Friday, January 22, 2016

Franco's chemigrams on ortho litho film: a new path?

Marinai, untitled, 2015

Franco Marinai creates photogravures on copper plates, an older, uncompromising process in which it can take weeks to pull an acceptable print.  That kind of dedication is at the heart of his artistic practice, which has been discussed here before.  Few have the discipline or the skill to do it anymore, and he is part of a very select community.

But it so happens that sometimes, instead of starting with a photograph (his photography is highly regarded), he will fashion a chemigram - from scratch and on the fly - and he does this on the same orthochromatic litho film he uses as a route to photogravures, subjecting it to the same cycle of fixer and developer baths.  He has to be in the mood for it, and it's infrequent, but it does occur.  I try to be nearby when he's tempted.

This past December he found himself in one of these moods.  Working in daylight, he cut two 7" x 11" sheets from a pack of Arista Ortho Litho Film that he buys from Freestyle (their link is on the right-hand sidebar).  

litho film from Freestyle, Los Angeles

He applied the same resist to each, in this case a pleasant, dabbed-on pattern of Elmer's glue, the standard polyvinyl acetate based glue used in schools and by hobbyists and children worldwide.  He let it dry overnight to get it good and hard.  (Chemigramists will recognize this as one of the commonest of soft resists, and many won't let it dry at all but plunge it promptly into chemistry in a matter of seconds.  Methods do vary.)

Next he took the two sheets of film, now resist-coated, and sent them off simultaneously in different directions, one in a fixer bath, the other in undiluted Dektol.  He calls this his 'separate at birth' routine and he often follows it as it leads to the strongly graphic results he favors, particularly when he amps up the contrast during the itinerary of each.  Here you have the two trays at the outset:

Each film starts in the opposite chemistry

The films were switched back and forth in normal chemigram fashion with occasional rinsing in between, over a period of several hours, for by then the resists had completely eroded away.  But what is surprising from such a meticulous worker as Franco, who I've known for years, is that the steps were just as often done without rinsing at all: the contamination of the two baths at times was sought, in a maneuver he has called, with a nod to Nietsche, 'Dionysian',  meaning wild, exultant, partaking of the mysteries.  Well, mysteries he got. 

Marinai, untitled, 2015

Marinai, untitled, 2015

This last one is worth lingering over.  You'll notice the left and right sides look different - in fact the right side looks as if it were dunked in developer from the start, while the left looks, hmm, a bit mixed.  This is true.  The left side was immersed only a few inches into fixer at the start, then quickly went into developer, then back into fixer a ways further, i.e. a few more inches, and so on, so that only by degrees did the entire left side come to share in the chemigram experience equally.

What is the fate then of these rich, gorgeous films?  They get turned into photogravures, that's what, printed in black ink on printmaking paper.  But all is not lost: no longer needed for their primary job, the films themselves are preserved and live on in Franco's archives; he has hundreds of them.  And with some he plays around further still, as in the one below where he has done a bleach-etch (note the veils) and on top of that has laid some hand coloring with gold varnish in a kind of go-for-broke flourish you can only do at the end of a long work week.

Marinai, The Golden Age, 2015

I'm going to tell you something else about Franco.  Every morning, weather permitting, he goes out jogging along the mighty East River just a few blocks from his lower Manhattan home.  Jogging is a grueling sport and for some it's a time to think about things, take your mind off your legs and lungs.  Franco thinks about the darkroom.  The day he made the chemigrams above he'd looked over his shoulder and snapped a picture of the river with his phone, just a record of his thoughts.  Here it is, in its bleakness, fog and power, a reminder.

Marinai, East River, 2015