Memory in ice, and the sorcery of forgotten photographs | The Pinnacle

Lost photographs on a forgotten roll of 35mm film bring back submerged memories from a difficult period of my life.

Like many people of my age, I got started shooting film as a child and into my teens because nothing else was available, but then moved on to digital in the early 2000s. It was only much later that I rediscovered film. In 2014, going back to basics with a 35mm SLR (the lovely Pentax MX) for about a year helped me to reset my photographic eye and relearn the basics. Since then I’ve shot maybe two or three rolls a year most years. Once a roll has been completed, I send it off to AG Photographic for development and scanning.

Earlier this week, I happened to find a roll of Fujifilm Superia 400 (one of my favourite film stocks) in a drawer. The leader had been wound back into the can, so I reasoned that it had probably been exposed and forgotten about, perhaps for several years. Curious, I posted it off to AG Photographic to see what, if anything, was on the roll. I wasn’t expecting much – film should generally be developed shortly after it has been exposed, as the latent image can degrade if left in the can for too long.

The results came in on Friday, and I was both delighted and deeply moved to find that this roll dated from early 2018, during the aftermath of the infamous ‘Beast from the East’ – a spell of unusually cold and snowy weather. I have digital images from this period, of course, but I’d completely forgotten that I’d also taken some images on film. Although the colours have shifted slightly from what I usually expect from Superia 400, image quality is still very good thanks to the skilled work of the folk at AG Photographic.

As I write in The Farthest Shore, early 2018 was a strange, tragic, but also beautiful period of my life. My dad had died in February, during the height of the Beast from the East, and in my mind I came to associate the snows with his death: first the storm itself, the choking of landscape and memory in numb blankness, and then the long thaw in which bastions of ice resisted the spring melt. Ice has memory. Ice has a habit of resurfacing old things long believed lost or hidden. These ideas took a long time to accumulate and nudge through to the conscious layers of my mind, a process assisted by taking photographs, by watching the snow patches melt in the Lincolnshire farmland, by visiting Helvellyn’s long-lasting ice cap at the end of that long winter. In my award-winning TGO feature, ‘Summits and Skylarks’, I wrote ‘Is it the snow’s very defiance and survival, though ultimately doomed, that we respond to, even if we aren’t aware of it?’

Images, for me, form the skeleton of memory: a structure around which constellations form. I can go back to a particular month’s folder in my Lightroom library and the images contained therein inform what I remember about that month. For new images to be discovered from a time in my own past is, it turns out, a disruptive event.

There are submerged associations that can return only when prompted in the right way, like an invocation. A chord sequence from Tschaikovsky’s 1st Symphony, played by a hospital radio at a deathbed, is given life again by a picture of ice long melted. And then there are the striking physical similarities between the eroded surface of old snow and my dad’s cancer-ravaged skin as he lay there on that final day. A slumping and a shrinking. That the film canister was forgotten (or concealed?) at that difficult time may itself be a fact laden with significance.

The images hit me with force because they were unexpected, and because they added new layers of memory to a period I had believed to be closed. Memory encased within ice encased within photographic film encased within a canister encased within a desk drawer and forgotten about for three years. Perhaps even a form of hauntology.

Of course, such a thing is possible with digital photography too, as anyone who has ever found a lost SD card can tell you. But perhaps the physical and yet ephemeral nature of an undeveloped 35mm negative, like that of the ice recorded on it, helps make a more direct link to the past. For me it does. The latent image is there, but it’s fragile and requires arcane skill to coax into visible form. Leave it too long, expose it to the sun’s rays, and it will dissolve into oblivion.

Links of interest

Mountain Writing Competition 2021 – Did you know that Mountaineering Scotland have run an annual mountain writing competition since 1987? The aim is to find the best in new mountain writing, and entries for this year’s competition are open now. There are sections for prose and poetry.

Rewilding your attention – Apologies for linking to Medium, but this is good. ‘If you want to have wilder, curiouser thoughts, you have to avoid the industrial monocropping of big-tech feeds. You want an intellectual forest, overgrown with mushrooms and towering weeds and a massive dead log where a family of raccoons has taken up residence.’

Every Picture Tells a Story – Fabulously beautiful sketchnotes/sketchmaps here. Walking, writing, and art are intertwined.

The Munros: A History – An extract from the new book by Andrew Dempster.

Max Sebald’s Writing Tips – Some of this advice is solid gold. I like this one: ‘Young authors are often too worried about getting things moving on the rails, and not worried enough about what’s on either side of the tracks.’ Also: ‘None of the things you make up will be as hair-raising as the things people tell you.’

Recently published

Mountain navigation basics: how to read a map – The first in a series of mountain skills guides in TGO magazine aimed at beginners. This one was first published in the August 2021 print edition.

Until next time,


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