Saturday, November 26, 2016

Nikolova's method

Eva Nikolova, Untitled III, 2016
For a long time now I've wanted to get down into the trays with Eva Nikolova, and I know I'm not alone in this.  Folks have been writing me, stopping me in the street - ever since we began publishing her tortured paeans to memory, loss, and deracination, first in our post in 2013 and another in 2015 - to ask how she makes these pictures.  Some of the early ones looked like drawings with a smudge of chemigram thrown in, here and there, for mood, like Edmund Teske used to do in the 1960s in his faux-heroic portraits of Kenneth Anger, yet they were always beautifully and confidantly executed, charting a path of moral witness totally without precedent in cameraless photography.  When we noticed there were no people in these pictures (for even conventional war-zone photos coming to us from Aleppo had people in them, or their ghosts, adrift in the ruins) we grew to realize that here it was the artist herself who was the lone survivor of her particular armageddon, the one with the tale to tell, she who would live to imprint it with the human stamp.

detail, Untitled III

detail, Untitled III

Her methods have matured and will continue to do so, but her project remains.  This past summer she embarked on a series called 21 Fragments of Yesterday and Tomorrow, one of which, Untitled III,  was a selectee in the recent Alternative Process Photo Competition at Soho Photo in New York.  We decided to investigate what goes into making these pictures, just how they are formed.  Unsurprisingly, it turns out they begin as drawings (we were right), but the tools she is using now are chosen with a view toward a bleach-etch and glassprint endgame, so that as she works, photographic constraints and opportunities are forefront in her mind.  It's best to let her tell it.

'I start on a medium-weight drawing paper using graphite, charcoal, white chalk, and thin sharpies, often overlaid with a cross-hatch of white gel pens and maybe even a touch of white oil pastel.  I like to mix different materials when I draw, but because the visible tones of the materials do not coincide with their opacity - this is what matters when making a negative to print from - I photocopied the drawing onto ordinary printer paper, then contact-printed it under the enlarger.'

Since the resulting print had plenty of blacks, it was easy for her to bleach-etch, most apparent in the dramatic upper part of the picture.  The reader may wonder why the blacks in the lower part didn't bleach-etch as well and the answer lies largely in her strategy of mixing tones in the original drawing, that dense cross-hatch of white and black lines that she spoke about.  She articulates it so well: 'What preserves some of the blacks from lifiting off are tiny islets of white that act as anchors.'

Because the black areas therefore were impure, the etch was insufficient to affect them to any great extent.  Furthermore, she brushed on developer to these areas after the first etch to solidify the blacks found there.  For the upper part of the picture, the sky, now dense with veils, she delicately applied a weak and contaminated developer in an effort to bring out color, then left it to redden in the summer sun.

There is a lot to admire here for practitioners, and to learn from.  And we haven't begun to speak of the impact of her work on a viewer, which can be altogether staggering.

Contact the artist at her site, for more information.

Monday, November 7, 2016

A fascinating piece at Soho Photo by Michael Koerner

Michael Koerner, Escape, chemigram from wet-plate collodion positive, 2016

Escape, detail

Once you get past dipping and dunking - mind you, great works can be made that way, think of Alison Rossiter for starters - the most important concept you need to grasp in making a chemigram is that of the resist.  A resist is something that blocks the action of developer or fixer.  Tape, glue, friskets, varnish, wax, polish, clay, much of the food we eat, are all resists.  Hard bulky objects can be resists too, a pair or scissors, a hammer, a bottlecap, as in the old photograms of the 1930s.  As long as it sits squarely on the surface of the photo paper and doesn't let much chemistry in underneath, it qualifies.

But most resists are of the type that under the gradual, unrelenting action of chemistry will erode and dissolve.  It may take just a few seconds, as with glue, it may take hours for certain varnishes, but eventually the resist is gone.  This is a good thing, because by activating the mark-making potential inherent in the resist, erosion creates expressiveness.  You will want expressiveness: it's the enabler that lets you say what you want to say with your art.    If the resist is recalcitrant and doesn't want to come off it's quite okay to give it a nudge; what is less obvious is that it's also okay to leave it in place even through the final wash, and so incorporate it into your picture as if it were a cousin to hand-coloring or toning (see figure 7 in this post from November 2015).  On the other hand, if you have an obdurate resist and don't remove it at all, you may want to treat it as a stencil, which is also a kind of resist, a decisive, permanent one, and it too may find a home in your toolkit.  Again, refer to the old photograms.

Christina Z Anderson's tutorial article at shows a refreshing medley of resists that you will swoon over: cooking spray, toothpaste, hummus.  In England, Daniel Berrangé's blog f/138 takes a systematic look at a number of resists and their governing strategies and is well worth consulting for the beginner.

What is totally unexpected about Michael Koerner's work, on display this month in the Alternative Process Competition at Soho Photo in New York, is the way he thinks about resists.  A chemist by trade, his world is one of diffusivities, of phase states.  Matter is considered not only spatially, by its location, or by its mass and density, but also thermodynamically, by what form it appears in at a given temperature, whether solid, liquid or gaseous.  If you put yourself in this frame of mind it's a short jump, but a major insight, to view the solid-to-liquid transition as a porous barrier to the migration of fixer or developer.

In his system, wet-plate collodion, you first pour collodion over a metal plate, then you immerse the plate in a silver nitrate solution.  An exchange reaction occurs and the bromide and iodide ions in the collodion form salts with silver.  The plate is flashed on the enlarger and minuscule grains of silver begin to coalesce, though not yet manifestly visible.  If you're making a chemigram you would have likely laid down a pattern of resist on the plate by now and then commenced applying your developer and fixer, in a sequence of your own invention, leading in due course to a completed chemigram.  Koerner does it another way.  He freezes the plate, which is still wet, and a very thin layer of ice forms on its surface.  It is this new surface, ice, that becomes his canvas.  He paints on it with fixer and developer, now with one, now with the other, and they attack the underlying plate and its emulsion in a slow ballet governed by rates of diffusion and of melting.  As the process unfolds and chemistry seeps down, regions of fractalization appear, driven by forces which, though quantifiable and controllable in theory, in practice partake of a good measure of randomness.

In all of what are called positive wet-plate collodions, also known as tintypes, which is what we have here, the area where developer strikes the exposed emulsion appears white, not black as in conventional b&w photography, and the same inverted appearance holds for fixer.  Thus in Escape, above, the white filigree on the far left represents developer activity.  By using ice as a resist Koerner gains another advantage as well: he immobilizes the collodion-nitrate solution which otherwise would still be wet and displaceable, so that now he can focus his chemigramic interventions with a reasonable expectation of outcome.  Those pustule-like structures seen best on the detail view are spots where the artist dropped in extra developer with a pipette, and could only have been done on a surface that was immobile.

Koerner gives us hints about his chemistry, which is not straightforward.  For developers he favors those using metol or hydroquinone as reducing agents but has formulated a wide range of others, paying particular attention to the restrainers and accelerators present in the recipe, as these give him a tailor-made control over various aspects of an application, such as the amount of aggresiveness or submission needed.  Astonishingly, he will often employ three or more developers on a single picture.  Similarly for fixers, where a study of early literature has led him to some formulations well beyond, or prior to, the ammonium and sodium thiosulfate warhorses, in an effort to precisely calibrate the kind of black he wants.

This work is suggestive, mysterious, and thought-provoking.  I urge you to explore his webpage at