Elizabeth Opalenik Workshop Stories and how she came to Mordançage

Elizabeth Opalenik shares her love of the Mordançage process and discusses memorable workshop stories from her new book featuring over 100 iconic photographers.

Writer and photography / Elizabeth Opalenik


Why is mordançage your favorite process?

Elizabeth Opalenik: When something strongly resonates with you in photography you tend to remember your first encounter. I was mesmerized in 1982, the first time I held a mordançage print of crystallization and photogram from the Insectes series by Jean-Pierre Sudre. The following summer I joined the staff of the Maine Photographic Workshops in Provence and met the master.

Walking into Jean-Pierre’s studio, surrounded by all the incredible work, I knew I had come home photographically. Mordançage is a process of possibilities enhanced for me by discovering I could successfully save the veils of emulsion.

No one had done that before and it became my challenge to finesse them with intent and grace. For the past 30 years it has been my process of choice, always offering a new path I can follow with great respect for the chemistry and longevity of image. To quote Jean-Pierre,

“…and now we have many possibilities!”

Jean-Pierre Sudre

I am grateful to have his contribution and that of Denis Brihat in this book.
workshop stories changed through photography by Elizabeth Opalenik

Where do you see the process going in the future?

Elizabeth Opalenik: I am happy to see with the resurgence of the handmade image that others are taking the opportunity to explore mordançage today. Now that everyone has a computer in their hand, it is possible to share the pitfalls and success in the process and that is encouraging to me as I now see more work with intent and beauty. Some problems can be worked out first with the digital negative and some “accidents” lead to new discoveries. More people are exploring chemigrams and combining multiple techniques. A digital version also now offers many varieties to something that may not have made it through all the final steps to an original finished mordançage piece… still my preference. In general, it is an exciting time in photography for experimenting. I was fortunate to be the first to teach Mordançage in China and be part of a series of books there on Alternative Processes. Inquisitive minds are doing many new wonderful things.

Elisabeth Opalenik Centered in the universe
Elisabeth Opalenik_Centered in the universe

What are your learnings from writing a book?

Elizabeth Opalenik: Workshop Stories: changed through photography has reminded me during this pandemic about the beauty of photography workshops and sharing. We have had a zoom substitute this past year, which often can reach more of an audience, but there is still nothing like hands-on for learning, especially when it comes to handmade prints and holding them in your hand. Over 100 photographers participated in this book with stories and images. All but a few have been connected to my varied past in the workshop world and I am grateful the connections remain. I started my teaching career with the Handmade Image so for this book, I also reached out to others in that community.

Christopher James, who wrote the bible on Alternative Processes shared a beautiful platinum print and teaching highlights such as this

“Processing cyanotype murals in the ocean with the children of Bayside when Craig and I taught the Teacher’s Workshops. Years later, a woman swam up to me after we had completed a mural and told me that her daughter had been one of our cyano-kids years past and that she had earned her BFA in photography because of that experience.”

Christopher James

Ellie Young shares her Oratone image and recounts Karl Koenig arriving in Australia to teach the gumoil photographic process at gold street studios… “He had slipped on the last days of the tour. After some convincing, he was x-rayed and discovered he had a spiral fracture in his lower leg. What to do now–there were no flights back to the USA before the workshops. So, with his leg in a plaster cast, we continued to run the workshops. I was his legs as he instructed me to control the physical aspects of the workshop–much to the delight of the workshop participants. Although he would have been in a great deal of pain, his humor provided us all with a fun and memorable time”.

Tim Rudman made me laugh with his story that encounters a bear during his lith printing workshop at Photographers Formulary in Montana. Jill Enfield talks about her connections to NordPhotography and doing wet plate collodion in a fishing tent and Brian Taylor shares his imaginative handmade book and his first workshop experience processing Oliver Gagliani’s sheet film in a workshop held in a former 1880s hospital listed in the registries of “legitimate” haunted houses. “I appreciated the privilege of her rare company during the few brief moments the White Nun hovered and glowed near me, all the while demonstrating her care and concern–making sure not to fog Oliver’s precious film on her way out through the wall”.

The book is a collection of beautiful images, stories and memories from the careers of each photographer and the beginnings of workshops starting in the 1960s. It is like a contemporary history of photography. A preview, trailer and bios can be seen at workshopstories.com.

Elizabeth Opalenik is a Mordançeuse working on six continents, connecting life’s possibilities through teaching workshops, humanitarian projects and making art. In 2007 she published her first monograph, Poetic Grace: Elizabeth Opalenik Photographs 1979-2007 and in 2020 she conjured into existence Workshop Stories: changed through photography. You can read more about Mordancages in this article.

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