Thursday, March 9, 2017

A few facts about this picture

Douglas Collins, untitled chemigram, 2016
An exhibition of chemigrams has just gone up in the project space at Manhattan Graphics Center, curation by Rich Turnbull, featuring a handful of in-house artists active in this flourishing (and doggedly frustrating) area: Edgar Hartley, Franco Marinai, Jay Judge, David Thomas, myself, and Rich.  Just local work by local folks.  Though it's only been up a few days (it runs to the end of March), it's already attracting notice around the city, not the least for the picture above.  Let me make a few technical comments about this picture, just so you don't have to keep asking and we can silence the chatterers. 

First off, it's on Foma FB, my go-to paper for chemigrams after years of experimenting with others.  To be precise - I go off precision on this quite easily - I believe it was the Foma VC FB 132 warmtone matte I was using, from an open box laying about in my chemigram shed deep in the mountains of the central California coast, but it could have been another.  It could have been the 532-II VC warmtone as well, or one of the others on baryta paper; I binge on Foma from time to time and try them all.  In this case I'm going to stick with the 132.  Or was it the 131 - but what's in a digit?

While I often can't distinguish all the subtleties in the various types of Foma, this I will say: the esteemed company's literature on what I will now call 'my paper' actually confirms my experience of it, and so I'm happy to quote them directly:

The paper is manufactured using a special silver chlorobromide emulsion that gives the silver image a brown-green to warm-brown tone that can further be influenced by the type of developer used. The paper base involved is colored in compliance with the tone of the developed silver. This accentuates a rich scale of warm halftones ranging from light cream up to saturated brown-to-green black ones. 

Note the second sentence.  It seems to say that the paper takes cues from the tone of the silver, on a shifting and certainly sliding scale friendly to brown and green; even more, it hints that secret signals are being passed for which we can only be passive spectators, that cause and effect are here incalculable or at least radically nonlinear.  Pretty amazing if true.  Those Czechs !  And I haven't even gotten to flagging the first sentence about the tone push by the type of developer, which is a job for a separate blog post altogether and perhaps a major experiment by our testing lab, the NFPTL.

I'll give you a detail that illustrates how attractive this paper can be.  Here's the bottom left corner blown up:

detail, lower left corner
When the large black area was exposed - all at once - to the action of concentrated developer, the silver halides in the emulsion were stripped of their halogens in a sudden rushed explosion of activity; now extremely dense and dark and still carrying chemical momentum, some molecules appear to have skidded off, to tarnish and embed themselves in the surrounding fringe areas previously blanched by fixer.  And I confess, this is an effect I often seek in my work, as those who know me will recognize: it doesn't happen by accident  On one level, this particular piece could be said to derive its drama from exactly this and no more.

But we should go further, we should withdraw to a larger vantage point to discuss other qualities in the picture.  How about resists, what can we say about them?  How did they fare?  There were two resists, a large flat homogeneous one in the lower part, which was Golden MSA varnish applied at full strength with a sponge brush, and a spray of Golden MSA from a pressurized can in the upper part.  The spray was applied sparingly and at an angle, so that it was least concentrated at the top and formed a penumbra at its lower border.  During the to-and-fro of the chemigram procedure, this area gradually acquired its tone, a soft mixture of lights and darks.  To get this right wasn't easy, and several attempts were discarded or confined to derivative pictures.  As for the large flat resist below it, the challenge there was to remove it in a single attack, as one piece, and keep the area beneath untouched by any chemistry until the last moment, when it was finally plunged into developer and submerged uniformly.  Again, not especially easy.

detail, interface
A final word: it was printed in an edition of 4 as a pigment print on Hahnemuhle Rag using the extended UltraChrome inkset for the Epson Stylus Pro 11880 printer.  The original plate, slightly smaller but otherwise identical, remains on display at Art Intersection in Gilbert, Arizona, through April 15. 

* * * * *

other current chemigram shows in New York City

Mille Falcaro, Soho Photo, February 8 - March 4
Eva Nikolova, Columbia University, Wallach Art Gallery, Feb 18-May 13
Nolan Preece, New York Hall of Science, March 4 - May 21


  1. Splendid picture - but you leave out much that's essential to it (on purpose?)

    Here's a question: did you tone it after processing?

    1. Over the years I have grown a bit tired of the routine appearance of chemigram colors, the pallid browns, the weak yellows, all hallmarks, it is true, but for me they no longer excite. So generally, in more than half my work, I soak the chemigrams in selenium after a good wash in order to deepen the colors, to seek out the steely blues, the dark maroons, icy orange-reds, and so forth, the palettes I favor. Much depends on the length of soak and the type of paper, but anything, in my opinion, is better than the stock colors the chemigram process gives me. That selenium is an archival booster is an added plus, of course, though not something I care about much to be honest. I've also done experiments with gold toning but I rarely use it in my 'real' work, it's just not my aesthetic.

      I hope this helps.

  2. I always say, each paper is different and each can contain within it magical qualities only to be coaxed out through trial and error.