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The Panatomic Disaster

Tucked away in an antique store, an old film daylight bulk loader lay begging to be put to work again.  Upon picking it up, I felt some movement inside it.  I opened the hatch, and to my surprise, a leader of film was peering out at me.  It was still loaded with some unidentified film!  Of course, I purchased it.  This had happened to me before, when a local widow had advertised darkroom equipment for sale online.  A bulk loader still had a roll of Tri-X in it, and I used it to test freshly repaired cameras.  Could this be another bonus bulk roll?

Having just changed the light seals in four rescued camera bodies, I made up four short rolls of this new mystery film and loaded the cameras.  On a tabletop studio set up with random objects, I proceeded to take photos simply to test for proper operation of the shutter, flash sync and film advance.  I developed all four rolls in the same tank, dried them and digitized the photos.  

To date, I have shot thousands of feet of expired film, mostly black and white (which is less finicky about age).  This is certainly the weirdest result I have had.  Judging from the expanding dendritic structure in the emulsion, it almost appears biological, possibly a fungus of some type.  An online search failed to turn up anything quite as dramatic.  The pattern is faintly visible on the the emulsion side of undeveloped film under a 10x jeweler’s loupe.  In the event that there’s some sort of microbiome existing on this roll, I’ll take steps to prevent any spread to cameras or other film stock.  

Contrasty scan of blank frame

The real tragedy here is that the film is Panatomic-X, a legendary emulsion.  Introduced in 1933, it was the favorite of many photographers for its very fine grain, high sharpness and beautiful tonality.  I used it in the late 1980s and remember its discontinuation in 1987.  Expired stock was available into the 1990s, but I had largely moved on to the new and improved tabular grain emulsions like TMAX.  Seeing the edge markings on this film brought back some good memories.  

I still have a roll of Pan-X in a cigar box full of expired rolls, and I am waiting for just the right subject to come along.   Pan-X is such a slow film (ASA 32), and it is less susceptible to age-related problems.  Even now, decades-old rolls of Pan-X are being shot and developed normally with little loss of image quality.  It’s a pity this bulk roll clearly has bigger problems.  Nonetheless, I will find some creative use for it.