Stone Knives And Bear Skins – Part 2

This is the second part of the article, Stone Knives And Bear Skins, the first which was presented as the previous entry. As we close out the first decade of the millennium, perhaps it is time to think about art, photography, and how the two come together to offer one’s vision. I doubt that many will take the approach I have outlined in these two articles, but the important thing is that it is all about discovering your own route and taking it to its ultimate conclusion.

Part II – Bear Skins

Click for larger image

Click for larger image

Now that we have created the negative, we are ready to produce an image that can be framed and mounted on the wall. There are many choices for this process. The typical decision would be to purchase a photographic paper, place it under the lens of your enlarger, expose and develop it. We, however, are searching another direction and will coat our own paper with our own sensitizer, expose it to the sun, and develop it with water. Only the fact that we need to chemically fix the paper is the same.

Why would one go through the bother of coating their own paper? There are numerous reasons, and perhaps one will fit your purpose.

One reason would certainly be that there is a greater range of paper choices. Visiting the local art store, one can find watercolor paper in any finish between glossy and burlap. The choices of paper color is also considerably wider. One can choose anything between stark white through black, as well as checkerboard, dot, and any other pattern you can (or cannot) imagine. Why one would choose a dot pattern is well beyond me, but the possibilities are there.

Also, there is a wide variety of coloration available. Certainly, toning silver gelatin paper offers one alternatives to the standard black color, but with the choice of printing on platinum, Van Dyke, cyanotype, or the new Ziatype, the tonal representation can be perfected.

My reason, however, is that it forces me to slow down. This is certainly a more time-consuming process, and in these days of “need-it-yesterday,” a logic such as this might sound nonsensical. However, just as I found that my images improved when I began using a view camera (as opposed to shooting several rolls and hoping a couple would give me what I wanted), coating my own paper drove me to more carefully examining this part of the process.

There are many alternative processes (palladium, kallitype, carbon, gum, etc.) and my choice of Van Dyke did not come by accident. For one thing, many of my images work very nicely when toned with a sepia toner. This made for the choice of process that naturally resulted in a brown tone.

Also, I wanted to work with a process in which few others were involved. Even in the late 19th century, the Van Dyke process enjoyed only a modicum of popularity. Additionally, I wanted something that would give me quality results. I can report that my prints have, at times, been confused with platinum prints. Finally, I wanted something affordable. Van Dyke is one of the least expensive, as well as easiest, of the alternative processes.

The Van Dyke process was patented by W. W. J. Nichol in 1889. Soon after, the formula was modified in many ways to produce variations in the brown color. Numerous formulas exist, and you can play with one of the formulas displayed below.

Van Dyke printing involves the reduction of silver nitrate, with the color resulting from ferric ammonium citrate salts reducing to ferrous iron. The sensitizer may be spread on numerous surfaces, but to date I have only used watercolor paper. You may wish to experiment.

Here is one of many possible formulas
Silver Nitrate 10g
Ferric Ammonium Citrate 23g
Tartaric Acid 4g
Water to make 250ml

This much sensitizer should be enough to coat around 100 8X10″ prints. Oddly, aged formula will yield better results than fresh, though there is a limit. With the first formula I found that I got uneven results after about nine months. Possibly the second formula would have better keeping abilities.

I will put in a short plug for Artcraft Chemicals at this point. Besides being very easy to work with, they are willing to sell small amounts of chemistry to your specifications. This allows one to try out a process such as this with minimal investment. You need not be confined to the restraints of a commercial kit.

When mixing, wear gloves and old clothes. Any clothing stained will bear a permanent scar. Your skin will also show spills as soon as light hits it. You cannot wash this away, and will have to just wait for the natural process of skin shedding to resolve the issue.

I was going to include information at this point on selecting the right paper, but have come to the conclusion that there is no “right” paper. There are many papers that will work very nicely. Fabriano Artistico will work very well, as will papers from Strathmore, Crane and Arches.

You will have a choice between hot press and cold press papers. This is a matter of individual choice, as I have heard from ardent supporters of either side. Hot press papers have a smooth finish, cold press have texture. My personal choice is cold press, as this is something unavailable in the commercially-purchased silver gelatin boxes. Decide for yourself.

There are many ways to apply the sensitizer to the paper. One popular method is to use a glass rod. This works by placing drops of sensitizer in front of a glass rod that has a handle attached, and pushing it across the paper, then back in the other direction. However, for under a dollar you can go to the hardware store and purchase a foam brush that will work just as well. Dip the brush in the sensitizer and spread it on the paper in even strokes. A thin coat should be employed, as a thick coat will give lesser contrast.

As this is a contact printing process, the simplest tact here is to place the negative on the dried paper, then put the two between two sheets of glass and expose it to the sun. When you are convinced that the alternative processes are going to be a serious part of your photographic work, you can invest in a contact printing frame with a split back. This will allow you to check on the process of your exposure without getting the film and paper out of registration.

As this is a long tonal scale process, a negative exhibiting high contrast will work best. When the uncovered part of the paper turns a nice dark brown, it is time to develop the print. For this, the print is placed in a pan of slowly running water for several minutes.

Next, the print needs to be fixed with a sodium thiosulfate mixture. The standard fixing solution involves dissolving 240 grams of sodium thiosulfate in one liter of water. However, a mixture this strong will bleach your print. I suggest 1/10th this amount (24 grams per liter) and fixing for a maximum of two minutes. As soon as the print hits the fixer, the color will take a dramatic change to a darker, richer, lovely brown.

Finally, wash the print. I suggest the use of a wash aid, such as Perma Wash. A final wash need not be as extensive as fiber-based photographic paper, as there is no substrate to fight and the dilution of sodium thiosulfate is greater. I wash my prints for 15 minutes then air dry them.

So there you have it – pinhole and Van Dyke – stone knives and bear skins. How will these affect your photographic vision? If you’ve never tried them, I can guarantee that you will come away with a different perspective on your work. There can only be advantage there.


About GLSmyth
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