I went back to the Bristol Folk House on Sat 10th November to take part in a Painting with Chemistry workshop led by Sophie Sherwood. I went with Holly Woodward, we had both thoroughly enjoyed and engaged with a previous darkroom workshop there.
There were 5 of us on the workshop which is a comfortable number for a snug darkroom. We explored lumen prints (placing objects on fogged paper inside a contact frame, then leaving the frame in the sun/cloud for 15 minutes or so), photograms (making prints of objects onto photographic paper under an enlarger) and chemigrams (using substances such a Vaseline, sunblock, wax crayons) to create a “resist” on photographic paper that then affects the ability of the paper to take up the dev chemicals. The morning was spent learning the techniques, in the afternoon we could apply the techniques singly or combined as we wished.
It was good to work with negatives again – I’ve been making mainly photograms over the last few months and my skills had been neglected. I was reminded that the film and the paper go emulsion side together – so the dull side of the negative down (and back to front) and the shiny side of the paper up.
I have to say that I’m not wild about lumen prints. I’ve seen such beautiful ones made by Liz Nunn, but for me there was something wanting in the ones I made. I think that leaves are such a well-used trope in camera-less photography that you have to make something really special to make it stand out. I wasn’t that wild about the colours from the fogged paper, and then fixing them seemed to be an exercise in disappointment.
The chemigrams were interesting but I think something of a practical challenge. We used fogged paper again, and marked the paper with Vaseline, spray sunblock or wax crayons. The sunblock gave an almost gilded appearance but again did not last long going through the tanks. I think there is something here for me, but realistically it’s something to do in your own darkroom as you don’t really want to unwittingly disrupt other peoples’ images or chemistry. The chemistry fails fairly quickly when it has vaseline, sunblock etc floating in it and that resulted in fairly flat images when the chemistry was failing. It was quite hard to get proper dark blacks. I’ve spent so long on photograms recently that it felt a bit odd not to have the contrast.
I think that to make satisfying chemigrams I would need to stop thinking of them as related to the photograph. You need an awareness of the science, an ability to play, an ability to make the images by hand or by serendipity rather than necessarily by starting with a negative. You build an image from scratch. It’s very different. Pierre Cordier makes his in light. Look at some of his work here:
I didn’t really enjoy cleaning off the Vaseline from the prints either… I suppose I am conditioned to a dry side/wet side darkroom workflow, it felt like crossing the beams in Ghostbusters. Yet my curiosity is stoked. I wanted to explore disrupting the paper — I tried a scouring pad but it didn’t make a lot of difference. I am curious about things like thinners, nailpolish remover, bleaches… but was warned that I would need to be aware of possible reactions and the need to work in a properly air conditioned darkroom. It makes me think of the Polaroid emulsion lifts that I did, the way that I can ruck up, stretch or tear the very fine emulsion layer containing the image whilst the background is unaffected. I am fascinated by the idea of physically moving just one part of the photographic object. I think there is something there too with solarising, perhaps in conjunction with die-cut stencils. This may be a case of parking the idea on my back burner and continuing to immerse myself in The Shadow Catchers book by Martin Barnes.
I thoroughly enjoyed the photogram work and took the chance to combine a photogram of a protractor with a print of my daughter looking through a telescope in the grounds of Lacock Abbey. It’s not a perfect exposure and the tones are lower in contrast than I would like, but it’s something that I can replicate on my next darkroom session to get a print that is suitable to frame. I find the combination of photogram and photograph endlessly inspiring.
While I was writing this blogpost an email arrived from Sophie with some ideas on how to answer a question posed by one of the students during the course. In it she thanked us “for pushing the boundaries of chemigrams further and being such an engaging class!” so it is encouraging to know that we made Sophie think as much as she had us thinking. I do know that this class helped me to learn more about my practice and to see the directions that I would like to explore.