Don Nelson has been actively pursuing alternative photographic processes since 1983. He now shares his knowledge in the new book Kallitype, Vandyke Brown and Argyrotype. We interview him to find out more.
What inspired you to write this book?
Don Nelson: I have used quite a number of alternative processes since 1984: platinum/palladium, carbon transfer, kallitype, Vandyke brown, argyrotype, salted paper, wet plate, etc. My focus in the past two decades has been carbon transfer printing.
Carbon transfer printing requires a lot of preparation work before an actual print is made – making glop (pigmented gelatin) to pour and then dry tissue, and the preparation of appropriately sized paper. The process requires a bit of work and a lot of drying time before an initial print can be made for evaluation. I found that the ease and speed of proofing using kallitype and later Vandyke brown made the evaluation of the image quick compared to using carbon transfer. This reduced the time to create a finely tuned digital negative that would then be made in a final carbon transfer print. During discussions with Sandy King while co-authoring the Carbon Transfer Printing book, I was surprised to hear that Sandy also used kallitype and later Vandyke brown for proofing and tuning his digital negatives before committing them to carbon transfer!
After co-authoring the Carbon Transfer Printing book with Sandy King and John Lockhart, at Christina Z. Anderson’s request I wrote a chapter on Kallitype for the Digital Negatives with QuadTone Rip. During discussions with the Contemporary Practices in Alternative Process Photography series (Christina Z. Anderson), she mentioned that there was no one to do a book on some of the remaining iron printing processes.
“Without realizing the magnitude of the work needed to make a comprehensive book, I suggested that I might write such a book. During the subsequent three years of testing, Christina encouraged me to continue, as well as setting high standards that the series requires from the authors.”
Can you tell me about the book?
Don Nelson: The book is divided into two sections – the first contains all the information on the processes, and the second half showcases the many artists using the process in their contemporary work.
The artist section not only shares contemporary artists’ use of the processes but it is also intended to provide alternative information where the artist’s workflow or process decisions differ from the first part of the book. There were more artists submitting work than the page limit imposed by the publisher, so unfortunately not everyone who submitted could be published. Frankly, the book would be incomplete without including the work of these artists.
The first section of the book covers the details of the three processes (kallitype, Vandyke brown, and Argyrotype). The first two processes are historical, and Argyrotype is a process invented by Mike Ware with many advantages. In addition, there is a detailed section on paper selection with over 40 papers tested in the three processes as well as some detail on various developers used for kallitype. A section of the book covers the use of QuadTone RIP on the PC (which augments the MAC focus of the Digital Negatives with QuadToneRip book). A detailed chapter on the results of different gold, platinum, palladium, selenium and some color toners.
Throughout the process and toner chapters, I have included test images (Miner’s Shack) which compare different developers used in Kallitype, results of Vandyke Brown and Argyrotype, and the look of various toners. Each of these images has used a specific QuadToneRip ink definition file (P900, all are included in the book). Toning with platinum or palladium can result in prints identical to actual Pt/Pd printing at a fraction of the cost of these expensive metal salts.
There is also a materials section, with pointers on where to obtain the chemistry needed (Silver Oxide being the hardest to locate).
My good friend, Sandy King, agreed to write the foreword and contributed many of his gorgeous gold-toned images to the pages of the book. I originally approached him with the idea of co-authoring the book but he declined (when we got done with the Carbon Transfer Printing book, he told me that his days of writing books were over. But I tried anyway).
I know you are an expert on these topics, but did you learn anything when writing the book?
Don Nelson: I was naïve when I committed to writing the book. I did not realize the number of step tablets I would have to make to test everything – papers as well as processes, and toners. Nor did I realize the number of QuadToneRip ink definition files I would have to make (I use Sandy Kings method which uses a reflection densitometer to quickly linearize the curve after adjusting the ink amount to create the detailed whites). The result was over 800 step tablets. The amount of testing was huge and took two years to finalize. The final year of the three years was the review and tuning of the manuscript.
There were some interesting revelations during testing – pre- and post-exposure humidity can play a big effect on final print coloration, additives like gold or mercury in the sensitizers did not result in any changes in print color, using fumed silica on paper didn’t result in changes in color or blacks, and the gold toners produced colors similar to those produced by Chrysotype.
The book is about 3 processes Kallitype, Vandyke Brown and Argyrotype. Do you have a favourite?
Don Nelson: Vandyke brown is so quick and easy. Development in distilled water means it does not require a chemical developer like kallitype. It tones well and there are a number of gold toners that produce some very beautiful colors.
I like the keeping quality of the argyrotype sensitizer and the print color produced using post-exposure humidification. Finding silver oxide can be a bit difficult for some (but there are means to create it). A downside is multiple development baths of distilled water use a lot of water.
Do you have any advice to artists who want to start working in any of these processes?
Don Nelson: Try Vandyke brown before kallitype or argyrotype. Easily available chemistry and water development. It tones well with gold, platinum, palladium, selenium or a few colored toners that don’t otherwise bleach the image.
If you decide to try kallitype, check the book’s images to see how the different developers create different results. But if you plan to do toning, the developer does not matter as the final print coloration will be from the toner. (and you might as well use Vandyke brown with toning).
For those artists that don’t print often, the long-term keeping qualities of argyrotype sensitizer is an advantage. You can mix and keep it for over a year which is not possible with Vandyke brown sensitizer.
What can we expect from you in the future?
Don Nelson: I have no current plans on writing any additional books. It’s time to return to printing my own images!
Kallitype, Vandyke Brown, and Argyrotype: A Step-by-Step Manual of Iron-Silver Processes Highlighting Contemporary Artists
A cookbook of simple, basic recipes for making black and white printing paper and paper negatives.