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Chance & Control in Film Photography

with Scott McMahon & Ahmed Salvador

In a world where the art of photography often adheres to meticulous planning and staging, Scott McMahon and Ahmed Salvador disrupt the status quo. Through their unique collaborative venture, known as 'photo letters,' the artists use mail exchanges of intentionally altered, unexposed film and photographic paper to create images that explore the tension between chance and control. Their daring techniques range from puncturing film canisters to utilizing gunpowder, all in pursuit of an aesthetic that defies categorization. This interview unveils the philosophies and methods behind McMahon and Salvador's thought-provoking work, providing a behind-the-scenes look into their alchemic practices and analysing chance & control in film photography.

Scott McMahon & Ahmed Salvador collaboratively experimenting with light leaks on film rolls in darkroom.
Light & Chemical Correspondence

You have been collaborating on a project called "photo letters" where you

communicate by mailing pieces of unexposed film or photographic paper to each other.

The packages are intentionally altered to allow small amounts of light to enter during

transportation. Upon receiving the packages, you develop the materials and send the

results back to the sender. Could you elaborate on the specific techniques you use to

deliberately damage the film and its packaging, and how these techniques contribute to

the final artistic outcome? Were you looking for a specific aesthetic or did you let

chance dictate the outcome?

The techniques are used to affect a controlled outcome over a long period of time. We

let chance dictate the outcome, but there’s control and restraint in the way in which

each package/roll/sheet of film, etc. is altered. By misdirecting the pinholes and cuts, we

obscure any image purposefully. Throughout the years of collaborating on this work

we’ve developed a certain aesthetic that fuses attributes of our individual projects with

this collaborative endeavour. Some of the techniques we’ve used include exposing rolls

or sheets of film and then wrapping them with various materials that are riddled with

holes, tears and punctures. Oftentimes the film canister is drilled into after camera

exposure and then mailed to the recipient. We’ve made images that might be

considered more of a “call and response” where one of us would expose an entire roll

and mail it to the other for their additional exposures and manipulation/mutilation. Bang

caps, snaps, canon fuses and gunpowder have also been employed in various ways to

further expose and alter images. I think we follow the Dadaist, Hans Richter’s mantra of

“giving chance a chance.”

Close-up of film negatives with intentional damage, part of the Altered Film Photography project.

How do you navigate the balance between intentional manipulation and the

spontaneous nature of the medium? In other words, how do you know when to stop altering the negative and let the image reveal itself?

We had to discover a balance between adding too many alterations and not enough and

in the early stages we tended to error on not enough exposure, rather than


Since the medium is at the twilight stage of its reign, regardless of the resurgence it’s

had lately, we feel that we need to be destructive and push the limits of the materials.

Like a sacrificial bonfire to celebrate the medium.

There’s a lot of trial and error to make sure our exposures will come out with a sufficient

amount of structure and design. Some images are more complex, while others are

perhaps formed with a little more subtlety in their layers of exposure.

Fireflies, finalized prints from Altered Film Photography, showcasing abstract light patterns

If one was to begin with damaging and altering film negatives to create artworks,

what approaches and methods should they explore first? Can you give us 4-5 practical

ways one can employ to alter film negative and what results one should be expecting?

We would advise people to come up with their own creative approaches. Perhaps

starting with a simple idea or approach and then building upon it by adding more

complexity and intrigue.

Practical advice:

1. Do a mail version of bracketing with different degrees of alterations/exposure.

2. Keep notes and document exposures.

3. Experiment with various types of film/paper.

4. Try to emphasize and embrace the impractical and try to accomplish something

that the medium was never prepared for.

5. Be prepared to push your envelope out “into the mailbox”.

Abstract light patterns in photographic negatives

Can we go in-depth about the process behind the GUNPOWDER COMMUNIQUE

and how you obtained those images?

It’s about controlling this very brief flame or spark so that it doesn’t overexpose the film.

We’ve used canon fuse, bang snaps, bang caps. An example of a project under this

title: we wrapped film and fuse together and placed it in a box of soil. As the fuse was lit,

the soil helped mask the amount of light exposing the film.

With the bang caps and snaps we relied on the brief sparks emanating to expose the

film. This would rarely overexpose the film, but create bursts or pockets of light.

We’ve increasingly been interested in animating our images and presenting the work in

sequence. With Gunpowder Communique a lot of the exposures are formless but

framing them out for animations highlights certain elements and creates an automatic

composition. Through repetition you see more of the entirety of the image and process.

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