Mordançage is considered by many to be a specialized, even secretive, alternative process. Through this process, the artist has the power to manipulate the print by physically lifting, repositioning, and securing the pure black portions of a black and white darkroom print. This magical alchemy helps add to the mystique and unique quality of this distinct process.

Writer / Cara Lee Wade
Photography / Cara Lee Wade, Ethan Ross, Holly Clabaugh, Jean Pierre Sudre and Ryan Geiger

Mordançage (pronounced more-dawn-sahhhjeh) was called by several different names when Paul Liesegang (1838-1896) originally discovered it in the late 1800s: bleach-etch, etch-bleach, gelatin relief, and reverse relief are some of the terms used. A method of reversing a film negative to a positive using an acid-copper-bleaching solution, the process was originally designed to be used on film and not paper.

Later, photographer Jean-Pierre Sudre (1927-1997) coined the term ‘Mordançage’ and turned the process into an art form using photographic prints instead of negatives. In the darkroom, through a series of chemical baths, the artist manipulates the print by physically lifting, repositioning, and securing the pure black portions of a black and white print. Sudre is best known for both his experimentation with chemicals and chemical processes in his still life and landscape imagery.

Professor Craig Stevens, a student of Sudre’s from my alma mater, Savannah College of Art and Design, refers to the current incarnation of the process as, “Mordançage – As perfected by Jean-Pierre Sudre.” At the very least, Sudre considered his use of the process “proprietary,” thus setting the tone for other practitioners of the process. Today Mordançage is considered by many to be a specialized, even secretive, alternative process, which helps to add to the imagery’s mystique and unique quality.

The Mordançage Process


  • Wear old clothes or an apron because the solution will discolor and eat through fabric. Wearing a mask and gloves is an absolute must.
  • Nitrile or dishwashing gloves
  • Mask
  • Print developer (expired or new – most brands work, my preferences are Ilford and Sprint)
  • Cotton balls/Q-Tips/small brushes
  • Fiber photographic paper (RC works too but I prefer fiber)
  • Flat bottomed trays and ribbed developing trays

Chemicals for the Mordançage Process

  • 750 ml distilled water (cool or cold);
  • 10 grams of copper chloride – I order mine from Bostick and Sullivan. They are the absolute best and have wonderful customer service if you have questions;
  • 50-75 ml – hydrogen peroxide (40 or 100 volume) – where I am, 100 volume is only available to cosmetologists, but 40 volume is available to the public. I have a stylist connection (shh 🙂 )40 volume works fine and even can provide better veiling; it just takes a little longer;
  • 50 ml – glacial acetic acid – this is available at any photochemical retailer;
  • More distilled water to make one liter.
  • Mix the chemicals in this precise order AAATW (Always Add Acid To Water).  I did this incorrectly once and had to evacuate my apartment until the dangerously, noxious, turquoise smoke cleared.

The Mordançage Process

The best images for this process are ones with rich blacks, such as dark backgrounds that also have some lighter tones or intricately detailed patterns. In my experience and in my classroom, I encourage students to try to integrate content with this process, so it doesn’t become one more meaningless technique. The process lifts in the blacks; if your image does not have a strong, bold black then it will not work!

Mordancage water bath
A contact darkroom print works best when fully saturated in a water bath.
1Make a silver gelatin print as you normally would, with or without a negative (photograms can be effective as well) utilizing filters, burning and dodging. It is a good idea to leave a small white border to allow for ‘tong’ marks. The image must be contrasty as the process happens in the deepest blacks of the image. You may begin with a dry print or a print that has just left its final water bath.

2Soak prints in a tray of water.
The tray should be larger than the print to allow for adequate agitation. The more saturated the print the quicker the print accepts the chemicals.

Bleach the print
Once the print is submerged in the mordançage solution, the image will begin to bleach and then lift/disintegrate.
3Bleach the print in the mordancage solution, with constant agitation, until it fully bleaches. This can take from 1 minute to 15, depending on your print, paper, and strength of chemicals. The image will fade away and the surface will begin to blister. [You can nudge a dark area of the print (choose an edge so as to not mishandle the image) to see if it is lifting off and bubbly, if you are unsure.]

Redevelop the mordancage
After the print begins to lift, it is submerged in a tray of print developer until the lifted image returns.
4Rinse the print in softly running water. You may do a quick rinse as this will increase the color shift during oxidation. Fresh, running water should be used at all times.

5Put print in a tray of developer and agitate until the desired tone is reached. The print is pretty fragile at this point, so treat it tenderly.

6Allow print to drip and then put print in a flat bottomed tray. If you don’t have a flat bottom tray, try a piece of Plexiglas. The important thing is that the surface is completely flat; ridges will interfere with the process at this point.

Selective lifting of the image
Lift and rub the disintegrating emulsion selectively with a variety of materials: gloved fingertips, brushes, cotton swabs, pipette…
7Lift and rub the disintegrating emulsion with your gloved fingertips, cotton balls, brushes, or Q-Tips. You may also use a toothpick or an eye dropper filled with water for delicate lifts. Remember to previsualize the final image.
[I have fully lifted pieces of emulsion in a small bowl of water so I can add them to areas that either need a little extra help or to small areas that ‘goof’ or just to build up density.]

Steps #4 and #6 can be reversed if you prefer a cleaner working environment. You can also rinse and re-bleach the print if the effect is unsatisfactory.

Be prepared to have a mess on hand. The emulsion will lift off the base and leave bits of stuff floating in your trays that stick to everything when it dries. The emulsion will have the consistency of egg whites.

8Remove the print and fully inspect.

Oxidze the print
Completed, unwashed print left to oxidize. Oxidizing creates color shifts left by unfixed development.
9At this point you can:
Fix the print for 3 minutes, then wash it for 10 minutes, and air dry;
Allow the print to oxidize by not fixing or washing it and simply air dry;
If you are trying to ‘veil’, use a hairdryer to dry the print in order to solidify the veils.

Keep an eye on the image in the initial drying stage: you may need to blot out puddles (These tend to dry terribly…blot!). Upon drying, the gelatin will re-adhere to the surface and become solid.

  • Complete rubbing produces a reversed or more negative image, but often, some positive remains because the original highlights in the print usually don’t dissolve.
  • If there are large areas of darks in the print (e.g., a black background), with strong enough peroxide these areas become wavy, like veils. If you are careful with your rubbing and washing, these veils can remain attached, albeit tenuously, to the points of contrast between the more anchored highlights and the detached shadow areas.
Finished mordancage with oils.
Finished print with oxidized areas and oil paint added to the surface.

Adopt the attitude of embracing the unpredictability of the process and its results. The process is imperfect, messy, and unpredictable at times, but it is also beautiful, seductive and satisfying.

A note on Cara Lee Wade’s Insidious Charms

Throughout history, women have put their bodies, and their psyches through tortuous measures trying to live up to the elusive thing that is beauty. We have constricted our breathing and injected ourselves with poison. We have teetered precariously, balancing on minuscule pedestals and we have crafted our flesh into contours deemed acceptable.

“Not only do I fear and rage against this but also grudgingly embrace it. I am left with a love/hate relationship with the idea of beauty and the quest to attain it. These images have emerged from this dichotomy.”

In the darkroom, I collage images from fashion and bridal magazines – images of women who— through the magic of editing and digital enhancement—don’t exist. Then, through a 19th century Victorian process called Mordançage, I merge representations of these accepted and established notions of what is beautiful with those of my manufactured grotesque. I create imagery that seeks to glorify and rebuke, ultimately giving way to a different definition of beauty, one of engaging oddity and lush ambiguity.

Cara Lee Wade is a self-proclaimed alt process nerd who makes art about memory, one’s sense of space, and impossible beauty standards. She serves as Professor of Photography and Digital Imaging at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Also see Cara Lee Wade’s gallery.

Mordancage by Cara Lee Wade, Insidious Charms, From Flame to Spark and Back Again
Mordançage by Cara Lee Wade, Insidious Charms, From Flame to Spark and Back Again
Mordancage by Ryan Geiger
Mordançage by Ryan Geiger, student work
Mordancage by Jean Pierre Sudre
Mordançage by Jean Pierre Sudre
Mordancage by Holly Clabaugh
Mordançage by Holly Clabaugh, student work
Mordancage by Ethan Ross
Mordançage by Ethan Ross, student work
Mordancage by Cara Lee Wade, Early Work
Mordançage by Cara Lee Wade (early work)
Mordancage by Cara Lee Wade, Insidious Charms, Snow Red Rose White
Mordancage by Cara Lee Wade, Insidious Charms, Snow Red Rose White
Mordancage by Cara Lee Wade, Insidious Charms, The Pearl Necklace
Mordançage by Cara Lee Wade, Insidious Charms, The Pearl Necklace
Mordancage by Cara Lee Wade, Insidious Charms, It's quiet here since Hope fell asleep
Mordancage by Cara Lee Wade, Insidious Charms, It’s quiet here since Hope fell asleep

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