Alt-Pro: Argyrotypes and Cyanotypes
I finally took the plunge this week and made my first alternative process prints from 8×10 negatives. It has taken me a year of reading and researching, and purchasing of equipment, to get me to this stage. That I’ve had about a 50% success rate with my prints thus far is I think pretty good; the best are stunning!
Here are a few tips on equipment and processes that I’ve picked up along the way. NB I’m UK-based, have no darkroom or inkjet printer, and am doing this at home. So certain chemicals and therefore processes are off-limits; as is making digital negatives – which is of course cheating anyway!!!
Mindset and Reading: These are the two most important things!
Mindset: if you just want to have a go because it’s interesting and different, then I would say don’t. It’s a waste of time, effort, and expense unless you actually want to do really think about why you’re doing it. For me, this is all part and parcel of buying the 8×10 equipment at all – a substantial outlay compared with the cost of even the beautiful Lotus 12×14 printing frame I’ve bought recently. Yes, if you’re really into black and white photography and want to really push the look and tone of your prints then I would consider it, but I would also say that you should think about why you want to do this. In particular, I would stress the importance of working around a project that you come up with or discover.
I admit that I got into it for both reasons, but had to quest a bit for a project that would work. It’s very easy (relatively) to fall into the trap of cliché photography with 8×10 alt pro: pictures of old buildings, for example, the feel of which is of course enhanced by a 19th-century process but has little by way of originality. This is where my “Acontius Project” has stepped in: 8×10 (and some 120) images of graffiti on trees has made me re-think my attitude towards photographing trees and woodland quite markedly. I’m gently weaning myself off 5×4 Velvia imagery because I’m really searching for a little more creativity with my image-making: the hand-crafted look, not simply the vision and technical perfection required to shoot a great 5×4 landscape image on Velvia. The “Acontius Project” allows me to work locally and think about what I’m trying to convey by a ‘pastoral’ feel to the images of trees that I make. Being able to control the exposure effect completely both in film (for which I would strongly recommend FP4+ developed in Pyrocat HD) and printing makes this brilliantly creative too. I can scan the sheets of film as well and play around with them on computer for posting on social media online, but the achievement of a tactile print in the hand is wonderful.
I would say that it is essential if you’re at all interested in alternative process prints to buy the magnum opus on the subject, Christopher James’s The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes. This is written in a very laid back almost hippy-ish style by an American with a ton of experience, and is quite brilliant once you understand that the style is part of the point. Creative mastery is of course important because you can try to control the response of light and chemistry for your own stylistic effect (cf. Sally Mann), but in order to do this you have to be laid back and thick-skinned. This is NOTHING like printing from a computer, let me tell you!
The second book I have is Christina Anderson’s book on Cyanotype. It’s more detailed – and more fussy – than the James book but has more detail on the process and how to control it, so is useful.
Finally, online resources are also very important. Reading up on others’ practices and results is very useful indeed; raiding e.g. flickr for people’s technical notes is a good place to start. NB I’m not doing platinum/palladium yet. Given the cost of chemistry involved, I think I’d want to go on a dedicated workshop for this before trying it myself.
The two processes I’ve started with are cyanotype and argyrotype. Other than I think salt printing and possibly albumen printing (and also platinum/palladium), these are the two processes that seem easy to start with, as you can buy premixed sensitizer so do not have to worry about particularly dangerous chemistry and powders; in any case, some processes involve chemistry that cannot be purchased for home use in the UK. Cyanotype and argyrotype nicely complementary too because you can get a pair of prints, one cool and one warm, or process negs separately and see which process they suit best. After developing nearly 20 prints, I’m heavily leaning towards argyrotype, except for one or two exceptions where I really want the effect of high-key highlights. I imagine, though, that this might very well be project-dependent.
Other than chemistry and a set of developing trays, pipettes, and pots and brushes for each process, I’m currently reliant upon sun for exposure though may be about to buy a UV lamp for more control.
Here’s my setup for printing at home, including purchase info where relevant. Argyrotype can be a little more involved but seems worth the effort. I’m using Bergger Cot 320 paper for both, which works great (using the smooth side of the paper). I store finished prints in A3 sleeves from hobbycraft (see also below for Argyrotype).
Set of 3 12×16 Paterson trays
1 pack of plastic pipettes (Hobbycraft)
1 Daler-Rowney hake brush (Hobbycraft)
1 2-litre plastic jug with gradations (pound shop)
1 set of plastic measuring spoons (pound shop)
1 glass chopping board (Sainsburys)
1 ceramic dipping bowl for pouring chemistry onto paper (Ikea shot glasses would also be good; my dipping bowls came from a Scottish pottery, handily in three different colours)
1 11-inch windscreen wiper blade (Halfords) for removing water after wash
1 pack of premixed old cyanotype chemistry (WetPlateSupplies) – 2ml of each for 8×10 print.
1 pot of citric acid (WetPlateSupplies)
litmus paper (Amazon) for setting pH of citric acid ‘developer’.
For toning (if desired: do this a day later)
Process: 5 minutes wash in 1500ml of water with ¾ tsp citric acid crystals to ~ pH3, then a further 10 mins with a change of water in tap water. Dry and then tone if wanted.
As above but also/instead
1 lemon for acidifying water.
5-litre bottles of distilled water (Halfords)
Fotospeed Argyotype chemistry
1 pot of hypo crystals (WetPlateSupplies)
1 bottle of Tween 20 (WetPlateSupplies: helps sensitiser work into paper better).
I dilute this (10 drops per 50 drops of distilled water) in the measuring cup in the Fotospeed kit and add one drop for 3ml of sensitiser per 8×10-sized print.
1 small portable (collapsible) dog kennel (Pets At Home) (!!)
with large sponge and a setup for suspending sensitized paper in a steam bath inside (a pound shop will be able to provide a range of useful items). The dog kennel thing is a bit Heath Robinson but works well: it also now doubles as a useful space for drying 8×10 negatives. The idea is that for argyrotypes you pre-humidify the paper for tonal effects. You pour boiling water on a sponge in a try inside the dog kennel, suspend the paper inside, and cover with a black binliner until ready. 5-15 minutes (or 30 minutes) seem times to go with depending on what you read where. This is something to do with the size of the molecules in the paper being affected by humidity, leading to changes in colour of the sensitizer as it reacts to UV light differently.
Expose: from 9 minutes (Fotospeed instructions); sensitised paper inside a Crystal Clear (or similar) display envelope, to protect negative/frame from humidity and keep it in the paper.
Process: 5 minutes wash in 1500ml of distilled water with squeeze of lemon juice, then a further 10 mins with a change of water in tap water.
Hypo: 4 and a bit teaspoons of hypo crystals in 1500ml tap water, constant agitation for 3 minutes.
Wash: 1 hour, 2 changes of water.
Exposure times so far: in full sun nothing short of 10 minutes has been particularly successful for either process in sunlight. Fotospeed recommends 9 minutes for its argyrotype sensitizer; Anderson recommends 23 minutes UV lamp for cyanotype developed in citric acid bath on Bergger Cot 320 paper. NB UV lamps are about four times slower than full direct sunlight?
Argyotype humidity effects: drying paper for a couple of hours, then prehumidifying for about 10 minutes produces a dark grey/brown effect with warm highlights which is attractive. Exposing paper only a few minutes after senisitizing produces a very brown result indeed. Somewhere in the middle seems good, possibly: further experimentation seems appropriate!
Argyrotype negatives also need to be more dense than cyanotypes, so I have started to shoot doubles, but this will be very much dependent on the contrast in the scene shot.
Here are some samples below, with details (just iphone snaps at present):
Acontius Project “Bob”:
Argyrotype, Pre-humidified 10mins, 27mins exposure in early morning sunlight
Acontius Project “Fraxinus in silvis pulcherrima”:
Untoned cyanotype, 18mins in early morning sunlight
Great Coxwell Barn Porch doorway:
Argyrotype, 10mins 10secs in mid-morning sunlight, freshly coated but allowed to dry, no prehumidication, full sun with some cloud