Thanks to an a-n artist’s bursary I will be able to expand my artistic and practical skills in photographic printmaking. For this I will be taking part in a series of highly specialised workshops on photographic printing processes in Bristol and London. These techniques, old in their origin, have been adapted to be more environmentally friendly and offer an alternative to digital and analogue lab printing. This is exciting to me as it will allow me to physically engage with the photographic image whilst not necessarily returning to the full darkroom setup. In specific I will explore the following processes: wet plate Collodion photography, salt printing photography, platinum/Palladium, Cyanotype with tri-colour gum bichromate and photopolymer printing. These processes are used to create unique prints with natural materials and negatives (digital or other). Some of them are also more accessible and can be incorporated in collaborative projects. Another valid aspect for me practice.
This week I have had my first session in Cyanotype printing with Martyn Grimmer at Spike Island Print Studios. Only once beforehand I tried out this process in a very rudimentary way and unsurprisingly I hadn’t found it inspiring. This time though it was really thought provoking and I have begun to see this specific process in a whole new light. Just one thing to point out: the final result does not have to be bright blue at all, it can be even golden yellow. I came home totally buzzing and have started to try to produce digital negatives. I also plan to order the chemicals so that I can experiment in my studio or in BEEF’s darkroom with it. Next week we will start with the trip-colour gum bichromate process. In the words of Martyn, a truly slow process that takes you back right to 1860.
In the coming months, I will use this blog to share my experiences and insights of exploring these various old photographic processes. To me this side of the photographic seems to be the dark horse of British photography that is nevertheless worthwhile painting anew.
Next to doing a Photo Polymer course with Martyn Grimmer at Spike Print Studios in Bristol I also attend one day workshops to try out a wider range of alternative and old photographic processes. One of them was on the Wet Plate Collodion method another on Bromoil printing.
Wet Plate Collodion was invented by Frederick Scott Archer (1814-1857) around 1850. He wanted to create a set of images of his sculptures to share with prospective clients and found the then existing processes, Daguerre’s or Talbot’s Calotype , not particularly useful. This is because some could not easily be multiplied and others didn’t offer a detailed enough reproduction. To understand the technique better, I took part in a workshop led by Tim Pearse at Bristol Folk House. Tim taught us how to make Ambrotypes, a type of Wet Plate Collodion where the collodion is applied directly onto specially prepared glass plates. I ought to mention that Tim runs Negative Thinking, a community darkroom in Bristol, and is a true master of this process and has exhibited at the National Photography Gallery in London.
This practice as such involves quite intricate steps from pouring collodion whilst carefully balancing a glass plate on your fingertips to silver coating in a special dip tank. It is rapid and in an uncanny way feels closer to Polaroid than to role film based photography. Why? The plate once coated with silver gets placed in its wet state straight into a camera and is then exposed and developed immediately. That means if you wanted to take photographs in other locations than your studio you would need to take a mobile darkroom with you. For me the best thing about Wet Plate Collodion is how the plate and with it the latent image is developed. This step can be done in daylight and the tank has a window to observe the process. How the photograph begins to appear is almost like alchemy and I will post a short video on Instagram to share this my experience (@in_search_of_place). Yet the glass plate as such has another trick up its sleeve; that is when viewed on black background it appears as a positive whereas when placed on white it is a negative. What’s not to like about it? The Collodion liquid used to coat the plates gives off quite a lot of vapes. This didn’t feel very healthy nor environmentally friendly.
The Bromoil printing process was invented by C Welborne Piper beginning of the 20th Century. I was able to join a demonstration and workshop held at the Royal Photographic Society in Bristol. It was facilitated by the Bromoil Circle that consists currently of 17 members in the UK. The Circle recently donated a large collection of old Bromoil prints to the archive of the RPS and are keen to pass the technique on in order to preserve it.
There are several steps involved to create a Bromoil print. Firstly you need to make an over – developed that means slightly denser and greyer B/W print on photographic paper. Then you have to bleach this print so that it turns more or less white leaving behind only a trace of the photographic image. Then, using special brushes, you re-ink the image. This inked image is usually transferred onto archival paper creating a reverse positive print. Even though the steps are in essence simple, the knowledge and art lies in its application. In comes down to how to bleach and treat the paper and how to apply the ink. In the workshop we were given an already bleached print so that we could try out the inking process. I found this not easy at all and to me what ink and paper do feels very uncontrollable. One member told me that it took her a year to get the hang of it and I truly believe it. Yet once the image started to appear it was hugely satisfying and I felt, for am moment at least, that I had tamed the proverbial lion. Overall, I have loved the drama of the process and think it has a lot of potential to be used in a less traditional manner.
Having being able to try out these ancient techniques was really thought-provoking and at times scarily exciting. Both processes are interesting and valuable in their own right and I have to think whether and how I can take them further. I feel I need to experiment more and see what will happen.
In the next few weeks I will explore more environmentally friendly processes and have just booked myself a place on mud photography with Sophie Sherwood.
This week was the last session of the workshop in cyanotype and tri-colour gum bichromate printing making. The course took place at Spike Print Studios in Bristol and was led by the artist and master printer Martyn Grimmer. We started with generating cyanotypes using digital negatives, then moved on to the highly specialised process of multi-colour gum printing. Each week we added another layer, first yellow, then red, then blue. At the end, some of us who had extra prints and time to spare experimented with adding a cyanotype on top of the the gum print. We also learnt about manipulating the colour range of cyanotypes which is frankly fascinating and I will definitely spend more time on this.
What have I learnt? That tri-colour gum bichromate printing is truly not for the faint hearted. The notes forwarded by Martyn said on the first page: .. do not try this technique if you are tense, or in a bad mood. This undeniably indicates something that informs the nature of this complex printing process. As a technique it involves splitting the colour channels, lining up the negatives, manipulating the paper so that this can happen, being patient and if necessary repeat a step or two and so on. I learnt to respect paper and colours as living material that can change their quality by reacting to their environment. Gum bichromate, invented around 1860, currently involves quite toxic chemicals. As I wanted to work with more environmentally friendly materials this is therefore not for me . However, Martyn Grimmer told us that this is about to change and he will pass on this adjusted technique to others once he has mastered it himself.
Overall, I found this process really an eye opener to what can be done with a photographic image when using an old process. At times, I felt truly humbled coming from the more or less instant image of the digital realm. I know now that the journey will be a longer one and I have just about taken my first baby steps.
This week I have finally got the chemicals for setting up my experiments with cyanotype in my studio. As I don’t have a darkroom anymore this will be partially a nocturnal affair. I also will definitely try to learn more about generating good digital negatives. They are the basis and without them what you can do is limited. All in all good and exciting and further food for reflecting on how to use old printing processes as part of my photographic practice.
At the weekend coming I will explore to other old techniques, one is wet plate collodion and the other is Bromoil. I will write about my experiences with these in my next blog post.