An Old Nikon, Expired Film, and the NASCAR Daytona 500
One man's journey to capture the greatest spectacle in stock car racing...on 40-year-old film.
The Daytona 500 is a feast for the eyes. The cars, the venue, the atmosphere—NASCAR's greatest race delivers every February, and it begs to be captured. This year, ace photographer Chip Litherland—whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, ESPN the Magazine, and USA Today—decided to try something a little different: Shooting the race, analog, using only expired film. The results are absolutely incredible. Here, an excerpt from Chip's blog on the project, process, and product, in his own words:
"A box of super-expired E-6 and C-41 35mm film has been sitting in a box in my closet for years slowly filling up with random rolls collected from friends, found in old camera bags leftover from internships, and the like. This isn’t film that expired just last year. This is film expired with dates like: March 1996. November 1975. April 2004. January 1992. October 2006 ... This was before having flares and crazy-whack color shifts became an app on an iPhone. Some of this film was around when Zack Morris had a brick phone on Saved by the Bell and Kurt Cobain was still thrashing around with Anarchist cheerleaders in a gym.
"I had no idea once I processed film if I would even get anything usable, but my hope was to get images that echoed the timelessness of Daytona and it’s fan base. I packed up a couple film bodies (Nikon FM + FE-2) and grabbed a 50mm and 35mm for each and left the house with just that and a ThinkTank full of film at 4am and headed across the state to the track.
"Getting out of the car was awkward. I’m used to rolling up to a huge sports event with a 400mm on my shoulder a suitcase full of Canon pro bodies, an arsenal of lenses, compact flash cards, and strobes. I didn’t have any of that shit. It was just me, a couple bodies clanking together around my neck and kind of a newbie attitude I hadn’t felt in a while. I didn’t set up a computer, didn’t grab a meal, and definitely didn’t format anything. I just went into the raceway and started shooting. With the first click, I looked like a complete idiot looking at the back of the camera to check exposure as if there was a LCD screen for me to chimp on.
"I downloaded a light meter app for my phone just to help when I needed it. Upon hitting the end of the first roll, winding the film back into the canister to change rolls made me feel right back at home and comfortable. I just wandered, made photos and felt free. I got stopped quite a bit by random fans shocked to something that brought them back to when they shot pictures with a camera and no their iPhone. Too many 'Oh man I used to shoot with a Minolta this or an Pentax that' conversations, but that made it awesome.
"After the shoot, there was no editing (obviously). I just dragged my sunburned, stinky self to the car and tossed 25 shot rolls in a black bag and went home. I was in school/internships when we still shot film, so I had the urge to go process and scan right away. Alas there were no options for that here. I went home, happy and excited to get film out to be processed.
"Fast forward to getting film mailed out to a local lab—one of the last around here—and having to wait to see images. We’re all used to instant gratification ... Once I got the call it was ready, I drove an hour to pick it up from the lab. It had all the smells of the photo lab I worked at in college for years printing color and processing film. It’s where I learned color. I still can taste fixer in my mouth. I paid my $130 and headed home with a passenger seat of film spaghetti and a six pack of local craft IPA after swinging by a friend’s place (thanks Melissa Lyttle!) to grab a film scanner. I purposely tried to hit stoplights so I could hold one of the uncut, sleeves roll of sprocketed images up to the sky in my windshield and see what I got. That feeling has been lost: the ability to hold our images and have a tangible experience with photography.
"I had my wife’s old light table which flickered on and lit up my face in my dark office. No loupe. Ergh. Then I remembered the old trick of using a 50mm lens. I grabbed the same lens I shot all the images on and slowly went frame-by-frame digesting the errors, smiling at the happy accidents, and just having that moment we all used to have doing this with film ... Each expired roll had its own tint based on its age and care in the aging process. Some were army green and horrendous. Others were magenta cast with a light leak and a cool lens flare across the whole thing that are simply filters on Instagram now. Some frames I had hoped for sucked. Others became something totally different depending on where it hit on the roll. Reticulation and grain was at an all time high. Once I began scanning, I didn’t stop.
"This was an awesome experience to approach a shoot with a different process—and that art-making process gets lost in the craziness of this business. Getting imagery out to the world in the matter of seconds just because we can seems to have taken over the fun and thought of what it was like in the film days (which makes me sound old at 38). Slowing down that process and having an interactive, personal experience with pictures is something I’m so happy to bring back into my workflow—if even for just a single shoot. All that being said film is a pain in the ass. We have it so easy now."