Working in the Mordançage process

Elizabeth Opalenik learnt the Mordançage process from Jean-Pierre Sudre. She has since then changed it into her own variation. She shares her version of this beautiful process here.

Writer and photography / Elizabeth Opalenik

Mordançage chez Jean-Pierre Sudre 1991 Lacoste, France © Elizabeth Opalenik 2013, Mordançage process
Mordançage chez Jean-Pierre Sudre 1991 Lacoste, France © Elizabeth Opalenik 2013 using the Mordançage process

I began my Mordançage journey in Provence when I met Jean-Pierre Sudre. After seeing his work for the first time in 1983, I knew I had come home photographically. Annual visits to Sudre’s atelier to share his work with other students helped to form a life long bond. After 30 years of visits, I am still in awe. In 1991, he offered a workshop in the process to seven Americans and I was lucky enough to learn Mordançage directly from this master. The formulas and practices that I share started with that workshop and the dedication Sudre had to perfect the mordançage technique. With any creative process, the goal is to make it your own. By print five, I was attempting to save the veils much to Sudre’s surprise. “No, no, no Elisabeth! I thought you would be the easiest student!” By the end of the week, he was asking for my notes.

My best suggestion is to learn the tools first, keep good notes and develop patience. The process is beautiful and if you follow steps with intent, you will gain the knowledge to expand into experimenting with structure toward an idea rather than accidents.

It is important to recognize the accidents, Accidents lead to creativity in the process, but it is also important to understand why they happened.

Know images in this process are one of a kind. If you want total repeatability then work in a process called Photoshop.

In Mordançage process you have many possibilities.


  1 liter 2 liter 3 liter
Cold Water 750 ml 1,500 ml 2,000 ml
Copper chloride 10 g 20 g 30 g
Hydrogen Peroxide (110 volume) 35 ml/liter but depends on paper emulsion and age
Acetic Acid (80%) 50 ml 100 ml 150 ml
Cold Water to make 1000 ml 2000 ml 3000 ml
Mordançage chez Jean-Pierre Sudre 1991 Lacoste, France © Elizabeth Opalenik 2013
Mordançage chez Jean-Pierre Sudre 1991 Lacoste, France © Elizabeth Opalenik 2013

Hydrogen Peroxide is best at 110 volume which is 30% grade. I drive to my chemical lab and normally buy the hydrogen peroxide at 35% and adjust the formula slightly. However, you cannot ship 35% Hydrogen Peroxide without going through HAZMAT precautions. You can buy 30% at beauty supply stores (not the white creamy stuff) or ask to have a lab supply you a product at 17.5% so that it can be shipped if you have no other resource. To make the above formula using 17.5% I would double the Hydrogen Peroxide and use slightly less water.

Always use gloves, work outside when possible or use a dual filter respirator. I suggest you google information on all the chemicals involved so you develop a healthy respect. I have twenty pinholes in my stainless steel sink from a teaspoon full of the chemistry that spilled and was left for a few days. 🙂

1Start with a well-washed print on any of today’s papers that have good silver content. It is important to make good test strips that have been stopped and fixed in a non-hardening fixer. It may require some testing on your part and finessing of the formula to get consistent results but it is worth the effort if you have a favorite paper. Today, Ilford Multigrade consistently works but I have recently tested Arista, Adox, Fotokemika Varycon and the Foma line. All offer different possibilities, as do other brands. Because I have dedicated myself to working with the veils of emulsion, I want a paper with high silver content and I will alter the formula to lift, not dissolve, the emulsion.

2Working from dry or wet print, bleach out the print in the mordançage solution for 2-3 minutes, rocking the tray gently. You will see the emulsion start to soften and bubble. The print will yellow and the image may disappear. Room temperature is fine, you can also mordançage longer, but if not working, make a new test strip with longer times or more contrast, try fresher hydrogen peroxide, or add more acetic acid.

I generally mordançage using a plexi-glass covered tray then transfer the image to a warm water bath to continue the rocking and rolling process of washing. I am often working on a piece of plexi-glass because it is easier to lift the print from the solution if I am trying to save veils. Remember those gloves. NOTE: leaving a border on your image allows a place to grip with tongs. WASHING IS IMPORTANT TO AVOID CHEMICAL STAINING OF PRINT AND SOLUTIONS.

Mordançage chez Jean-Pierre Sudre 1991 Lacoste, France © Elizabeth Opalenik 2013
Mordançage chez Jean-Pierre Sudre 1991 Lacoste, France © Elizabeth Opalenik 2013

3Wash the print 4 x 5 minutes, changing water completely. Again I am rocking the tray and using the movement of the water to help lift the veils. If they are loosening too quickly I go to soak washing, but if you don’t wash well between steps, staining will occur. What takes time to create time respects.

4Now comes the exciting part of removing the softened gelatin (depouillement). You can do this now with a strong jet of water or ball of cotton or redevelop the print first in diluted paper or film developers. This can be a messy process and the floating emulsion will ultimately stick to everything. I try to keep this emulsion in a tray of water, which I then filter through a funnel with fine screen or a fine mesh bag. Different effects can be achieved depending on when you remove the emulsion. Play with the possibilities.
I have found older developers have given me some interesting colors. It is also possible to redevelop in sulfuring toners or partially redevelop in one solution, rinse and continue in another. The print exposure controls whether the gelatin leaves the print of not. That is why making good test strips are critical to controlling this part of the process. If impossible to skin the print, do another test strip with longer times.

Possible redevelopers for the Mordançage process can be:

  • Dektol 1:5 to 1:10
  • Glover 1:3 to 1:5
  • Sprint 1:10 to 1:20
  • ID 62 1;2 to 1:5
  • Old D-76

You can also sulferize the print in something like Thiourea as a redeveloper and then wash.

So many choices, so little time but here creativity has no bounds. In the end, it may all become shades of gray, but you might be surprised with the red, bronze and magenta tones created by different developer/paper combinations.

Before your next washing stage, you also have the possibility of rinsing the print in a solution of acetic acid 10-30 ml/liter for 2 minutes. This will brighten the whites.

Mordançage chez Jean-Pierre Sudre 1991 Lacoste, France © Elizabeth Opalenik 2013
Mordançage chez Jean-Pierre Sudre 1991 Lacoste, France © Elizabeth Opalenik 2013

5Other choices at this stage:

  1. Wash well. If veils aren’t an issue, a print washer is fine for 20 minutes or changing the water bath in a tray 4×5 minutes. If saving veils, gentle rocking and water changes or arrange veils and dry. I often use a hairdryer so I can continue through the process. Wash after the gelatin has dried back to the paper.
  2. Redevelop, wash well, tone with selenium, polytoner, blue toner…your choice. Wash some more.
  3. Do a partial redevelop, rinse and before drying, put into another diluted developer, put the print face down on glass and use a brayer, then put face up on towels to oxidize and finish development. Different developers will result in color variations. Keep good notes. Wash.
  4. Do an incomplete, very diluted redevelopment and then sulferize with something like Thiourea.
  5. You can also fix the print after redeveloping. I rarely have unless I want to use this step to help lighten an overdeveloped image. I prefer stopping the action with the stop bath and copious amounts of washing.

Prints that you are not going to oxidize should be washed and screened dried. Be sure screens are clean and be sure to clean later. You can also dry face up on clean towels that are washed often. If using paper towels, dry face up understanding if they are white they may have bleach in them. I tend to use clean towels, which seem to help prints dry flatter, especially those with veils. You can flatten prints in a dry mount press, but I prefer to put under glass. My goal is to keep the prints looking three-dimensional.

Please remember to use good ventilation and caution at all times as these chemicals are not compatible with your lungs.

Living in the Bay Area of San Francisco, USA, Elizabeth Opalenik works with Mordançages. You may know her from her book Poetic Grace – Elizabeth Opalenik Photographs 1979-2007. You can see some of Elizabeth Opalenik’s work her in her gallery.

6 thoughts on “Working in the Mordançage process”

  1. From Elisabeth in response to Ivy:
    “Ivy, Thanks for responding and your compliments. Yes, some similar effects can be made with Polaroid…I used to teach them….but it is not the same at all. These veils in Mordançage are of silver emulsion and more fragile than the Polaroid emulsion. Both are a eautiful process and yes, the Polaroid is no doubt safer, but less stable. In the end, with intent, we can make any process work for us. Goal is to just love it!” Elizabeth

  2. In awe. What’s fascinates me is the similar veiling opportunities appearing when working with basic (outdated) Polaroid emulsion transfers. Elizabeth, your works likely are more archival; along with your discussion re cleanliness (not to mention your cautioning re chemical inhalation). Your images are striking and profoundly exhilarating.

  3. Thanks for sharing!!! I’ve worked on the process myself in the past, great to see how you do it as you achieve wonderful results.

  4. Hello!
    Thanks for this article, this process is entirely new to me, but very intriguing!
    What are these “veils” you are referring to?


  5. Elizabeth, thank you for sharing your process! It was both helpful and inspiring. I’ve worked with mordançage for some time, different steps, different results and really appreciate the insight. Your mordançage images are amazing.

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