Thursday, November 4, 2010

Lessons in Alt Processes

My latest obsession has become Kallitype printing. Why? Good question.

For the last few years nearly all of my printing has been done on my Epson P.O.S. on Ilford Paper. I've been surprisingly happy with the results. But I missed the good old days (nights actually) I spent in my parent's basement doing traditional silver gelatin printing. At the time I was shooting black and white 35mm developed (poorly) in a dark bathroom. Looking back at the old negatives makes me shiver and the prints I was making would get an F+. Not a complete failure but not something I ever wanted to look at again. But it was fun!

I've wanted to get back into printing but my current apartment makes that seriously difficult. At least when I develop film, the combination of a changing bag and a daylight tank make processing in my kitchen a breeze. The basement was an ideal location but there are no basements in Florida. I have a bathroom with no windows but the door is about as light-tight as a greenhouse and its size will make claustrophobes twitch. The other issue is equipment. I still have my enlarger. It's still in the exact same spot in my parent's basement a thousand miles away. However, it's set up for 35mm and I've been shooting 120 and 4x5 almost exclusively for the past five years. I thought there wasn't anything I could do, until I made a trip back home last month.

My mom is huge into family history and will never hesitate to show off old family photos. It's strange that I had never really looked at them before, but when I did I was blown away by the quality of some of the turn-of-the-century prints. The studio portraits, like most of the era, were shot under north light with dreadfully slow plate cameras. And they were gorgeous. But some of the prints had a very different feel to them and I had no idea what they were. To the internet! I started looking at various processes being used around that time and trying to match the results to the old family photos. I still don't know what the photos I was looking at actually were, but this got me interested in old photo processes. And believe it or not there's still people doing this kind of thing (sort of). After reading about these I realized that I could actually pull-off making these prints in my apartment.

Here's why:
1. They don't need an enlarger. They're contacted printed from camera negatives or inkjet negs printed on transparency film.
2. They're not really sensitive to light. At least not in the normal sense. Most of the sensitizers are only responsive to light in the UV part of the spectrum. Sunlight will expose them but a weak tungsten bulb won't do anything.

So after a bunch of research I decided to go with Kallitypes. I really like how they look. There's an infinite number of ways to vary the tones. They're not all that expensive to make. And I can make them in my kitchen.

At this point I'm going to skip over details of the actual process. I promise I will go into great detail of my methods in the near future. Believe me, you will hear all about the World's Shoddiest UV Box. This is more along the lines of my impressions of the printing process and the lessons I've learned after my first two sessions with it.

This is the first print I made. Exciting, huh? To me it actually was. It was the culmination of a lot of planning, mixing chemicals, building things, and hoping this whole ordeal was not going to be a complete failure. It proved that World's Shoddiest UV Box actually worked (this was a 5 minute exposure). It proved that while given the opportunity to screw up any number of things - I hadn't. It took until the fourth print for things to go wrong.

I'll apologize now for the scans. They don't do the prints justice at all. I love my scanner (Epson V700) and it does an excellent job with film. It did not do well with these prints. It seems to have serious trouble with the incredible density of the shadows and the slight texture of the paper surface. What looks beautiful to the naked eye is made into a noisy mess. If anyone has suggestions for scanning these I am listening.
After another test exposure, I made this print from a 4x5 negative in an ancient print frame found on ebay. This one made me nervous. After a Kallitype is exposed, the latent image is visable on the paper. So I knew it was there. When you put it in the developing bath it develops in about 3 seconds...excitment. It then begins to look progressively worse...disappointment. It's not until the print gets put in tray after tray of varying chemicals that it really comes back to life. When I put it in the toner it looked terrible (this is gold toned by the way). Eight minutes later it was looking much better. After a quick wash and a four minute swim in the fixer it looked pretty decent. By the time it had dried I was blown away by how good it looked.

I'm not going to post the next print that was made. Despite reading over and over again that this process requires a dense and super-contrasty negative I decided to try and print a very thin negative. Mistake. I ended up with a super dark muddy mess where the only interesting bit is the brush strokes at the edge of the paper.

This is the last print I made on my first night. It highlights a lot of things that can go wrong. First of all, I coated a lot more of the paper than I needed to (light pencil marks are really hard to see under a red safe light). This isn't a huge problem except that I found it seems to exhaust toner like it's its job. The blotches on the forehead and on the rest of the paper are probably caused by water that got onto the sensitizer when I kind of dropped the paper into the bathtub. Pro-tip: DO NOT DROP FRESHLY COATED PAPER INTO BATHTUB. It's not like the tub was full but there's an excellent chance it wasn't entirely dry from the last time I used the shower. The other possibility is that there was water left in the brush from rinsing it off between coatings. Now I don't rinse the brush either. If you look closely at the bottom of the paper you'll see what looks like crinkles in the paper. This is from trying to jam the print into a tray that was too small for the paper. Always make sure that the trays you're using (in this case it was actually a glass baking dish) is larger than the paper you're trying to put into it.

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