The way forward is the way back

anna 4x10 2

I have always found printing in the darkroom to be difficult. The combination of the limits of the negative married to the limits of paper makes an uneasy marriage for me, resulting in a lot of waste and a lot of disappointment and frustration. [Insert whiny voice here] Oy, this print is icky. Why aren’t the blacks dark? What is that schmutz in the highlight? I’ve used a whole box of warmtone paper and all these prints are utter crap. I can’t do this. My back hurts. I want my mommy.

Thus began my quest for quality prints with less effort, skill, time, and money than required to make a good silver print. In my grandiose and egotistical ignorance, I could not see what an exercise in futility it was.

I decided to try dry plate tintypes. Haha. Not the real ones, the ones made with liquid emulsion in the darkroom and then either put in a film holder or used for contact printing. I made such a mess trying to pour plates that I put a big foil tray on the floor to catch the drips. I used some color transparencies I had and developed the image in some magical reversal developer supplied in the kit. I actually went so far as to order more plates–a nice brown color–but the finish on them was such that the emulsion peeled off. I gave up. Two weeks ago I discovered that the brown plates had a plastic protective covering on them I had neglected to peel off. Sigh.

Next stop: lith prints. This process can produce grainy and moody prints but using Moersch chemicals, the crap I made was even somewhat repeatable. But not every paper responds well to lith printing and unless you test it, you won’t know. Also, as soon as the coating formula changes, the good lith papers ain’t so good anymore. And, like a lot of stuff in the film world, many of the preferred papers are no longer made. My first prints were made on Forte Polywarmtone that I had laying around. But of course I couldn’t get any more–just when I grew fond of the pink tones. I got a few boxes off the auction site, and tried some other types. It’s still a process I liked but, well, what else was out there?

Move on to gumoil. That was such a short effort it barely merits attention. I saw it mentioned someplace and I watched a couple of videos that made it look like magic. Still, I think I tried two and thought that oil paint on paper without a gesso layer was a really bad idea. Plus, despite doing lith prints, I didn’t care for that fuzzy look. But that is probably because my technique was bad. I found one the other day, covered in streaks where I had “helped” during the bleach phase.

As part of a project I even tried making my own emulsion when the liquid stuff I used for dry plate tintypes got used up and couldn’t be bought locally anymore–only in England. That was like returning to my college days in the lab, and my first few jobs afterward. I had help from Mark Osterman and his assistant Nick Brandreth of the George Eastman House in the success of the concoction. It is meant to coat glass plates for in-camera shooting and for my purposes the blacks weren’t quite where I would like, but it was ok. Was this where I would stop? Making lots of batches of liquid emulsion? Hmmm. Maybe.

But wait! A chance remark by my friend Karl, announcing that “carbon is the most beautiful process out there” shot me in that direction. I ordered some tissue from Bostick & Sullivan and the second edition of Christopher James’ book on alternate photography. I like to learn from books. Or rather, I do not like to take workshops would be more accurate. In a class, I get good results under conditions I can never duplicate, so I’d rather muddle along with the limitations I have. I am not sure what made me think that carbon printing was ever within my grasp, much less that it may be easier than silver, but, well, ignorance is bliss. And up to a certain point–the point of repeated failure–I do like a challenge. I went through the usual screw-ups of frilling of the tissue, underexposed, overexposed, areas out of focus, etc etc. I got so far as to make my own glop. There were actually a few that were good. I was asked if this was the process for me. Yes! Absolutely!

Except then I read another chapter in the James book about ziatype, kind of platinum-lite when considered from the pocketbook angle. I spent an exciting few weeks assembling the goodies for the process. Pretty paper! Cute little bottles of precious metal salts! Groovy brushes! Mixing recipes counted by the drop! First attempts looked pretty good, but not black like the book said. In fact, I have very seldom achieved a rich black with this process. Could be humidity, could be the light source, could be the chemical mix, could be the developer, could be magic.

I was using a light box I had purchased to make the platinum prints that never materialized. I have a couple of bottles of this and that for it I have not tapped. Talking to a friend I had at the time about the UV processes I was attempting, I was offered the loan of a NuArc flip top platemaker. I just had to drive 7 hours to get it. And load it into my truck, and drive home and figure out how to cram it into my garage. And learn to use it. Piece of cake, right?

That started an interesting transition to mostly UV processes, largely based on the fact that getting that beast into a place in the garage was so much work. I had to unload my darkroom (an Army mobile X-Ray lab that came in a nice green box), slide it out of the way, wiggle in the NuArc, put the darkroom back, reload it. Oh, that was after Sir and I pulled the gubbins out of the belly of the unit to figure out why the lamp wouldn’t fire. We put–or rather, Sir put–a new cord on it and I found a new switch relay. We put it together and fired it up. It was like Frankenstein coming to life and the light was so bright that Sir stumbled forward crying “I’m blinded! Please! Turn that thing off!” Then we moved it up some steps by rolling it on its side….without my securing the glass panel protecting the lamp. Yeah. I shattered it. But nothing that $200 couldn’t fix.

The 1200 watt mercury vapor bulb in this unit meant that my exposure times went down a bit. Sadly, it didn’t automatically improve the quality of my output. The vacuum frame was sure dandy, until the day a couple of months ago when I switched on the pump and the needle pegged at 0. Nuthin. I felt true despair; I had come to depend on the unit for all manner of mishaps and the occasional success. I told Sir about it. “So fix it. Things break all the time.” I managed to do so, not without incident, but I can say that now I know the inner workings of the vacuum system quite well, thank you very much. The machine was out of commission for a couple of weeks while I struggled to fix it.

Meanwhile, I had taken a workshop at the George Eastman House on orotones. There we made carbon prints on glass. Oh that rich black! Oh that yummy gold! I almost went back and remade an entire project just to employ this process. I probably would have done it if I didn’t have to make duplicate negatives for 9 images. Still, that trip was significant for another reason: ideas planted in my poor overflowing brain.

This time it was gum bichromate and gum over platinum, or platinum over ink, and so forth. With both glee and trepidation I again looked at all the delicious supplies needed for gum bichromate. New brushes! Sizing! Paper! Watercolor! I had some gum arabic from gumoil, paint from student days, and some negatives of course. I was absolutely thrilled when I got an actual image with nothing but paint, gum, and dichromate. I expanded it to include gum over ziatype, both to warm the print and to change the color. Usually what happened was I couldn’t leave the print alone, and I now have a pile of murky images. I do like the idea of layered color, so I will probably come back to this process.

The step, or leap, or perhaps even complete re-boot, from gum bichromate to printmaking originates in a faulty idea. But really, were I to know the doom that seems to wait at the end of every attempt, would I even bother? That’s not really the point, though, is it? The point is to try. I wanted to use printmaking as the base for layered photographs in the same fashion as some people use cyanotype or platinum, so I took a class on photopolymer film printmaking. Polymer film does a pretty good job of reproducing a photograph, but it can’t represent very light highlights or deep shadows well. Polymer plates do that better so I tried them. These things are expensive and naturally I ruined quite a few. I also learned that I am incredibly picky about some things and one image of mine went through about 14 iterations before I declared myself sufficiently satisfied (but it still could have been better).

When I started printmaking with my cute little blue press, I swore up and down that I wasn’t going to do copperplate photogravure. After all, it was a process invented to reproduce photographs for books and not really intended as an end in and of itself (although it has always been used that way too). Why would I want to go to all that trouble to make a copper plate when I could achieve a print so many other, easier, ways? I have no idea, but the thought of making one grew on me. My son says it’s my way of getting back in the lab and grappling with chemical complications. He may have a point.

I began gathering items for etching with a mixture of apprehension and resignation. Of course I was going to do it, wasn’t I? The 5 gallon bucket of 48 Baume etchant sat mocking me in the downstairs bathroom for months before I hauled it out to the garage to install its pump. Something that size can’t be poured. Sir called after me, “Stay away from my car!” The ferric is a powerful corrosive, and stains horribly, but otherwise has no odor.

I tried the images that were successful with polymer plates and lo! Decent plate, nice prints. It was when I tried pictures that hadn’t been used on other plates that I ran into trouble. Images that have a proscribed tonal range are the ones that etch well, and none of my usual ignoring the rules would fly here. When I flaunted the rule I ended up with plates that had various problems. It is so sad to see a shiny copper plate with a rejected image etched into it.

So it has all come full cruel, cruel circle. The way to successful gravures is through a good positive. How do you get one of those? Why, in the darkroom of course! Where you use film instead of paper to make a silver print with all the terrific dodging and burning required, along with the investigation of developer / film combinations, temperature, agitation techniques, and dilution. Argh! [Whiny voice reasserts itself here]. Oy! This print isn’t going to etch properly! What are all those pinholes? Why is this one darker than that one? I’m getting a headache. Mom!

The way forward for me is a journey back to the beginning.

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