the sky! Its the only place in the world dinosaurs are alive! Look at this,” he said show­ing us pic­tures of him with a brontosaurus.

When I came home and told my par­ents and my broth­ers, they would­n’t believe me! “That’s it,” I thought. “I have to go to Amer­i­ca, and I have to go to the red­woods, and I have to see the dinosaurs for myself.” Alas, years went by. I grew up and real­ized that the pic­tures my friend took were real­ly at Uni­ver­sal stu­dios and that dinosaurs were sup­pos­ed­ly extinct.

But the dream to see the Red­woods was still alive, so Mag­gie and I decid­ed to dri­ve 8hrs from Seat­tle to Cres­cent City CA. Of course, the first thing I did when we booked our trip was get­ting a 3ft Juras­sic Park decal, and stick it to the tire cov­er of our big red jeep whom we affec­tion­ate­ly call Jhule Laal. Going to Cal­i­for­nia was a shock to all my expec­ta­tions. Grow­ing up on Coke, movies, and pop-cul­ture, I always imag­ined Cal­i­for­nia to be a mag­i­cal place with beau­ti­ful and lib­er­al peo­ple who cared about mak­ing art and adding beau­ty to the world. The sun­light baked every­thing in Cal­i­for­nia gold.

To my sur­prise, the real­i­ty was a lot more con­ser­v­a­tive than what I had imag­ined. We stopped by at a Star­bucks locat­ed in a strip mall in Grants Pass, just out­side of Cres­cent City. Mag­gie took this pic­ture of me with Jhule Laal. As soon as we entered Cal­i­for­nia, the grandeur of the trees over­whelmed all oth­er feel­ings. The trees were unlike any­thing else I have ever seen before. Sur­pris­ing­ly, it was not their immense size that I was drawn to the most but their texture–red-brown, the bark stood tall and straight like crack­ling fire soar­ing towards the pas­tel sky.

Sanwal Deen standing in front of a red Jeep Liberty 2005 with a Jurassic Park Tire cover
On the way to Cres­cent City CA

Their beau­ty betrayed the secret to their long lives—the rud­dy col­or of the trees comes from the pres­ence of tan­nin, a chem­i­cal that pro­tects the trees from attack­ing insects and fun­gi. If a tree falls and breaks, the tan­nin soon cov­ers the bro­ken ends of the tree, giv­ing it the appear­ance of hav­ing been burned or cre­osot­ed, and this nat­ur­al treat­ment pro­tects the wood from decay.

Tree from the redwood national forest, Shot on Kodak Color Plus 200

The red­woods con­tain nei­ther pitch nor resin, a flam­ma­ble sub­stance found in many oth­er trees like pines. Instead, the sap found in red­woods pri­mar­i­ly con­sists of water; com­bine that with the asbestos-like bark that is often more than six­ty cen­time­ters in thick­ness, and you have a tree that is vir­tu­al­ly inde­struc­tible by fire. When a fire does catch, it burns its way through the cracks in the bark and essen­tial­ly hol­lows out parts of the tree, leav­ing the major­i­ty of the struc­ture intact. Nei­ther dis­ease nor fire could kill these giants. They can and have exist­ed for more about 2000 years. The only real threat to the for­est came in the 1800s when the Euro­pean invaders start­ed mak­ing their way west and kept chop­ping them down in the good name of indus­try. The nation­al park web­site states:

By the 1960s, log­ging had con­sumed near­ly 90 per­cent of all the orig­i­nal red­woods. It wasn’t until 1968 that Red­wood Nation­al Park was estab­lished, which secured some of the few remain­ing stands of uncut red­woods. In 1978, Con­gress added more land that includ­ed logged-over por­tions of Red­wood Creek. Today, these lands are under­go­ing large-scale restora­tion by the parks’ resource man­agers. Log­ging con­tin­ues on pri­vate­ly-held lands near­by and through­out the red­wood region.” 1

That’s unfor­tu­nate because look­ing at the red­woods is tru­ly a mag­i­cal expe­ri­ence, it is like star­ing right into the length and breadth of his­to­ry. A world with­out the red­woods would be a world with­out imag­i­na­tion. The next day, as we were dri­ving down to the red­wood for­est, we encoun­tered a gigan­tic Paul Bun­yan tow­er­ing as tall as the red­woods with an ax in his hands and an admirably hairy chest. “The Trees of Mys­tery,” the sign read. There was also a gigan­tic cow next to Paul; Amer­i­can kitsch at it’s finest, and I loved it! The main attrac­tion of the trees of mys­ter­ies was a long ride towards the top of a moun­tain in a gon­do­la. Lazy and exhaust­ed from trav­el, we decid­ed to take a golf cart towards the Sky­train, where we had to wait in a long time till it was our turn. We shared our Gon­do­la with a cou­ple that spoke in German.

More than the trees and the ocean, I loved the way the light was falling on Mag­gie, and how expres­sive and hap­py her face had become when she saw the ocean. Prompt­ly, I took her pic­ture. We were to be greet­ed with a breath­tak­ing view as we reached the top. The tall tree­line formed a nat­ur­al “v” shape, lead­ing the eye to the bril­liant blue of the ocean.

On the way down, we decid­ed to fol­low a trail that took us through a sec­tion where the trees were orga­nized in a cir­cu­lar for­ma­tion and stood tall togeth­er. We learned that “the trees that have grown up from the liv­ing remains of the stump of a fall­en red­wood, and since they grew out of the perime­ter, they are orga­nized in a cir­cle. If you looked at the genet­ic infor­ma­tion in a cell of each of these trees, you would find that they were iden­ti­cal to each oth­er and the stump, they sprang from. They are clones!” 


Because of their cir­cu­lar for­ma­tion, the trees were labeled as “cathe­drals.” We saw a lot of peo­ple on their knees, pray­ing as if in a sacred site. It felt a lit­tle intru­sive to be in that space so we ven­tured onwards with­out spend­ing too much time to look at and admire the trees.

We left the Red­woods for the ocean. The ocean was, as always, spec­tac­u­lar. Some­thing was reas­sur­ing about watch­ing the waves hyp­not­i­cal­ly ris­ing like rolling hills, spread­ing, then dying on the shore; com­fort­ing to know that acts of beau­ty and grace will con­tin­ue to repeat like musi­cal notes, pound­ing end­less­ly across the shore. With each pass­ing wave, the pacif­ic seemed to be mur­mur a secret, and I felt I could spend my entire life try­ing to deci­pher it.

We start­ed walk­ing along the shore­line as Mag­gie want­ed to explore the tide pools and observe every­thing that washed up to the shore. We made a friend named George who seemed to be run­ning away from us. The clos­er we came the faster he ran. It start­ed get­ting unusu­al­ly hot so we walked clos­er to where the waves were break­ing. Look­ing at the waves lap­ping our feet, I noticed small tad­pole-like crea­tures float­ing in the water before reced­ing into the ocean. They wrig­gled and wreathed. Nat­u­ral­ly, I squealed with fright because I did­n’t want to acci­den­tal­ly stomp on them; Mag­gie, how­ev­er, start­ed laugh­ing at me even though I did­n’t think there was any­thing fun­ny about the situation.

Soon, Mag­gie’s laugh was to turn into ter­ror, as we dis­cov­ered where all these crea­tures were com­ing from: It was a small organ­ism engulfed in a ten­der shell; the tad­pole-like crea­tures seemed to be ema­nat­ing from it. We could­n’t tell if the organ­ism in the shell was their moth­er, or if they were eat­ing it. Or both? It was ter­ri­fy­ing to look at, so ter­ri­fy­ing that we imme­di­ate­ly walked far­ther back into the safe­ty of the sand.

We talked about our dreams and our future. We dreamed about how we would like to own a large house where our loved ones could live around us. About hav­ing a real Dha­ba one day, where we could spend each moment in each oth­er’s pres­ence. About mak­ing art and adding cre­ativ­i­ty into the world.

I love these long, ten­der walks with Mag­gie. I love hold­ing her hand and walk­ing along­side infin­i­ty, dream­ing about what is and what can be. It is a feel­ing as com­plete as sun­light under a palm tree sway­ing with the breeze. Lat­er on that night, we returned to the beach because I want­ed to exper­i­ment with gelled flash and ocean water at night­time. The mood at the beach had dra­mat­i­cal­ly changed from the after­noon. There were a lot more fam­i­lies, and the waves meshed and mixed with the sound of laugh­ter and hap­py moments.

Mag­gie helped me set up my cam­era and made sure my bag and equip­ment did­n’t get flood­ed by the incom­ing waves. At that moment, I felt a deep appre­ci­a­tion for Mag­gie. To have some­body that sup­ports your dreams and goes out of their way to sup­port you in mak­ing them hap­pen, sup­port you even when you fail…looking at the ocean and then at Mag­gie, I thanked the stars for how lucky I am to have her in my life. It’s as if she is my eyes, with­out her all the dreams would with­er away like ash­es in the wind.         On our last day, we decid­ed to do a quick hike around Enderts Beach, eat an ear­ly break­fast and head back to Seat­tle so that we could reach home before nightfall.

It was a very atmos­pher­ic morn­ing. Fog shroud­ed every­thing in a mys­tery, reveal­ing the world one move­ment at a time. The trees seemed larg­er than ever; the fog engulf­ing the tree­tops and cre­at­ing the impres­sion that the bark extend­ed for infin­i­ty. The shore was per­haps the high­light of the trip. There were tide pools every­where; Mag­gie start­ed face-tim­ing her mom and left me to my devices; I prompt­ly start­ed snap­ping away. My film was near­ing its end so I had to rewind it just a lit­tle bit to snap the last frame which led to an inter­est­ing, almost panoram­ic multiple-exposure:

After chang­ing the reel I went onwards to explore the rocks and all the lit­tle crabs and fish­es hid­ing in the crevices. As we were dri­ving back, I noticed this beau­ti­ful open­ing by the side of the road, and instant­ly knew I had to get a pic­ture, much to Mag­gie’s dis­may. To make mat­ters worse, I insist­ed on tak­ing the pic­ture using my large for­mat cam­era, so it would take some time set­ting up the pic­ture. She decid­ed to wait in the car as I walked towards the pic­ture with my dark cloth, tri­pod and film backs.

Just as I had fin­ished set­ting up, I saw Mag­gie run­ning towards me. Even from a dis­tance, I could tell she had a pet­ri­fied look on her face. Ter­ror com­bined with anger. So I did what any sen­si­ble per­son would do–hid under the dark cloth and start­ed focus­ing the lens as quick­ly as pos­si­ble. With the focus adjust­ed, I was about ready to put the film back in, when I felt my dark cloth go off.

Come on, we got­ta go. We haven’t seen a sin­gle cop through­out this trip and I just saw three go by us. You look strange hid­ing under your dark cloth with that Giant cam­era, and I don’t want any­one to both­er us. Let’s go.”

But but!!!” I protest­ed “I am almost done with my picture”

Ok hur­ry up!”

I quick­ly insert­ed the film back and pressed the shut­ter. “Ok, just one more.”

By this time I had com­plete­ly exhaust­ed Mag­gie’s patience. She grabbed my bags and start­ed walk­ing towards the car.

But it’s all set up! Let me take just one more.”

Alas, she would­n’t have any of it. My bag and film were gone. At least I got the pic­ture: We drove onwards to the break­fast din­er. There was a long line and we had to wait for about 30 mins before we got a seat at the table. It was very uncom­fort­able to be there because we did­n’t feel very wel­come. There weren’t a lot of oth­er restau­rants in the vicin­tiy, so we did­n’t have much choice.

As we were leav­ing the restau­rant, an old­er woman hissed at me. A curse would have seemed intim­i­dat­ing, per­haps even dramatic…but a hiss? I won­der what she was thinking.

We were ready to be home.

Film Cri­tique:

The films I used through­out the trip were the 35mm vari­ants of Kodak Col­or Plus 200 and Kodak Por­tra 400 and I used Kodak Por­tra 160 for the 4×5 film. I devel­oped the 35mm neg­a­tives using reclaimed chem­i­cals after devel­op­ing my 4×5 neg­a­tives. In ret­ro­spect, it was a poor deci­sion, because a lot of these neg­a­tives seem to have come out under­ex­posed. The images are unusu­al­ly grainy and noisy. But I can’t be 100% sure. There are so many X fac­tors that could have caused the neg­a­tives to come out like this:
1) Poor expo­sure
2) Exhaust­ed Chem­i­cals
3) Scan­ner qual­i­ty
4) When I was devel­op­ing the 4×5 neg­a­tives, I did­n’t do a rinse bath between the devel­op­er and Blix. The Blix might have been con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed and caused prob­lems
5) I devel­oped the 35mm film using the reclaimed chem­i­cals from the 4×5 devel­op­ing with­out increas­ing devel­op­ing time. Neg­a­tives might be underdeveloped

I believe in film. But when I see my images come out look­ing like crap, images that could have been good, I begin to have seri­ous doubts about all the time, effort and mon­ey I have poured into explor­ing ana­log pho­tog­ra­phy. It makes me feel guilty, hope­less and makes me want to give up pho­tog­ra­phy altogether.

While I still love the way my medi­um and large for­mat neg­a­tives look, I have become increas­ing­ly dis­mayed by the neg­a­tives that come out of 35mm cam­era, which is a shame because I enjoy shoot­ing 35mm the most. Maybe it’s not even the medi­um, maybe the prob­lem is hap­pen­ing with my scanner…Either way, I am at a point where I have invest­ed so much time, mon­ey and resources that my patient to invest any more time explor­ing this is run­ning thin.

As a next step, I am going to try and elim­i­nate some of the X‑factors when I devel­op my col­or film next. I will:
1) Expose all films at the prop­er set­ting
2) Use fresh chem­i­cals
3) DO a rinse cycle between devel­op­er and Blix
4) Scan the same neg­a­tives at the PCNW using flu­id mount­ing techniques.

If I keep get­ting results like this, I might just stop try­ing to devel­op neg­a­tives at home and just send them out to the lab. If that does­n’t work either, I am switch­ing back to digital.


  1. https://www.nps.gov/redw/learn/historyculture/area-history.htm
  2. https://www.treesofmystery.net/
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