Alternative Photographic Processes

Alternative Photographic Processes is, by far, one of the coolest classes I have ever taken.  Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic limited us on what we could do - the class was designed in a way that if we had to go back to exclusively on-line, we could do all of the processes from home.  Some of the more advanced processes are too messy, require extreme ventilation, or involve chemicals that are just too hazardous for home use.  That being said, we still learned some really cool processes, most of which are historic in nature and were some of the earliest forms of photography.

Lumen Prints

Lumen prints were some of the earliest forms of photography, known as heliograms.  Heliography derives its name from Greek origins - helios, meaning 'sun' and graphein, meaning 'writing.'  The process was invented in 1822 by Joseph Nicephore Niepce and based off of the inventions of photolithography (using light to pattern things onto a substrate) and photogravure (an etched copper plate coated with a light-sensitive gelatin tissue exposed to a film positive, used to reproduce detailed continuous tones of a photograph).  At its simplest base, a lumen print is produced by placing an object on a sheet of photographic paper (the kind used in a darkroom) and then placed in the sun for a certain amount of time.  The density of the object placed on the paper has a lot to do with the resulting pattern.  If it is dense and does not allow light to pass through, you will get an outline of the object.  If it does allow light to pass through, however, you can often see the intricate details of the object, for example the vein structure in a leaf or petal.  I tried various natural items, ranging from onion and garlic skins to flowers to fruits.  I was especially intrigued by the citric fruits and what their acidity might do.  The most incredible result was from a tomato.  The resulting image is so realistic that peole often think it is a photograph of the tomato slice itself!

Click HERE to see my lumen prints.


Of all the processes we learned, anthotypes were the ones I struggled with the most.  While I enjoyed the process, the biggest issue I had was with coating the paper.  Anthotypes are based on the principle of using natural materials for your emulsion.  The easiest to use was a combination of turmeric with isopropyl alcohol.  You mix the two, then strain them into a light-proof container.  When you're ready to use it, you pour some out into a small container, then use a cellulose brush to coat your paper.  You have to coat the paper evenly otherwise you will get streaks or lighter spots in your prints.  You can also use beets or blackberries in your solution, though they take considerably longer to expose than the turmeric.  For this process, you need to print your image on acetate, but printed as a positive as the sun breaks down the exposed areas, leaving a positive image behind.  Once your image has been properly exposed, you submerge it in a bath of borax dissolved in warm water.  The borax reacts with the turmeric to help fix the image, though it is not a permanent fix.  Like lumen prints, anthotypes will continue to fade and degrade, but unlike lumen prints you cannot fix these.  Using turmeric gives you an image that has a really nice sepia tone to it, whereas beets and blackberries give you a nice soft pink/red tone.

Click HERE to see my anthotype prints.


Of all of the processes we learned in this class, cyanotypes are by far my favorite.  It is a really simple process that is easy to do from home, which I definitely took advantage of.  At its core, the process involves simple chemistry, the combination of ammonium ferric citrate and potassium ferricyanide with distilled water.  because of the light sensitive nature of the chemistry, it is best to mix your ingredients in a room with subdued lighting, and as little natural light as possible.  Also, it is best to store your chemistry in a cool, dark space, and in a light proof bottle.  Once your chemistry is mixed, you can coat your surface in the same type of space as you mixed it, but it is necessary to let it dry in a dark place - once dry your surface is extremely light sensitive.  

The cyanotype process was invented in 1842 by astronomer John Herschel as a way to copy his notes.  Because of the iron salts in the chemistry, the resulting image is a deep Prussian blue color.  This process is actually where blueprints came from (hence the term 'blue print').    The following year Anna Atkins became the first person to create a photographically illustrated book, wherein she used cyanotypes to create images of British algae.  As a botanist, she had previously sketched plant specimens, but this new method afforded her an accuracy she could not get in her sketches.

The beauty of this process is that it can be applied to a wide variety of surfaces.  We started on bristol board paper, and I quickly began experimenting on other surfaces.  We were ultimately supposed to turn in five images, including one on a surface other than bristol board.  I printed images on handmade paper and a paper towel, both of which gave an interesting texture to the image, and even a coffee filter.  In addition to learning how to print cyanotypes, we were taught the art of toning our prints.  This is tricky because it involves a knowledge of bleaching and a keen eye.  You can submerge your print in something like coffee or tea to get a split-toned print that is both blue and brown, or you can submerge your print in a bleaching agent (photographic developer, trisodium phosphate, etc.) and then submerge it in your toning agent.  The tannic nature of both tea and red wine work really well to tone images.  The trick is knowing when to pull your print from the bleaching solution so that you don't lose the whole image, and how long to leave it in the toning solution to achieve your desired results.

Cyanotypes are something I will pursue in more depth next semester in my advanced alternative photo processes independent study.

Click HERE to see my cyanotype prints.

Tin Types (Wet Plate Collodion)

For this process, we took only a day to go over it, really more for fun than a proper lesson.  Our professor Josh shoots primarily in wet plate collodion, so he was able to give us an expert demonstration and practice session.  The process was invented in 1851 when Frederick Scott Archer discovered collodion could be used as a substitute for egg whites on glass photographic plates.  For this process, you take a metal plate that has been coated and apply a layer of collodion solution.  Collodion is a highly flammable, syrupy liquid composed of nitrocellulose (aka gun cotton, flash paper, flash cotton) in ether and alcohol (hence doing this at school, not at home).  Time is of the essence in this process as the plate needs to remain wet from beginning to end (hence the name 'wet plate' collodion).  Once the plate has been coated in the collodion solution and the solution has set, you submerge it in a silver nitrate solution, which makes the plate photo sensitive.  After 3-5 minutes, you remove the place from the silver nitrate bath, let it fully drain off, then place it in the photo cartridge.  You can then take your picture using a special camera (think old-school where the photographer had a cape over him and the back of the camera).  Once you have exposed the plate in the camera, you take the cartridge back into your darkroom and develop it, then fix it using potassium cyanide.  Once it has been rinsed and dried, you apply a layer of varnish composed of sandarac, alcohol, and lavender oil.  Not only does this prevent the plate from tarnishing, but it smells nice, too! 

4x6 Tin Type1
4x6 Tin Type2
Final Project

Throughout the semester, the focus for each project was learning the process itself and demonstrating an understanding of how it worked.  We submitted images to our professor to be printed, but we could use additional images and items if we so chose.  For the final project, though, we had to pick one of the processes that we learned and come up with a concept.

For this project, I chose lumen prints for the fact that, unless fixed, they will continue to expose and ultimately fade away.  With that in mind, I took this opportunity to do a project that was centered around my great-grandmother's battle with dementia.  A remarkable woman who outlived two husbands and her daughter, she ultimately passed away at the age of 101.  She was in great health throughout her life, though it was the last five years of her life that she suffered from dementia.  I never saw her in person during this time, but I remember hearing from other family members how she had changed.  She never seemed to be locked into one specific time in the past, but she by no means had a grasp on the present.  She occasionally would recognize someone, but that quickly became fewer and farther between.

I created a series of images of things that belonged to her, or were in some way affiliated with her.  They were not all pleasant, though.  When she was in her 80's she was attacked in her trailer and robbed, an event that she subsequently blocked from memory but left her never feeling quite safe again.  Printing these images as negatives, I exposed them on sheets of photographic paper for approximately two and a half hours - enough time to get a registered image but not so long as to make the image too dark.  Once I pulled the image and removed the negative, I left the paper in indirect sunlight and let the image progressively fade until there was nothing left on the page.

Click HERE to see my final project.