“Making an object is crucial to photography. Everybody who is just shooting JPEGs, they’re in trouble. They’ve got to learn how to make an object, whether it’s an image in a book or a print on the wall.”
This is where I started in the 1970s, using film and making prints in the darkroom. There's no denying it, working with film these days is hard work. There are no short-cuts and it all takes time, but I guess it always has. For every film or paper that's bought onto the market, another two disappear, or so it seems. But it's still so much fun, even after all these years!
The prints are all hand-printed by me in the darkroom, using film, enlargers and chemistry, the same way it has been done since the early days of the 20th century. I only use fibre papers and all prints are toned and processed to archival standards.
I've been using Ilford Delta 400 film now for about 30 years, processing it in PMK Pyro developer for around the same number of years, but have recently gone back to using Tri-X and, occasionally, 35mm Kodak Double X 5222. And while there are some good papers out there, I'm particularly fond of those by Ilford, Adox and Foma. I instinctively go for slightly warmer than neutral papers, but using a developer like Ethol LPD, gives me the option of adjusting the tone by dilution.
While I do work occasionally with digital, most days will still find me at the studio, working in the darkroom, processing film and making prints.
“All that I have achieved are these dreams locked in silver.”
The platinum process, like many of those alternative processes from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, requires a negative the same size as the final image. This is because the platinum sensitiser is only sensitive to ultraviolet light. These large negatives are output using Pictorico film and an inkjet printer.
The platinum print is made by hand-coating a sheet of paper, by brush, with light sensitive chemicals containing platinum and palladium metal solutions. The ratio of the two metals can be slightly adjusted to control the colour of the image – a higher proportion of platinum will result in a cooler image, while more palladium will give a warmer image.
Once the sensitised paper is dry, the negative is registered on top, placed in a vacuum frame to ensure complete contact and exposed to ultraviolet light. After exposure the negative is removed from the paper and the print placed in the potassium oxalate developer where the image appears instantaneously. The print is rinsed, placed in several successive clearing baths of EDTA to remove unwanted chemicals and metals and finally washed and dried. Just as the ratio of platinum to palladium can control the image colour, the type of developer and its temperature can also have a dramatic effect on the colour of a print. When potassium oxalate is used as a developer it will result in a warmer tone, especially when heated, than either ammonium or sodium citrate developers.
Assuming the paper used is of archival quality and that the processing workflow is carried out correctly, the resulting print will have archival properties far in excess of any other photographic medium, making it desirable to collectors and galleries.
I have been working with the polymergravure process since 1999, over 20 years, after taking a workshop in Santa Fe.
The photogravure process is one that I'd wanted to work with back in London in the 1980s, after seeing prints by Stieglitz, Strand and Coburn, but the traditional method involves copper plates, acids and delicate tissues, as well as a lot of space and studio equipment. Today though, we’re able to use the environmentally friendlier photopolymer plates and, unlike copper, they washout in plain water, are much easier to work with and are quicker to process.
The polymer plate is twice exposed to uv light — once in contact with an aquatint screen (a stochastic, or random patterned screen producing a similar effect to a halftone) and then to the image positive. After both exposures and having removed the film, the plate is immersed in water and gently brushed with a soft sponge or brush for several minutes. This washout removes the unexposed and unhardened areas of polymer (shadows) while those that were exposed to uv light harden, become insoluble and remain on the plate (highlights). After processing the plate is dried and re-exposed to uv light to cure it and enable it to withstand the pressure of the press.
The plate is inked and gently wiped by hand using tarlatan to remove the ink from the lightest areas, but being careful to leave ink in the grooves of the darkest shadow areas. The finished plate is then placed on the bed of an intaglio press, covered with damp etching paper and the felts and run through the press. Under pressure the ink is squeezed out of the deep grooves and onto the paper to form the image. Carefully, the felts are lifted and the print pulled away from the plate and laid out to dry. The plate can then re-inked, wiped and printed until the edition is complete.
I regularly teach workshops on the process at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Find scheduled workshops here.
Over the past few years I've developed my own aquatint screens that are available to other printmakers here.