Siderotype Quarterly editor Paul Daskarolis speaks with Mike Ware.
Paul Daskarolis: What motivated you to begin your research into historical processes?
Mike Ware: Three things: first, the curiosity of a professional chemist and exhibiting photographer concerning the platinotype process, which was then, in the early ’80s, very little known. Second, a growing recognition and appreciation – it was an acquired taste – of the exquisite tonal and tactile qualities of the plain paper print in platinum and palladium, compared with everyday factory-made gelatin-silver halide papers.
Third, a chemist’s conviction that I could contribute to the technical improvement of these 19th century processes, which were founded on out-dated chemistry, and make them more accessible, reliable, and economic for artist-photograpers who were dissatisfied with the commercial silver medium.
PD: What attracted you to gold and the chrysotype process in particular?
MW: Well, everyone’s attracted to gold, aren’t they? But photographically, chrysotype offers all the beautiful special qualities and permanence of platinum and palladium plus a wonderful bonus – colour. Not realistic colour, of course, but a non-literal, almost surreal colour, that I found could re-inforce the emotive impact of a monochrome image.
PD: How has digital photography impacted your work?
MW:I’ve had to espouse digital imaging technology in order to make the large internegatives that are essential for contact-printing by all the siderotype methods. The standard silver-gelatin materials of the darkroom that I used previously have now disappeared from the market, as ‘analogue chemical photography’ has dwindled commercially in the face of the digital revolution. Although I’m a relative novice in Photoshop, I’ve learned a lot from the writings and instructions of Dan Burkholder and Mark Nelson, and I’m now evolving my own ‘workflow’ for the methodical preparation of digital internegatives by ink-jet printer, that have just the right UV density range for my processes.
PD: Do you identify an aesthetic purpose to your prints?
MW: I’m trying to record, permanently, within a formal frame, my vision of those things that would ordinarily be passed by unnoticed yet, when contemplated and contextualised, can sometimes disclose for me an extraordinary, resonant beauty. The perception of associations – both through the formal graphic qualities and the metaphorical ‘poetic content’ of an image – can stir my sense of the inner meanings that I personally project upon the exterior world. As a chemical scientist, I see that world as magnificently rich, diverse, structured, and awesomely complex; but without ‘intelligent observers’ it would be intrinsically meaningless.
PD: Is there a single image that continues to inspire you?
MW: I could name a number of photographers – both in the pictorialist and modernist traditions – whose work I enjoy and admire, but I don’t subscribe to the ‘single artistic masterpiece’ theory of photography, so I find it impossible to single out just one example. I think photography works best through sets of work, providing background and context to the central ideas that are being explored and illustrated. Not all the images in a set need be equally powerful or important, but they can interact synergically.
PD: Why do you prefer to mask the edges of your prints rather than show brush strokes or rough edges left by passes of a glass rod?
MW: Three reasons: aesthetic, technical, and practical. Aesthetically, I find the formal, geometrical qualities of the rectangular frame unpretentious, and free of peripheral distraction from the image content. I don’t think it’s necessary to ‘show the brushmarks’ in order to prove that it’s a handmade print. Connoisseurs will already know that anyway. But maybe it’s justified if you’re trying to sell to the general public.
The technical reason is important: the masked margin that has been coated with sensitizer, but remains unexposed, provides the best visual test of the complete clearing of excess chemicals from the print during the wet processing. If those areas are unmasked, exposed, and darkened, one can never tell if the print has been properly cleared. It can be a cruelly demanding test!
Practically, if there is a large non-image area of redundant sensitizer, heavily exposed, the dense photoproduct can "bleed" during wet processing, into light image areas like sky, and ruin the print. Masking costs nothing except a little care and precision – the hallmarks of good craftsmanship.
By Mike Ware
The Science and Practice of Photographic Printing in Gold
By Mike Ware
The History and Art of Chrysotype