Why would an artist be concerned with ways to make photography more sustainable and how could such query transform one’s artistic practice? Curious writer Miglė Markulytė interviews photographer Dan Hermouet to reveal how he cooks photography by distilling pigments from a river, scrubbing off the rust from old tools, and mixing special photo-sensitive solutions with curds.
“A good chef can not only cook for his taste, but he can also select the right recipe for whoever is coming over for the dinner. He has learned to cook under his own conditions with whatever ingredients he had, but becoming a chef signifies an ability to adapt the skills to any environment one finds himself in. And if the chef cannot find the right ingredients, he can always create them himself.”
What is the motivation behind that pulls Dan Hermouet to engage in a much slower process of alternative photography (sometimes lasting up to 3 months) in a fast- paced world of image production? How do alternative photography processes help him to tune-in with the natural environment? And most importantly, how does he manage to transform the solitary fate of an analogue photographer by bringing the joy of an image created out of the darkroom and turning it into a social happening?
To find out the answers I invited Dan for a conversation, during which he humbly shared his experience and revealed several little secrets about cyanotype toning, casein prints, homemade pigments and sustainable toners.
It was just several years ago that Dan Hermouet stumbled upon the field of alternative photography. Captivated by the endless possibilities to express himself via the old photographic processes, which were “as a new visual language” to him, Dan followed his curiosity into the realm of experiments, production of pigments and discovery of subtle shades. Starting from the simple analogue photography, B&W silver prints, Dan was amazed by the process of putting his hands on the negatives and actually making the pictures. He was enjoying the time that he could spend pondering upon every photograph.
Yet, Dan had a feeling that there must be something beyond the mere process of capturing one’s perspective of the world that photography is said to be. He was longing for the freedom of a painter, being able to break out of conventional notions of the image and to create abstractions, convey the feelings and emotions without using common symbols. That was what sparked Dan’s interest in alternative processes. He started experimenting with cyanotype, printing on large sheets of linen, creating casein prints on glass or metal plates. The process of image creation extended from a few days into several months and in some cases became even more important than the end result. “Sometimes the timeframe to make a print is three weeks or months, so you are living inside that image all the time, dreaming about the place where you were, reliving the memories. The whole point is to have that memory in your hands and to be able to come back to it in your mind.”
He found joy in working with materials that are worthless, turning them into meaningful objects: like a windowpane that he found in an abandoned building. Dan says that, this way, one can be constructing without fear of failure, “like playing a game that you cannot lose, you always win because you discover something new every time”.
Working with different photographic processes Dan couldn’t agree with the notion of using as much chemicals: “It just didn’t feel right, I didn’t want to be in an environment which is harmful to me, using materials that could be toxic”.
Being aware that, in photographic processes, toxic chemicals are being replaced with others which are usually not considered toxic just because of lack of studies, and that there are so many organic materials yet unexplored, Dan dived into the process of experimentation. In photographic processes involving gum or carbon, the paper should be sized first, that is, covered with a layer that prevents the pigment from entering paper fibres which causes image blur. This layer is usually a mix of gelatine with a chemical hardener. Inspired by the Lumière brothers who discovered a method of creating colour photographs using potato starch, he consulted a local starch company technologist and found a way to size paper with pea starch. Then he started pushing the urge to rely on sustainable materials even further by producing his own pigments. “Manufactured pigments are the norm here, but I really wanted to stop relying on imports, shipping issues and delays with specific tested brands. I started looking around me for possible supplies and this brought me to a great level of experimentation.”
By making his own nature-friendly toners and creating pigments for layers of casein, Dan expanded the limits of a monochromatic photography process like cyanotype. Therefore he could not only capture the light of the specific moment, but also convey its feeling, or recreate an actual colour of the river, by using a pigment made from the water of the same river.
Collecting pigments in nature, Dan Hermouet learned that, according to the season, he could find certain colours that couldn’t be found in other seasons. “Seasonal toners offer a variation in strength and a degree of coloration shift. Spring leaves tend to be at their strongest, whereas autumn offers a duller palette. However autumn is a great time for oaks. You can collect acorns, bark, and galls. For example, this year has been excellent for galls, probably my favourite toner at the moment when mixed with snow.” He also noticed how subtle the creation of the shades could be and how easily they vary depending on such delicate changes as the temperature or alkalinity of the water. “Rainwater and snow offer softer water as opposed to tap water. I am seeing colder tones in the winter with the snow as opposed to hard tap water. <…> My secret for a nice colour shift with a toner is to gently raise the pH of the water to allow the print to open up. Warming up your toner will yield a stronger and faster result.”
And when asked what was his best discovery, Dan shared some technical details for a casein print which is applied over cyanotype. “One of my latest tricks that greatly helps my overall printing process is to incorporate a sub-layer for casein prints. Using first an unpigmented layer of plain casein protects my highlights and it also allows me to obtain bolder colours within a few layers. When it comes to black, it gives me a greater Dmax. This method is very convenient when working with casein over cyanotype when I am only looking for a couple of layers. In some cases, I do not even size my paper, even with a black pigmented casein layer. This can easily be tailored with each paper by adding a small amount of water to it. In a nutshell, it’s like an adaptable sizing for a stronger hue.”
Not being a local in Lithuania, Panevėžys, which is his current place of residency, Dan started communicating more with people around him and met someone from an older generation who knew how to extract protein from curds and make casein – for completely different reasons, but still the same way which is perfect for photography. He also started visiting local factories, like a starch company, in search of a specialist in a linen factory to make large cyanotypes on the material or to create pigment from burned linen. This way Dan discovered the importance of the process and how it can become a way to notice an abundance of knowledge and materials that are all around us, but usually lost in an endless rush or overlooked because of an urge to “invent something new”.
Yet, immersed in the joys of analogue photography and alternative processes, Dan noticed how much distanced he becomes from those around him who are not concerned with such activities. “I was scared to close myself off in a dark corner away from others, doing something that is important only for me.”
Amazed by the ways photography could open up the endless possibilities to express oneself, Dan felt a need to share this method with others around him. Therefore, he started offering workshops and creating spaces where people could engage in mutual processes, despite their different backgrounds or coming from various disciplines. “It’s like cooking together, sharing the recipes, not only among photographers, but also other artists like painters or textile artists, who are also interested in production of natural pigments and ways to substitute chemicals with plants. The same pigments could be used to make watercolour or there are methods to make a natural dye that could also be applied to photography.”
The way Dan presents these processes is so simple, that anyone, whether an artist or not, is welcome to join. Conveying this idea and publicly unveiling the process of image creation, for several months Dan will be working in an open studio in the city centre of Panevėžys, where any passer-by could observe him through the glass walls or even join in the process.
The chemicals that are being spoken about are in the sizing, which usually contain formaldehyde or formalin. It could be replaced by glyoxal, but the latter is lacking research, as it is quite a recent substitute. You can read more about paper sizing here: https://www.alternativephotography.com/sizing-or-subbing-papers/
Lumière Brothers patented the first colour process called autochrome: https://www.hnoc.org/virtual/daguerreotype-digital/autochrome-process
In the mentioned process, river bed water was turned into pigment by filtering the soil, drying the extract, grinding it into a powder, binding it with gum arabic to make a watercolour paint which was then added to casein.