Christina Z. Anderson tells us how to make chemigrams and shows plenty of examples from her students innovative work. This text is excerpted from The Experimental Photography Workbook.
The chemigram process was discovered by Pierre Cordier on November 10, 1956. It is a unique process that uses resists on photographic paper much the same way as wax is used as a resist in batik.
What Cordier discovered in 1956 was that a resist can hold back the chemical effects of developer and fixer on black and white photo paper for a time. Paper put into developer that has been exposed to normal room light for varying periods of time will turn black, except where a resist blocks the chemical reaction. The parts of the paper protected by the resist will continue to change color from extended exposure to room light, of course.
Likewise, paper put into fixer turns white, except where a resist blocks the chemical reaction. The parts of the paper protected by the resist continue to change color from the room light exposure, and suddenly there is the possibility of black, white, and colors in-between on normally monochrome paper.
With a back and forth from developer to fixer or fixer to developer, the resist begins to dissolve, so the next chemical bath either turns slowly exposing paper under the dissolving resist black (developer) or white (fixer) or some color in-between because of the now-lengthening room light exposure. With time this dissolution can be coaxed into creating beautiful, intricate patterns.
The chemigram process is actually very simple, using common household ingredients and common darkroom chemistry. There is no end to experimentation with this nonfigurative, physico-chemical process.
Examples of resists
- Nail polish
- Wax Oil
- Cellulose varnish
- Acrylic varnish
- Acrylic medium
- Syrups such as honey
- Glue or adhesive
- Lacquer or resin
- Felt tip pens
- Removable adhesive plastic, sticky labels
- Liquid mask or rubber cement
Examples of choices to make along the way
The different choices that can be made at any juncture are summed up in the following extensive but not exhaustive list.
- Paper type and brand, warmtone or cooltone
- Paper age—don’t neglect outdated/fogged paper!
- Resist, from thick to thin, full strength to diluted, soft and syrupy to hard and water-resistant, etc.
- Additions to the resist—sugar, salt, for instance
- Resist applied in the darkroom or in room light
- Resist applied with a brush, spray, stencil, silk screen, roller
- Length of time the resist is allowed to dry before the developer and fixer baths
- Extending the resist on all or parts of the paper
- Incised lines or drawing into the resist
- Fixer, diluted – full strength
- Developer, diluted – full strength
- Strength of light source, from dimroom to sun
- Length of light source
- Length of time in each bath
- Method of application of the baths, whether by tray, brush, spray, through a stencil, from a bottle, with a roller
- Which bath first, which bath next
- Sprinkles of dry chemicals with a salt shaker
- Nonfigurative versus photo-based or somewhere in-between—e.g. through a silk screen
The chemigram process
1Take the BW photo paper that is going to be used out of the black plastic light-safe bag in the darkroom and put it into another bag. The rest of the process can be carried out in room light.
2Set up four trays: developer, water, fixer, and water, in that order. The developer could be normal strength – dilute. Likewise with the fixer, but for this first attempt, use fixer working strength and developer 1+5.
3Take a resist of choice—start simple, e.g. butter, maple syrup, honey, Pam—and coat the paper carefully and artfully. Varnish works better thin. Syrup works fine thick.
4Incise a few lines into the resist. When the resist goes back and forth in and out of the chemistry, the resist disintegrates faster around the line, the line becomes wider, more distressed, and chemistry will react with the successively exposed photo paper underneath that is no longer protected. The paper will develop a darker line and then a paler line every time the paper is put through the developer/fixer cycle.
5With the trays all set up ready to go, slip the BW paper coated with the resist in either the developer to get a black background, or the fixer to get a white background. Meanwhile the paper will be turning color in room light—brown, yellow, mauve, blue, pink—that’s OK. Don’t touch the resist just yet.
6Whenever the paper looks finished developing or fixing, move it to the water wash. Rinse well enough, still not touching the surface and marring the resist, and then put it in the opposite tray of fixer or developer, respectively. If the water wash is not used, there will be contamination between the developer and the fixer which can produce chemical fog and dichroic silver, another option to consider.
7The resist will start its dissolution process, some resists sooner than later. Surprisingly, butter doesn’t dissolve too quickly. Honey will. Wherever the resist starts to dissolve, the underneath area will either turn lighter (fixer) or darker (developer), and with each back and forth, concentric areas of dark and light will begin to form like tree rings. Depending on the resist, the rings can have hard edges, mottled edges, or soft edges. Honey, for instance, is very soft and silky.
8The decisions are numerous. How long in each bath can be a minute or 10 minutes or hours. What the process teaches is patience, and going with the flow, both literally and figuratively. It is not necessarily quick.
9When the chemigram is done, get as much of the resist off as archivally possible, and then do a final fix, archival wash, and dry.
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