Multiple exposure photography: Wisdom through error by Dylan Culhane

For some years now, multiple exposure photography has been the focus of my work. It all started quite by chance, through a series of ‘mistakes’ made on a Holga camera. On a few occasions I forgot to wind on the film to the next negative, and accidentally made two exposures on the same frame. The results were unexpected, and technically incorrect, but there was something so mesmerising about these hybridised images composed of two separate realities. Over time I began to experiment with this idea, purposefully replicating those initial mistakes I had made, and applying my own logic to the choice of subjects to superimpose. What started off as a random error soon became an obsession. What was so interesting about the process is that – even though I began making increasingly abstract images – it developed within me a far greater and more refined understanding of light and shadow. You see, there are scientific truisms at play when making multiple exposures. In a nutshell, the second (or third, or fourth…) exposure on a piece of negative will show through much more clearly in darker areas of the frame, and will appear faint or invisible on lighter areas of the frame. Accordingly, I found myself more focused on Ansel Adams’ ‘zone system’ than ever before in my journey as a photographer, even though the images I was making were not beholden to objective reality.

Anyway, without getting too technical, the point I’m trying to make is that film is a fragile, volatile medium – prone to errors (light leaks, multiple exposure, over exposure etc.) that can be frustrating. However, I learnt a valuable lesson about embracing these mistakes, and in fact turning them into lessons that have not only improved my technical knowledge of photography, but have also unlocked creativity in my work. Discovering the imaginative potential of multiple exposure photography put me on my own path, which is perhaps the hardest thing to discover as an amateur photographer. Everybody seems to be chasing after the most realistic images possible, but taking a step back from the scramble for perfection and playing around with my camera as though it were a toy and not a machine (the Holga, made of plastic, does in fact feel like a toy in your hands) enabled me to discover my own voice, and infused imagination and experimentation into my work.

Of course, as I learnt more about digital manipulation, it became evident that it is possible to create multiple exposures in Photoshop by layering images upon each other and playing around with transparency modes, But this way of working confounded me with its infinite options. People often marvel at the process I use, and question me about the time it takes. But I usually remind them that once I’ve figured out what I’d like to achieve, I set about executing that idea in a matter of split-seconds, whereas I might spend hours or days sitting in front of my computer and experimenting with layering modes if I shot digitally; a touch less opacity here, a 2-degree rotation there, a hint more saturation in layer 3…. Just thinking about it gives me a migraine! I spend most of my day working at a computer, so when I get the chance to indulge my passion for photography, I use it as an excuse to get outside, to get away, to engage with the world, and not spend sleepless nights destroying my eyes as I stare at a screen, tethered to my desk.

What I love to this day is the balance between preparation and chance in photography. One can plan an idea in great detail (which I do), but until that roll of film comes back from the lab, you really don’t know if your experiment worked – and let’s be honest, every photograph you take is an experiment. Having to wait a day or two to see the results might seem ridiculous and unnecessary to many, but it’s the delayed gratification that I thrive on as a film photographer. It instills a degree of patience and fosters confidence in your decisions.

This is of course my personal take on photography, and I’m sure many of you love the process of digital editing (there is no doubt in my mind that it is an art form unto itself). But, when I look back twelve or thirteen years to those early days when I barely knew which way to hold a camera, I’m grateful for all the mistakes I made on my crappy plastic camera. Had I been more fixated on perfection, I might never have discovered the path I’m on right now. Henri Cartier-Bresson famously said that your first 10 000 photographs are your worst. So don’t get fixated on the final results – odds are that in a few years you’ll hate the photos you’re taking now anyway. Embrace chance, embrace failure, embrace unpredictability – they will be your professors.