Shooting Kodak Tri-x In An Empty West Edmonton Mall

Some of the most famous photographers through out history were, at their core, documentors. They photographed the world in it’s current state. Whether that be political or military upheaval, or a cultural revolution, they captured the most pivotal moments in their time. It’s because of them that we are, quite literally, able to “look back at history”.

Since the first photograph ever taken in 1826, the process of capturing life in an image has advanced rapidly. It has been crucial in the documentation of the world’s events and it’s significant occupants. Now, it has become an essential part of how we function and consume media, news and entertainment.

I’ve never experimented in documentary photography. Most of the things I photograph are the random and interesting details I see around me. This could be considered a form of documentation in it’s own way, but the experience of documenting an event is pretty new to me. I’ve never felt like there was much to document locally. However, something quite large and significant has come to every little hometown in the world. Every city has changed, and every city is being affected by current events, and it’s something worth documenting.

West Edmonton Mall

West Edmonton Mall is the largest mall in North America. It has a full indoor amusement park “Galaxy Land”, a huge indoor waterpark, and even it’s very own Pirate Ship (of course). The Mall sees anywhere between 90,000 to 200,000 visitors in a single day, making it the most visited mall in Canada. There are over 800 stores and services including nine attractions, two hotels, over 100 dining venues, and parking for more than 20,000 vehicles. The structure sits on a whopping 3,800,000 sq ft, and employs over 24,000 people on the property. It used to be the largest mall in the world until 2004. West Edmonton Mall is a massive epicenter of commerce for the city, and bustling activity. However… when I went there early March 2020 it was a ghost town.

I am of course referring to the unprecedented shut down of our world due to covid19. I knew I had a small window of opportunity and went to the mall to shoot the situation before the restrictions put the mall and places like it off limits to the public for whatever amount of time they deemed necessary. I was pretty sure they weren’t going to allow loitering for long. Feeling like a true photo-journalist, I grabbed my X-700, 2 rolls of Kodak Tri-x, and headed to the scene.

The Experience

It was an odd and unnerving experience. Anytime I’ve ever been to West Edmonton Mall, it’s shoulder to shoulder, standing in long lines to Starbucks, and searching for 20 mins or more for a decent parking spot. Around Christmas time? Just forget it. Seeing a massive center of hustle and bustle completely empty was a strange thing to witness.

Ever since the mall opened in 1981, this could quite possibly be the first shutdown that has ever occurred within its walls. As things begin to reopen, I likely won’t have the chance to shoot the mall in this way again. It was a strange and epic moment in the malls history, and I’m greatful for the opportunity to document it.

The Film

For my choice of film, I couldn’t think of a better film than Kodak Tri-x. I didn’t choose Tri-x because I’m so familiar with it or that I’ve had bullet proof results from it. Neither of these are true. The truth is, I don’t actually have much experience with Tri-x, and a lot of the results I’ve got from it are pretty bad.

As I’ve meantioned many times, I’ve been developing with Df96. I’m going to be doing an article soon about my experience with Tri-x in this developer, and it hasn’t been great. As I’m sure you’ll see in many of these photos, they’re just messy and not sharp. There are signs of reticulation, and a lot of detail is lost in some of the photos. There are several frames that were just unusable.

So why did I choose Tri-x? Well, for one, Tri-x is the classic film of choice for documentary photography. I really wanted that beautiful rich feel with that classic grain. However, I’m not using the classic developer for this film.

Although my Tri-x results have been a bit hit or miss, I knew the look I’ve generally been getting from Tri-x would lend itself well to the scene. That said, when I first saw the scans, I was actually pretty disappointed. Everything seemed so muddy and overly grainy compared to previous results. But the more I look at these shots and did some adjusting in post, I’m pretty happy with them. The grungy, gritty look suits the situation and gives more feeling to the images. So after all, I’m glad I went with Tri-x.

Shooting In The Mall

Aside from trying to capture the absence of crowds in a huge mall, I couldn’t help but start noticing other details about the structure. I realized that malls can be quite interesting places to shoot, especially if you appreciate architecture photography. There are many lines, colors and shadows all through out and I enjoyed finding all these interesting perspectives of West Edmonton Mall.

One of the biggest things that stood out to me was just how many reflective surfaces there were. There are mirrors and glass everywhere and it was interesting working with these. When things open back up, I’m looking forward to going back to work with them more and seeing what I can make of it.

Conclusion

So that’s my first documentary photo shoot and I’m quite happy with the results. This is the style of documentary photography I enjoy shooting and I want to look for more opportunities like this. Slow, relaxing, and moving at my own pace rather than trying to work with a crowd.

I feel these photos are important. This is a moment in history that will never be forgotten. There may be controversy over whether or not people are exploiting the situation. However, I feel now, more than ever, people should be getting a camera in their hands. Whether you’re shooting your life in your home, the situation around you, or just giving yourself a mental break and do something creative. Take pictures, and don’t stop. You’re going to wish you had.

I hope you enjoyed these photos, and thanks for reading! Here’s some more shots I liked. Let me know in the comments below what you think!

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