Chlorophyll prints – nature expresses itself

Chlorophyll prints by Yago de Orbe Klingenberg are high quality and beautiful, step by step he shows how he achieves this result.

Writer and photography / Yago de Orbe Klingenberg

Chlorophyll prints by Yago de Orbe KlingenbergAbout Yago de Orbe Klingenberg’s Chlorophyll prints:

“My work is immersed both, in the Amazonian indigenous cosmovision and in the origins of photography, allowing nature to express itself: plants reveal their vital force in pictures where we can apreciate our organic essence. These photos are like a mirror that questions us about the relationship we have with our natural environment.
Unlike the neutrality offered by the white surface of photographic paper, plant leaves are canvases that have their own graphic dynamics. Their contours and veins provide a visual balance and harmony in the composition, establishing a dialogue between the original photography and the natural structure of the leaf. The final results are unique and unrepeatable photographic works.”

1What are chlorophyll prints?
Chlorophyll printing is an alternative photographic process where photographic images are developed on natural leaves through the action of photosynthesis. This organic technique does not use chemicals since the photographs are exposed directly to the sunlight on plants or trees leaves.

The origin of this technique can be found in the researches of Sir John Herschal in the 19th century. This British scientist discovered the photographic properties of chlorophyll and made the first “Antotypes” on paper sheets. Already, in the early 21th century, visual artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey made prints on grass surfaces that they grew on walls they had cultivated themselves before. Such prints were ephemeral as the images were lost when the grass dried out completely.
Almost at the same time, in 2002, Vietnamese artist Binh Danh was the first to apply this technique to natural leaves, and he also achieved its conservation by applying expoxy resin to the leaves.

2Short notes about the chlorophyll:
First of all I would like to emphasize that I am just a photographer, I’m neither a scientist nor a biologist, therefore, all I am going to indicate is the result of my empirical experience, observation and lectures that I have made during three years experimenting with chlorophyll prints. I still have a lot to learn, so I hope you will forgive me if I make any statement that is not scientifically correct.

Chlorophyll molecule structure for chlorophyll printsThe nucleus of the chlorophyll molecule contains magnesium which is an essential nutrient for plant development and constitutes the leaf pigment needed for photosynthesis in the presence of sunlight. This fact is essential for chlorophyll prints because only those plants or trees with a high concentration of magnesium will give us positive results. The presence of magnesium in the chlorophyll molecules is also a fundamental factor that we will take into account for the conservation of our image once exposed, but we will see this later on.
We also have to consider that there are several types of chlorophyll (A;B;C;D and F). The plants with chlorophyll A are the ones that will be useful for our purpose.
Having said that, the big question comes up: which plants are appropriate for chlorophyll prints?

Yago de Orbe Klingenberg picking leaves for chlorophyll prints
Yago de Orbe Klingenberg picking leaves for chlorophyll prints

I’m lucky to live in the “Middle of the World”, in the Republic of Ecuador. This country is a true paradise of biodiversity, and therefore the variety of plants is astonishing. This advantage has also mean a lot of work for me, since there is not much information about chlorophyll printing processes and the few I’ve found have been from photographers who work in the northern hemisphere and therefore use other varieties of plants. Most of the leaves I use are collected in the Amazon rainforest and in the cloud forests of the Andes, and believe me, it’s amazing how many varieties of plants are there!
The biologists that I’ve consulted have not been able to tell me which of them have a high amount of magnesium and from what I’ve been experimenting, even within plants of the same family there are significant differences. So I had to discover the most appropriate ones by trial and error. As you can imagine, I still have a lot to discover and I’m sure that in the future I’ll have many great surprises.
Some plants that work well for Chlorophyll prints:
Some plants that work well for Chlorophyll prints

3About the chlorophyll process:
When I started with this photographic process my first tests were a complete failure but at the same time these failures were (and they still are) a great learning experience. One of the wonderful aspects of this alternative photographic process is that you have to slow down your life and you need also a lot of patience. (I think that all the photographers who were born in the “analogical era” know a lot about this). Technically the process is quite simple but don’t be desperate if at first things don’t work out the way you would like.

3.1 What will we need to make a chlorophyll print?


3.2 Let’s start: Making our transparent sheets

The preparation of our photography for the sunlight exposure is going to be the only moment of the process where we are going to have all the control of the image and this is determinant for the final result. I work with digital negatives or scanned analog negatives. This will allow me, first of all, to determine the size of the image. I use A4 and A3 transparency sheets depending on the size of the leaf. The print on the transparency sheets will be in positive and in Black and White. It’s important to have a good depth of blacks and a high contrast without losing the grey range. I try not to overexpose the whites, but this depends a lot on the final image I want to obtain.

I have no problem with manipulating the image: I don’t like the square edges of the photo to come out because I try to integrate the image with the shape of the leaf, so, I cut out the image and blur the edges. Many times I also make the backgrounds much clearer, to emphasize the main subject and specially to give more relevance to the texture of the leaf.
Manipulating images for chlorophyll printing on plant leaves

3.3 The printing frame

I use very simple and cheap printing frames: a wooden board that I divide in two pieces and stick them together with camera tape. (This will allow me to check the evolution of the exposure). We will also need a slightly thick glass (6mm or 8mm) and clamps to hold it.
Simple wood frame for contact printing photographs
Two tips:

  1. Do not use cardboard or other absorbent material as the leaf will tend to dry out too soon.
  2. The pressure on the leaf must be heavy and homogeneous.

3.4 Plant leaves suitable for Chlorophyll prints

chlorophyll print by yago de orbe klingenbergWe must consider that our final image will be in black and white… Did I say black and white? Sorry, I’m wrong. The image is not going to be monochromatic, we are going to have all the greens, yellows, browns even ochres and oranges that the leaf will able to provide.

When choosing our plants we have to take into account that there are leaves that will give us a lot of contrast, for example, the Banana. With other varieties, such as the Calla Lily or the Araceae, we will get a good definition and density in the mid-tones.
That’s why we have to know our plants very well, just as in analog photography we value the different kind of paper we can use.

Other plants that give me good results:
Good plants for nature prints

3.5 Sunlight exposure of chlorophyll prints

Chlorophyll prints exposing in the sunAt this stage our control over the process is also decisive. Depending on the weather we have and the type of leaves we are using, the exposure will change. There are plants that are exposed in a few hours and others will need days. Even with the same variety of leaf, the final result will change a lot if the intensity of the UV rays is very high or if, on the opposite, we have a semi-cloudy day. The humidity of the environment is also a determining factor. I’ve noticed that with high light intensity and low atmospheric humidity the leaf dries much faster and consequently the mid-tones are less or not at all visible. This is not always a fixed rule, it also depends on the plants we use. For this reason, it’s necessary to control the exposure to decide when we are going to remove our chlorophyll print.
exposure times for chrolophyll prints
The exposure time will also have a strong influence on the final colour of the leaf when it dries. The longer we expose our leaves to the sunlight, the bleaching will increase. Once again, atmospheric humidity and the intensity of the UV rays will determine the final colour of the leaf. Sometimes very long exposure times (several days) on relatively cloudy and humid days make our leaves keep many green tones or even some parts of the leaf will be not exposed, which dramatically transforms our photographic composition.
The same nature print on different leaves and different results
Occasionally, these contributions from nature can surprise us with non-conventional but spectacular results!

Chlorophyll print longer exposure
Chlorophyll print short exposure
As you can see, after 4 hours of exposure to sunlight the leaf is still too green and does not have the contrast I want.
Chlorophyll print short exposure result
After 10 hours of exposure to sunlight, color and contrast are fine for me.
Chlorophyll print longer exposure final print
After 5 hours of exposure to sunlight, the leaf is not completely bleached but I don’t want to overexpose the picture. With one more hour of exposure to the sun, I’ve got what I considered the right exposure. In this case, I like the light green color and the smooth contrast that we appreciate in the face.

3.6 Preservation of the leaves

This is one of the stages that took me the longest to manage.
alcohol to facilitate the penetration of the copper sulfate into the chlorophyll's magnesium molecule

3.6.1 Alchohol bath

The first step is to immerse our leaf for 20 minutes in alcohol to facilitate the penetration of the copper sulfate into the chlorophyll’s magnesium molecule.
We must be careful because alcohol can damage our leaves, especially those that are very thin.
copper sulphate prevents the image from continuing its development

3.6.2 Copper sulphate bath

This would be the equivalent to the “stop bath” in analogue photography. Copper sulphate is the opposite of magnesium which contains our chlorophyll nucleus, and therefore, is what will prevent the image from continuing its “development” until it disappears.
I use a proportion of 15% copper sulphate in distilled water and I immerse the leaf for five minutes. I also add a small amount of glycerine to keep the leaf flexible. (About 50c.c. per gallon).

3.6.3 Washing chlorophyll prints

I immerse the leaf for 10 – 15 minutes in running water to remove all bluish residues of the copper sulphate.
Drying chlorophyll photographs

3.6.4 Drying chlorophyll prints

After washing the leaf I put it between two sheets of thick cardboard with a lot of weight on them so that the leaf stay flat. During this phase, we must be very careful that the mould does not grow on the leaf and destroy all our work. Calla Lily leaves and some Orchids are very prone to mould.
UV protection to stop deteriation of photographs

3.6.5 Finishing of the leaf

I’ve tried many products for the final preservation of the leaf and my favorite is “Impersil ” from the Spanish firm Montó. This product is used by many urban artists in Ecuador to preserve their paintings on the walls. There are others, but this is the one that gives me a most natural look, it is easy to apply, -especially when leaves are very thin-, and it also has UV protection. I always give two hands in both sides of the leave.
In Ecuador, I haven’t found natural waxes that stick to the leaf without leaving a trace and the epoxy resins I’ve tried are too glossy and I don’t like bright surfaces. It’s a matter of taste.

4Final thoughts
Personally, what excites me most about the chlorophyll prints, (even more than the final result), is all the artistic knowledge I get through the process and especially the relationship I get with plants and nature. I usually ask the plants for permission to cut a leaf (yes, I know this may seem weird) and sometimes, there are leaves of such sublime beauty that I don’t want to cut them. I’m also fascinated by the whole part of the process that I can’t have any control over. For this reason, I always say that my work is not only mine, it’s a work in partnership with nature itself.

print by yago de orbe klingenberg in the chlorophyll process
To conclude, I leave you with a few words from one of my favorite artists, Paul Klee:

“Follow in the footsteps of natural creation, the becoming, the functioning of forms, then, maybe starting from nature, you’ll achieve forms of your own and one day you’ll become like nature and you’ll start to create.”

Paul Klee

The author Yago de Orbe Klingenberg is a photographer born in Spain but lives in Ecuador. He has worked in the Chlorophyll printmaking process and shares his work in the gallery, take a look at Yago de Orbe Klingenberg’s gallery.

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6 thoughts on “Chlorophyll prints – nature expresses itself”

  1. Thank you for the chlorophyll print instructions which I try to use when new leaves develop next year here in the northern hemisphere. A few years ago I tried to make chlorophyll prints using a negative on frost weed leaves. The simple process worked well with contrasty prints but there were no instructions on how to preserve them. The only thing that I could do was to iron (heat)them between sheets of waxed paper which worked for a short time. Even though kept in a dark place, they are now fading away. I would appreciate any suggestions on how to preserve them.

  2. Is copper replacing the magnesium? I’m not sure I am following the process.If it is a replacement process, could gold or platinum compounds be used?

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