Well, today was spent prepping paper for gum and gum-over-platinum printing. I did two batches of 10 sheets of 11×15 Rives BFK. The first batch had an oxalic acid pre-bath. The last time I used Rives BFK for a platinum/palladium print, I got these funny discolored blotches, which could be attributable to paper pH, so I’m trying the acid pre-bath to see if that makes a difference. Twenty sheets doesn’t sound like a lot, until you realize that I can really only size paper in 10 sheet batches because that’s about all my clothes-drying line in my darkroom can handle. In any case, it’s enough to get me printing for a few weekends, so I won’t have to do it again for a while. It’s a necessary evil in the gum printing process, because without it your gum image would dissolve off the paper in the development step.
Here’s my darkroom sink with ten sheets of sized paper hanging up to dry:
Sizing is an interesting creature – basically it’s Knox unflavored gelatin with a hardening agent added. To make it, you put a box of four 7 gram packets in 300 cc’s of cold distilled water, let the gelatin bloom for 30 minutes give or take, then mix the bloomed solution with enough water to bring it to 1 liter. Place this new solution in a water bath and heat until the gelatin solution reaches 140 degrees Farenheit. Add your hardener, mix, then you’re ready to coat. I have a bain marie pot that I use on a hotplate for heating the gelatin so it doesn’t scorch, and I can do it in my darkroom instead of on the kitchen sink.
Here’s a shot of my sizing mixing setup-
Sizing needs a hardening agent to help it stand up to repeated soakings in water. Hardeners are all something other than pleasant chemicals – typical hardeners are Chrome alum, Glyoxal and Formaldehyde (Formalin), in ascending order of toxicity. This time I decided to give the chrome alum a try because it doesn’t off-gas, has minimal effects from exposure, and requires the least safety gear for handling (latex gloves are sufficient). I had been using Glyoxal before, which requires good ventilation. My darkroom has minimal ventilation, and at this time of year, fresh air comes with a massive temperature penalty. Formalin pretty much HAS to be used outdoors, so that’s not happening either.
Here’s my Chrome Alum, 5% mix-
Isn’t it a lovely purple color? Don’t mistake it for grape Kool-Aid though…
I’m going to the large format club meeting tonight. This will be our first meeting of the year, and in a new space, the Cedar Lane Unitarian Church in Bethesda. Tonight’s theme is marketing your work. I’m hoping it will go well – we’re mostly a bunch of artists with day jobs so self-promotion is nobody’s strong suit. I’ll be talking about Facebook and this blog, however, as I think that not only are they important, but I think they’ve been fairly successful for me as marketing tools.
At the club meet, we didn’t have a discussion of marketing after all, but rather we got a demo of doing emulsion lifts and recovering the negative from Fuji instant film. While I don’t know how well you can print from the Fuji instant film negative, especially color, it is recoverable. Furthermore, it is possible to lift the emulsion off the print. It used to be that this only worked with Polaroid instant film, but not Fuji, but apparently that is no longer the case. Here you can see the emulsion lift working –
I got a new batch of 100 sheets of Rives BFK from my favorite supplier, Bostick & Sullivan, today. I’ll be having a sizing marathon this weekend getting all that paper ready for gum printing. I’ve not tried a lot of other papers yet, to keep the variables down, but I’ve been quite happy with the Rives BFK so far. It’s a 90# watercolor paper with good wet strength, and I’ve been able to coat up to five layers so far without having to re-size. After I get through this lot, I’ll have to try the Lana Aquarelle I have sitting around. I’m also going to try using an alum-based hardener in the sizing instead of glyoxal because it’s not exactly practical to try and size paper outdoors in this weather, and my basement darkroom doesn’t have good ventilation.
So far this blog has been long on pictures and short on words. Lucky you. I figured it was time to actually write something, and now was as good a time as any to explain how I got into all this giant cameras and funky antique process stuff. The story of it kind of mirrors the story of how I got in to photography to begin with- almost by accident.
I started doing photography after college, as something to do while looking for a job. I originally thought I would learn JUST enough to use it to record subject matter for painting and drawing. It was a means to an end. That plan went out the window when I saw my first negatives come out of the developing tank, and was even more firmly convinced that this was the thing for me when that first print appeared in the red-lit tray on a rack in my bathtub.
Back maybe six or eight years ago, there was this big scare that Ilford might go bankrupt and that silver gelatin paper might go away, and maybe even film too. Well, I was so much in love with wet darkroom printing that I figured it was time to learn how to do hand-coated processes so I could keep using my 4×5 that I liked so much. I didn’t realize what a Pandora’s box this would open. Prior to this epiphany, I was only vaguely conscious of the existence of antique/alternative processes. I knew cyanotypes existed, and someone in a class I took once did some VanDyke Brown prints on fabric. I saw a handful of platinum prints at the View Camera conference, but that was about it.
That event was I think the turning point for me because it was there that I also saw people working in wet plate collidion. My eyes were opened to the possibility of what could be done without commercially manufactured products. After seeing some more prints,
I decided I would try platinum printing. I was mostly shooting 2 1/4 inch square roll film with some 4×5 mixed in at the time, and 4×5 negatives were big enough to learn on, but platinum like almost all other alternative/antique processes is mostly insensitive to non-UV light. This means that you can’t enlarge an image to whatever size print you want from a small negative- you have to work from a negative the size you want the finished print to be.
Realizing the limits of 4×5 prints rather quickly, an 8×10 camera ensued. 8×10 is a beautiful size print but a pain in the ass of a camera. Along came my Argentina trip and a 5×7 joined the family. And so on. Platinum printing became my mainstay as I grew to love the medium for itself, to the point that I have all but retired my enlargers, and only work in contact printed alternative processes. I’ve dabbled in wet plate and I’ve even learned how to make daguerreotypes.
This is my medium, these are my processes, and this is the how and why I make my photos.
Well, here’s a piece of ambition for you- getting this 12×15 W. Watson & Sons 12×15 inch “field” camera restored and up and running again. The W.Watson & Sons dates to around 1880. Once it is up and running, I’m planning on putting a nice 16″ (405mm) Kodak f4.5 Portrait meniscus lens on it.
The biggest hassle will actually be getting new film holders made for it, since it’s a bit of an exotic size to begin with, and it was originally designed for glass dry plates, not film. I’ve got someone lined up for the film holders – it’s just a matter of negotiations and finding the time to have them made.
I’m shopping around for new bellows for it because I’m just too damn lazy to make my own – this would be a simple case to do because the bellows are square and not tapered (I had a fragment of the original bellows but they were too rotted to use for anything, and they stank something awful).
Making the new ground glass will be easy – I just have to get some reasonably accurate measurements from the ground glass frame, go to the hardware store and have them cut me a piece, then get busy with the valve grinding compound. By the time I’m done with it, I’ll have a very buff left arm.
I was very lucky really, that the camera was in as good a shape as it is – when it arrived from the UK, it was quite filthy and looked like it needed a complete stripping and rehab. With a bit of cleaning and some olive oil, the mahogany came back quite nicely, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the brass hardware was originally gilded, and that much of the gilding remained.
One of the great pleasures of alt process printing is that it gives you complete and total freedom of paper choice. Not all papers will work of course, but you can always experiment. I recently dug out some old negatives to give a try with a Japanese Kozo paper, the lightweight variety which is very thin, translucent, but still has excellent wet strength. It’s a very soft paper, so it loses detail, and lends itself to images that have perhaps too much to be flattering – a great portrait paper.
These are some nudes I did with it of a transgender friend of mine – traditional develop-out Palladium prints to give that nice rich brown tone to the shadows. I think the Kozo paper works very well with these images because it also implies the skin nature of the image – a surface with a depth behind it. It’s a comment on the nature of being trans – that the skin of a person is just one layer of who they are.