Alternative Printing: A Conspectus
ProcessesThe full gamut of photographic printing processes may be little-known to contemporary photographers, who have been educated largely within the mainstream of the silver-gelatine tradition. My intention here is to help restore some of the 'lost' options by providing you with a handy reference list of the better-known alternative processes and an outline of their characteristics and working methods, without any detailed formulae or procedures. This should enable you to decide if 'there might be anything in it for you'. If so, then the texts listed in my bibliography should provide you with an entry into the practice, but the best practical introduction is to enrol on one of the advertised workshops that take place from time to time - in the UK under the aegis of the Royal Photographic Society, the Photographers' Place or one of the regional photographic galleries.
This account is a sequel to my earlier Defence of Alternative Process in Contemporary Photography No.1 and it may be read as a supplement to Hope Kingsley's excellent article in The Photographic Journal for September 1988, which addresses the subject from the historical viewpoint, providing a background to that successful RPS exhibition An A to Z of Photographic Processes.
Any photographic printing material that does not originate from a box labelled with one of the well-known commercial brand names may be described as 'historical', 'alternative', 'non-silver', 'unconventional', 'obsolete' or even 'archaic'. Nearly all such materials must be hand-made (though palladium paper is now commercially available once again in the USA) so the practices tend to be labour-intensive and their use does not increase any shareholders' dividends!
Most of the methods fall into three categories from the photochemical point of view, depending on the light-sensitive metal compound involved: whether it's a salt of silver, iron or chromium. The list at the end of this article is by no means exhaustive; there are some strange processes on record. I should be glad to hear of any processes I have omitted that are still known to be in current use. The historical attributions are necessarily oversimplified because many of the processes are not just due to the endeavours of one person.
LimitationsCompared with modern silver-gelatine printing, the conspicuous disadvantage of most alternative processes is their low 'speed' in the photographic sense, because the sensitivity of the coatings to light is about a million times less than that of bromide enlarging papers. (Obviously this generalization does not apply to Carbro and Bromoil which actually start with a gelatine-silver bromide print as substrate). This disadvantage was largely responsible for the early commercial demise of alternative processes such as Platinotype at the same time as the market for miniature cameras and bromide enlarging papers was growing. Projection printing being generally impractical with the technology normally available, we must resort to contact printing as the only way to achieve sufficient light intensity: the technologist will opt for a mercury lamp as ultra-violet light source, but the mystics will prefer to 'sun-print' in the time-honoured fashion -especially if they enjoy a good climate! One compensation for the insensitivity of these processes is that they do not demand an enlarger or darkroom. Another, less obvious benefit is that these imaging systems are in principle capable of extremely high resolution; modern technology has rediscovered dichromated gelatine as an ideal material for recording holographic information, for instance. It should also be acknowledged that dichromated colloids have always found an essential application within the printing industry as the basis for several methods of photomechanical reproduction.
StrategiesThe enforced necessity for contact-printing leaves the 35 mm/roll-film practitioner with a choice of three possible photographic strategies:
- to make very small prints,
- to move up to large format equipment,
- to make internegatives by enlargement.
Modus OperandiThe following steps outline a procedure typical of an iron-based process (the others may differ in some respects).
- If the photographer is given to the large-format ethos, the picture will be composed on the ground glass, in the knowledge that this is the real image that will fall on the film and not, as with viewfinder and reflex cameras, some optical derivative of it. Any misjudgement is entirely attributable to the operator, not the equipment! To use the acronym beloved of word-processor buffs: "WYSIWYG" - "What You See Is What You Get".
- Negative-making can employ the best modern technology, or not, according to taste (pace the calotypists, pinholists and other 'low-tech' photographers -I have no argument with you!) In order to match the negative density range to the intended printing process, it is likely that a procedure of calibrated metering, exposure and development - e.g. the Zone System- will be used. (The original motivation for the Zone System was to enable the photographer to print every negative using only a single grade of paper. These days, having many exposures on a roll and paper grades 1 to 6 or Multigrade technology, some of us have become lazy negative makers.)
- For printing the image, a fine-art paper is selected from the great range intended for watercolourists, etchers and printmakers, with regard to the suitability of its tint, surface texture, weight, sizing, etc. The papermakers could do us a great favour here by re-introducing products once especially suited for alternative photographic processes. For photographers inured to the bland gloss or mechanical stipple of commercial silver-gelatine, it may be a pleasure to rediscover that paper can be a beautiful material!
- The sensitizer chemicals are mixed - demanding no special skills beyond those of any darkroom practitioner. There are usually decisions to be made at this point regarding the intended colour and contrast of the image.
- A batch of paper is now coated by hand with the sensitizer solution; various techniques may be used - according to the skill (and flamboyance!) of the individual.
- After drying, the sensitized paper is contact-printed from the negative using the preferred light source. Some of the processes provide a 'printout' image, which may be inspected as it builds up, using the old-fashioned style of printing frame with a hinged back to retain registration. The need for test strips is thus avoided: "WYSIWYG" again! Printout also has the built-in advantage of being self-masking to some extent, so the process will tolerate a long density range in the negative and be non-critical in exposure time.
- Wet processing of the print follows, under ordinary tungsten lighting. Some processes (e.g. Bromoil) demand extensive 'handwork' at this stage; in others, like Gum Bichromate, it is an available option, whereas the 'straightest' processes (e.g. Platinotype) offer little or no scope for intervention in the processing. Chacun á son gout.
- Washing, drying, retouching and mounting are all simple, especially in the iron-based processes because the paper surface does not carry an organic binder layer and is very sympathetic to treatment.
- In some practices, e.g. Gum-Bichromate, the operator may now return to step 4 in order to make a multiple print.
ConclusionI hope that this brief description of alternative printmaking will enable interested readers to decide whether they might love it or leave it. I have tried to convey something of the 'holistic' nature of the activity, in which being true to one's materials is a satisfaction in its own right. Perhaps Ansel Adams - not, admittedly, an enthusiast for alternative processes - would have forgiven me for invoking his nice analogy between the arts of music and photography, in which the musical score represents the negative and the concert performance, the final print. My belief is that however unique and unalterable the score, our pleasure in the work must ultimately depend upon the richness and variety of the performance.
First published in Contemporary Photography No.3 (1991).
ALTERNATIVE PHOTOGRAPHIC PRINTING PROCESSES:
|Salt print||Silver chloride/none||Silver||Talbot||1834|
dichromate bleach & harden
|Litho Ink||Piper & Wall||1907|
ALTERNATIVE PHOTOGRAPHIC PRINTING PROCESSES:
(Dev: Silver nitrate)
|Kallitype||Ferric oxalate + Silver nitrate
(Dev: Borax or Rochelle salt)
(Dev: dil. nitric acid)
|New Chrysotype||Ferrioxalate+gold(I) complex
(Dev: carboxylic acids)
|Sepia Platinum||Ferric oxalate+chloroplatinite
|POP Platinum||Sodium ferrioxalate + sodium chloroplatinite||Platinum||Pizzighelli||1887|
|Satista||Ferric oxalate+silver chloride +chloroplatinite||Silver+ Platinum||Willis||1913|
|Palladiotype|| Ferric oxalate+chloropalladite
|Amphitype||Ferricitrate/ferritartrate +Mercury(II) salts||Mercury||Herschel||1842|
|Obernetter's Ferrocupric||Ferric chloride+cupric chloride
(Dev: Gallic acid)
(Dev: Tannic acid)
ALTERNATIVE PHOTOGRAPHIC PRINTING PROCESSES:
|Gum Bichromate||Dichromate/gum arabic||Pigment||Poitevin||1855|
|Oil print||Dichromate/gelatine||Litho Ink||Rawlins||1904|
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