The Mordançage background and process

Mordançage is quite a rare process, and not for beginners, but Jonathan Bailey is straightening it out the questions marks for the rest of us.

Writer / Jonathan Bailey

Mordançage by Beh Stehle, image below by John Boeckeler
Mordançage by Beh Stehle, image below by John Boeckeler

Always be careful when handling chemicals. Read the health and safety instructions.
In late 1996, new to the internet and to the Alt-Photo-Process listserv group, I posted a request for information about the mordançage process and received a smattering of useful, if somewhat random, information. In addition to the list-posted information I also heard from Jean-Daniel Lemoine in Paris who kindly put me in touch with an expert in mordançage who lives in the Loire Valley, Pierre-Louis Martin.

I was in Paris in the spring of ’97 and met with several very fine photographers – many of them members of the list – as well as arranging a brief meeting with Pierre-Louis while he was in Paris on gallery business. Nothing could have more emphatically demonstrated to me the potential and power of the internet than my request made to this list about mordançage!

John boeckeler's Mordançage photograph
John boeckeler’s Mordançage photograph

The work that Pierre-Louis shared with me – something approaching 100 mordançage images, arranged in portfolios – was astounding! While I’d seen a small number of Jean-Pierre Sudre’s mordançage prints – as well as a small selection of Elizabeth Opalenik’s unique works in the process, I’d never seen anything like Pierre-Louis’ work: mordançage images which had been exotically toned (and split-toned?) in addition to the etching and emulsion-lifting from the mordançage. A selection of his work (along with four-color gravures from Jean-Daniel Lemoine, among others) were exhibited the summer of 1998 in Boston at the alt-process show arranged at The White Elephant Gallery.

Nate Apkornby Christina Z. Anderson, Mordancage photograph
Nate Apkornby Christina Z. Anderson, Mordancage photograph

Pierre-Louis had worked extensively with Sudre for many years before Sudre’s death in 1998. Pierre-Louis is teaching workshops in France, but I am unsure if these classes focus on his work in gum (and other alt-processes) or if they also include mordançage.

As I live in the shadow of The Maine Photo Workshops (15 miles away), former students of Craig Stevens are thick on the ground. It was through one of these acquaintances that I first heard of mordançage and saw some prints. Craig continues to teach this process at his (and Chris James’) week-long class each summer in Rockport (probably the single most popular class at The Workshops every year), and he apparently includes it in his classes at Savannah School of Art as well.

Craig also knew Sudre very well (telling me last summer during our brief meeting, “He was like a father to me…”) – spending time in France with him each year during his Provence workshop. Craig has been working with this process for years (if not decades) and is clearly an expert on the process. Curiously, neither Craig nor Pierre-Louis were aware of each other. I have a small selection of Pierre-Louis’ prints, as well as a few color reproductions which he was willing to share with me for my classes, and I showed Craig this work last summer while he was in town.

Horns by Christina Z. Anderson, Mordancage process
Horns by Christina Z. Anderson, Mordancage process

Judy Seigel (a member of the list) suggested that mordançage is another name for the historic “etch/bleach” mentioned in vintage references, and this may well be valid. Further, these old references may be an excellent source for tweaking one’s practice of the mordançage process once successful results are obtained. However, I am very much under the impression that “mordançage”, whatever the similarities it may have to historic etch/bleach processes, is creditable to Jean-Pierre Sudre. Craig refers to it as “Mordançage – As perfected by Jean-Pierre Sudre.” At the very least, I think it’s safe to say that Sudre considered his use of the process “proprietary” (perhaps setting the tone for other practitioners of the process).

My Mordancage Formula and process notes:

I am quite sure that the following has at its core the handout Craig Stevens gives to his classes. Don Upp posted to the list a couple years ago a prose version similar to the following information.

That being said (and to be perhaps tediously scrupulous in giving proper credit), it is the work that Chris Pinchbeck did with his work/study classes at The Rockport College (yes, it’s now accredited) that clarified things for me last year and allowed for such successful results in my workshops. He very generously shared with me the particulars of his use of the process and I thank him!

The mordançage solution:

750 ml water (cool or cold) 10 grams – copper chloride 25 to 35 ml – 40 (or 30) volume hydrogen peroxide 50 ml – glacial acetic acid water to make one liter


  • Bleach a well washed print in the mordançage solution for 3 minutes (wear gloves and work with good ventilation!), followed by a 15 minute wash.
  • Redevelop the print in any of the following (but not limited to the following!):
    Dektol at 1:5 Weak or nearly exhausted Dektol Sulfide toner (Part B) – weak, used of full strength Polytoner, Brown toner, or thiourea redeveloper (Whatever else seems worth trying)
  • Rinse the print under running water. You might allow the print to sit out in the air 5-10 minutes (or longer) to oxidize, perhaps adding to the coloration of the final print… or NOT! maybe you can’t wait to see this thing, so you plunge ahead to the next step immediately.
  • Back into the mordançage solution – “timed” by inspection. At this point you might take a cotton ball and rub the emulsion off of the print – partially or completely – as the image and whim dictates.
    Further, you may also observe at this point that entire sections of emulsion – the darkest areas of the print – are floating in suspension, but still (barely) attached to the print. You may wish to rearrange and/or reapply this emulsion area to the print – in the manner of a Polaroid lift. Elizabeth Opalenik has turned this into her signature maneuver with this process.
  • Redevelop or tone the print once again. Use stop bath to halt this action when judged complete. Wash the print for 30 minutes. (This wash may not be a real option if you have done emulsion manipulations, as it will be too fragile. Some sort of washing is obviously suggested – but then again, *not* thoroughly washing can lead to further color shifts over time, shifts which may, for the open-minded, be interesting – although not strictly archival as a technique!)
  • Screen dry

The Mordancage images

The choice of the image seems more important than the choice of paper with this process – warm and cold toned papers seem equally suited (Brovira was Sudre’s favorite), as does the use of RC paper. Print color is certainly affected by the choice of paper, as well as the redevelopers put to use. Photograms seem very popular with this process (an inclination underWriter / Sudre’s work?), although I have not gone that route with my own experiments – and the student work in my workshops have thus far all been images from negatives.

I have not attempted any of the split-toning processes I employ on my own work subsequent to the mordançage of the print. It is an area I wish to explore. I believe Pierre-Louis is toning his images (subsequent to the mordançage? – I am guessing) in things like copper and blue toners, and is achieving beautiful effects. Most of Pierre-Louis’ work incorporates at least some photograms in the image.

I am unaware of any published information on this process. If someone knows of information in print, or of information in the old references which seems pertinent, I’d love to hear about it! Further, I’d love to hear (more) from those people who are working/have worked with the process previously and whose practice of it differs from the info I’ve posted here. (I was interested to hear of successful results with the weaker hydrogen peroxide, for example).

Recommended reading
Experimental Photography Workbook: A Manual of Analog Black & White Darkroom Practice by Christina Z. Anderson

Buy directly from the author

Experimental Photography Workbook: A Manual of Analog Black & White Darkroom Practice

by Christina Z. Anderson

9 of 10   Rated 9,28 – based on 254 votes

Learn about a variety of alternative photographic processes.
A technical book highly recommended both for beginners and pros.


4 thoughts on “The Mordançage background and process”

  1. Use copper (II) chloride and I use 8% but you can use up to 12% hydrogen peroxide. Christina Z Anderson’s book Experimental Photography Workbook has some valuable information about the process but I have found that experimentation is the best answer.

  2. Do you use copper(I) chloride or copper (II) chloride? Also what is the concentration of the hydrogen peroxide?

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