88 Minutes in Chinatown

When I get a photo concept in my head, I won’t let the concept go until I’ve actually achieved successful results.  I don’t care how long it takes – weeks, months, years – the journey is just as important as reaching the destination.

Here’s my concept.  I want to take a picture with one type of vintage B&W film, then pop some Instamatic into the camera and continue taking pictures with the second batch of film.  Then I could combine both films into one solid and striking construct.

First I need a worthy subject for this experiment – and unfortunately, I couldn’t find anything in the neighborhood that would fit the bill.  So I started checking out locations OUTSIDE the neighborhood.  I looked for a place with lots of excitement and color and dazzle.

That place … is New York City’s Chinatown.

Guess what, Chuck … you’re going on a road trip.


Before I can even take this road trip … I need to prepare some film.

Take a look at my preparation gear.

For starters, I’ll use one roll of 616 Kodak Verichrome Pan black and white film.  Verichrome Pan has an amazingly long shelf life, so even though it has an expiration date of 1977, I should be able to get decent B&W pictures from this roll.  That’s right, this film is about as old as Boston’s debut album.  And hopefully, the film is still just as good as Boston’s debut album. 😀

Now to “prepare” a second roll of film.  In a light-tight dark room, I cracked open two Kodak Instamatic cartridges and scooped out the undeveloped 24-frame films inside the cartridges.  Since Instamatic film is 35mm in width, I can wrap two 35mm rolls side-by-side in a pack of 70mm rolling paper.

As for the rolling paper, I’m going to use the 70mm paper from a roll of spoiled Kodak Kodacolor II film.  Unlike B&W film, color film doesn’t really last more than a few years past its expiration date before you get color shifts and godawful tints.  The paper backing, however, doesn’t spoil.  So I just extract the old, spoiled film, toss the film away, insert the Instamatic rolls in the paper, roll everything up … and I’m ready.

Sunday night.  Train trip to New York City.  Then down to Chinatown.  Making the trip with me is my AGFA Clipper Special f/6.3 camera, which can take 70mm film in 616 format and provide 16 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 negatives on a single roll.

I’ve used Google Maps and Google Earth to find the best possible image for this picture – and it looks like I found out, at the corner of Pell and Doyers Streets (披露街 and 宰也街) in Chinatown.  There’s plenty of brightly-lit Mandarin and Cantonese signage, and if I can get a shot in bright daylight (with the Verichrome Pan) and then at night (with the Instamatic), then I can create something sweet.

It’s about 6:00 p.m.  I’ve locked my gear in place.  I’m ready to shoot.  Man oh man, look at all these tourists – selfie snappers and lookie-loos – this is going to work.  Dang, I wish I had time to get some dumplings … maybe on another trip.

AGFA Clipper Special f/6.3 in place. Locked and loaded.

Not twenty seconds after I put the camera on the tripod … I feel a raindrop on my nose.

And another one.  And another one.

And thirty thousand more.  Rain storm.

But I’ve already locked my camera in place.  I can’t move now.

So I convince myself that it’s only water, and so long as I just stay in place and don’t get hit by a stray bolt of lightning, I’ll be fine.  I’ll be drenched, but I’ll be fine.  Come on, it’s New York City water, they make pizza from this water.  I can handle a little water, it’s not like it’s raining nails or anything.

The rain came through in waves.  It would stop.  It would start again.  And just when I thought it would stop again … more rain on the way.

People would walk by me, see my photography setup, and ask me, “Aren’t you worried that your camera will get wet?”

Me?  A camera I bought for $15 at a flea market in Brimfield?  That I could probably replace for $20 on eBay?

Nah, I’m good.  This camera’s lasted nearly ninety years, it can handle a few raindrops.  It won’t melt.

The rain also had an additional effect – it created puddles in the street.

And puddles in the street can give a photographer a nice “reflection” shot.

Which is what I achieved with this image, which I captured as a “test” shot with my BlackBerry.

Pegasus on Pell Street. BlackBerry KEYone camera phone. Photo (c) Chuck Miller, all rights reserved.

Now this is a nice photo – and with some adjustments, I could see this as a “short pile” entry in case my real established goal isn’t achieved.

I started to wind my camera for the first batch of film.  With the AGFA Clipper Special F/6.3, you have to look through a small red window in the back of the camera to see the frame number.  I can get 16 square images in this camera, so long as I pay attention to the frame numbers.

Man, this is taking a long time to get to Frame #1.  I can barely see the counter against the red frame window.

Wind wind wind.

And then I see, after what seemed like an eternity – Frame #6.

Oh crap.  I just wound past half the film roll.  Instead of sixteen frames – #1 through #8 twice – I now have maybe six shots available.

And I have to make them count.  I can’t un-wind this film and try again.

I spaced out every shot – maybe a half an hour to 45 minutes between exposures.  Gotta make what’s left of my film last.

Eventually, the skies cleared.  And I could see the sun.

Oh … did I happen to mention that Pell Street runs from east to west?

Did I happen to mention that my photographic subjects are in the west?

And did I happen to mention that I’m freakin’ staring at the sun as it’s right in the dead center of my shooting angle?

Yep.  I’ve got a sun delay now.  I have to wait for the sun to dip behind one of the buildings, or I’ll be shooting straight at the brightest light in our universe.

Ugh.

Meanwhile, I’m watching some of the other activity along Pell Street.  A couple of model / influencer photo shoots are happening nearby.  One young model – who was wearing a gauzy white minidress and carrying a white parasol with Chinese symbols on it – looked like she was participating in the finals of America’s Nest Top Cultural Appropriator.

I passed the wait time by helping some couples take group pictures, and also explaining to passers-by what I was up to.  Everybody seemed curious.  They wanted to know if I was worried about using such an old camera.  Does it still work.  Can I get film for it.  Why don’t I shoot this with an iPhone.


Okay.  Sun is down.  Verichrome Pan is now used up.

Out comes the roll of exposed Verichrome Pan.

In goes the roll of wound Instamatic film on a 616 spool.  Time for Round 2 of this little adventure.

And by using my camera phone’s flashlight to illuminate the frame counter in the back of my camera, I was able to see the number counters on the film – and, by extension, get the necessary exposures.  And I was able to make sure that my first exposure was on Frame #1.

I even took another night shot with my BlackBerry KEYone camera phone, just as a test.

Pell Street at Night. BlackBerry KEYone camera phone. Photo (c) Chuck Miller, all rights reserved.

Again … I could use this if I wanted to, but I want something extra special.

My light meter on my cell phone suggested I go for long exposures on this film.  So I cranked the F-stop down to F/16 and set an exposure for 15 seconds per frame.

This is crazy.  But if my light meter says try it, I’ll try it.

I did bracket out some 10-second exposures and 5-second exposures, just in case…

At around 9:30, I caught a ride share back to Penn Station.  A train ride and another Uber pickup, and I was back in the Town and Village.  I’m home.  2:30 in the morning.  Awake, but not by much.  And I have to take care of things before daylight.

I quickly grab two black light-tight plastic film canisters, take my AGFA – which still has the Instamatic film in it – and head into my dark room.

Lights out.

I pull out the exposed Instamatic film from the camera, and place it in the light-tight canisters.  A quick check to make sure both films are securely sealed inside the canisters.

Lights on.

What you see here are three rolls of film – a 70mm roll of black and white Kodak Verichrome Pan, and two black cartridges with repurposed Instamatic film.  Okay, time for me to go to sleeeeeee…… zzzzzzz…. zzzzzzz….

With Monday being Memorial Day, I had to wait until Tuesday morning to bring my film to McGreevy Pro Lab, my pro lab of choice.  Develop, do not cut, save the rolling paper, save the 616 spindle, and save the black canisters.

McGreevy develops film on Wednesday, and I’ll find out how things turned out on Thursday. They will send me an invoice Wednesday night – if I see development costs on all three films, then I have a chance at success.

Again, I’m nervous.  I have absolutely no idea how well the film has survived to this day.  Was it improperly stored for years before I acquired it?  Did the film “turn” to the point where it was just plain unusable?  Did I completely waste this trip?

On Thursday morning, I received an e-mailed invoice from McGreevy Pro Lab.  I checked over the invoice.  All three films developed.

There were no messages about blank film or undevelopable images.

So that’s a positive.

That afternoon, I bolted over to McGreevy Pro Lab.  I took a quick glimpse at the Verichrome Pan film.

It’s almost completely blank.  Crap.

Oh wait … at the end of the roll, there are at least three exposures.  These must have been my last three shots on the roll.

And…

I’ve got something.  A quick glimpse of the Instamatic film – and I can see where some of the neon lights and brake lights and signage lights all showed up on the long exposures.  I guess the light meter wasn’t wrong.

Tonight … it’s time to scan and crop and tighten this up.  I need this to work.  I really, really need to make this work.  I’ve come this far, I can’t drive back to Chinatown and try this again.  If I didn’t get it right this time …

No, Chuck.  No more “didn’t.”  Instead, say “will.”  As in “I will get this right this time.”

Thursday night.  I get the black and white film scanned.  I find at least two good Instamatic shots and scan them as well.

I then process the Instamatic film, boost the color as much as possible …

I layer both pictures onto the black and white construct …

And…

88 Minutes in Chinatown. AGFA Clipper Special F/6.3, Kodak Verichrome Pan AND Kodak Gold 200 Instamatic film. Photo (c) 2019 Chuck Miller, all rights reserved.

Well now.  This looks nice.  Very nice.

I’ve got the concept.  And this is what came out.

I’ll put this in the short pile, for sure.

And you never know … I may be satisfied with this image ….

Or I may build on this image and make something better from it.

Come on, you know me by now.  You know I’m going to keep building from this.

I always do.


This morning, after my blog went live, I looked at the picture … and realized that I over-did it.  That second color photo – the brake lights going up the road – ruined the image.

So …

I clipped that out and re-processed the whole picture.

88 Minutes in Chinatown. AGFA Clipper Special f/6.3, with Kodak Verichrome Pan AND Kodak Gold Instamatic 200 film. Photo (c) Chuck Miller, all rights reserved.

Much better.  Now we have a solo pedestrian on a Chinatown street, walking towards the colors of night.

This one goes in the short pile instead of the other one.

In other words … it’s definitely okay to sleep on concepts, because the concepts can work their way to the top eventually.

Hey, it worked for Edgar Cayce… maybe it will work for me.