The Legend of Casein and the Cruel Dragon: Dark Horizons


Writer and photography / Peter J. Blackburn

Peter J. Blackburn begins a dramatic and autobiographical trilogy telling the tale of how the casein process came to his rescue!

Writers note: The following blog entry is the first episode in a trilogy written as a dramatic adventure tale – a true fairy tale, if you will. May this account be both entertaining and informative in your endeavors. I suspect there will be a moral or two at the end which may serve as bit of encouragement regardless of your chosen alternative process. Enjoy!

Here is the very last gum print produced before the coming of the great calamity. Image title: Four Fruits

Once upon a time in a hot and sunny land, when George Michael ruled the airwaves, there lived a fellow who enjoyed creating photographs. So much, in fact, that he decided to attend a little college nearby to acquire more knowledge of his camera, his negatives, and his prints. One day his whole world was turned upside down as he chanced upon a delightful little chapter in the book Darkroom Handbook by Michael Langford. There, beginning on page 316, were extraordinary pictures and informative text describing five astounding ways to make prints using basic equipment, a few chemicals, and a variety of elegant papers.

Gum bichromate, Van Dyke brown, milk (casein) prints, cyanotype, and Kallitypes were each described in beautiful simplicity. So excited was the aspiring student that he began at once to explore each process in turn, starting with gum and finishing with the silver-based Kallitype. After months of experimentation, he had accomplished much work and produced a variety of images which amazed his friends and spellbound his teachers. The dynamic blues of the cyanotypes complimented the intense browns of each Van Dyke. Many of the Kallitypes printed with fine detail and included dense, eye-pleasing blacks. Dazzling they were, one and all. The gum prints? Oh, the gum prints were truly his most favorite work. Several of those early pieces still hang on the walls of his humble apartment studio. It is no overstatement to report that gum printing would become his dedicated passion, a deeply beloved artistic endeavor. But what about the milk prints? Oh yes, those milk prints—those awful milk prints. What a pity, really—and so heartbreaking, too.

Of the five processes, the milk (casein) prints were a complete disappointment. So disappointing in fact, that the hasty printer only experimented with milks prints for one single day—a rather cloudy day as he recalls. Weak were the colors and staining was beyond intolerable. Not a single print was kept. Yuck. He chalked it up to the rather sorry looking slurry-like muck created by sorting casein from powdered milk. “Quite quirky,” he noted in his printing diary. So out went the casein and in came the gum. With complete abandon, the discerning printer chose gum bichromate as the means best suited to further his goal of creating bright, vibrant images in either color or black and white. Without delay, off he went down the gum slick road, not realizing the countless problems and snaring pitfalls which lay ahead. There was even some whispering in the village of a cruel dragon which lurked just out of sight beyond the far horizon.

Pitfalls? My, there were so many. For starters, reliable and consistent information was hard to come by. The Langford book was a great start, but the inquisitive printer yearned for more knowledge. Books on alternative processes in the late 1980s were few and far between. More importantly they contradicted each other on many key points. There was so much to sort through, and persnickety questions kept piling sky high. Potassium or ammonium bichromate? What ratio? The sun or UV lamps? Formalin? Nasty stuff. Spray starch? Arrowroot? Rives BFK, Lana, or Arches? What about humidity? What about all of the workflow details required for creating color separated negatives in the darkroom? Oh, the headaches! Send out for Tylenol! Eventually the frustrated printer declared most of the so-called instructional books and process guides derelict and proceeded to continue down the gum slick road one step at a time, depending only upon his own intuitive compass, careful testing, and loads of determination.

His intuition immediately preached a mantra, gently at first and then later as a loud drum. Unavoidable was the endless chant. “The sun. The sun. My boy, use the sun.” From almost the very first step down the gum slick road, the principled printer used the sun to expose each and every gum image. Many of his forefathers did and so would he. Still, there was that persistent, eerie rumor in the village of a cruel dragon creeping about creating mischief and mayhem in other parts of the kingdom. He wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Through gossip and daily chatter he surmised there was a repulsive creature abiding yonder which possessed some mystical control over the sun, the clouds, even the sky, or some such nonsense. The carefree gum printer decided he would pay no mind to that kind of idle talk. Instead, he merrily strolled down the glistening gum slick road singing and dancing to his favorite Gershwinesque ditty. “I got paper. I got pigment. I got ‘chromate—who could ask for anything more—who could ask for anything more?”

Much to his great pleasure, the now joyful gum printer made slow but steady progress over the years along the gum slick road producing dozens of portfolios and even having work accepted by a major gallery. Despite the occasional frustrations common among gum printers, all was splendid, marvelous, and even wonderful until one day without warning, like a brakeless freight train careening out of control, the unthinkable, unbelievable—unimaginable happened. And happen it did with an unrelenting vengeance of catastrophic proportions.


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