Exploring Methods For My Next Portfolio with X-Ray and Collodio-Chloride Printing

March 08, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

In the field with my 8x10 (photo by Craig Spradling)In the field with my 8x10 (photo by Craig Spradling)Subscribe to my free Darkroom Newsletter and never miss another article or update.

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Winter will officially be over in about two weeks and so my mind has already shifted and begun to think about the next round of wildflowers and trees that will be blooming soon. I am still working on my Winter Tree 2015 portfolio and this process will likely continue for several more months before the portfolio is fully rationalized.  I think that I produce my best work when I allow myself the freedom to think, reflect, and ponder things.  I don't like to rush in general and therefore it is easy to understand why I love the slow and methodical process of large format photography.  As I continue to work on my Winter Tree portfolio, I have started the process of thinking about my portfolio for 2016.  I date my portfolios based on the completion date, not on when I start the work.

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I have been exploring a variety of mediums and methods for my next area of focus and I am almost certain that I have made a decision.  The two subjects that grab my interest the most are trees and flowers as evidenced by my portfolio.  I feel a connection to these subjects and I simply can't resist trying my best to communicate their beauty and interpret the metaphors that they offer humanity.  I will be searching for the first signs of spring over the next few weeks where I will be searching for Bloodroot, Virginia bluebells, and Eastern redbud trees.  The Bloodroot, in particular, are fascinating to me because of what they symbolize, but also because of the paradox of their beauty and toxicity.  It isn't a huge leap to find several metaphors in life that track with the Bloodroot.  These are the kinds of stories that I like to tell with my artist original hand-made darkroom prints.  As I will explain in more detail below, my choice of film and paper and printing methods this year all come together to play a unique melody that takes individual notes and brings them all together to make a beautiful and impactful song.

I am drawn to the work of the photographers from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The blistering detail that is possible today is not something that I am drawn to, in general.  I appreciate the incredible sharpness that I can produce with large-format or even the latest digital gear, but my work this year is about humanity, mood, emotion, and the connection to an era that is long gone and effectively unrecognizable in our over-busy and technologically-driven world.  I love the fact that the only way that one can truly experience and appreciate my forthcoming portfolio is to view it in person.  Viewing the prints thave have been photographed for the web are a pitiful way to view and experience my art and I encourage you to attend future events when you can view them in person.  I encourage to break the fast-paced contemporary lifestyle that is leaving people with a void in their full range of life experiences.   Viewing my art, any art, in person is a time to relax, and give yourself permission to be transported to another place free from demands or expectations.

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The Building Blocks

The core building blocks for my 2016 portfolio includes 8x10 and 11x14 large format cameras, Kodak X-Ray Ortho film, vintage 19th-century glass, and the collodio-chloride printing method.  I will briefly describe some of the reasons here and then provide more details in the forthcoming paragraphs.

First, I love the methodical and sometimes painful process of 8x10 and 11x14 large format photography.  Since I am not a studio photographer, I have to hike and go to where my subjects are located in nature.  I have trips planned to the Smoky Mountains for the spring wildflowers, then to Glacier National for the epic landscapes in late summer, and then the Ozark Mountain region for autumn and then to the deep south in late winter where my prize will hopefully be some live oak trees that are full of character and charm unlike anything else in the world, natural or otherwise.

During my travels, I don't have a plan or notion of what I will photograph.  I respond to a process that I call "the flash" and follow it all the way to the print.  The flash is something magical that happens when I first experience a subject that causes me to stop and replay that moment in my mind. The flash literally makes me stop in my tracks.  It only lasts for an instant, but that flash is the moment that I try and create in my fine art prints.  I try my very best to stay in the moment and soak it in so I can remember it.  I always have my journal at the ready to document my experience as soon as it has passed, but not until then.  Everything I do from that point forward is to recreate that experience based on the flash and my creative vision.  This is the magic formula that I use for all my work.

For a variety of reasons that are too in depth to cover in this article, I do accept and reject certain flashes based on some practical reasons.  I am making the conscious choice to work with an ortho film, which has very specific characteristics, and if that flash doesn't align with these elements, I sill enjoy it, but don't pursue it creatively.  In the next paragraphs, I discuss the details of my creative choices.

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Orthochromatic Film

Orthochromatic photography refers to a photographic emulsion that is sensitive to only blue and green light, and thus can be processed with a red safelight.  In photography, Orthochromatic refers to any spectrum of light that is devoid of red light. The increased blue sensitivity causes blue objects to appear lighter and red ones darker.  The closest that I can get to the original 19th-century ortho-look that I love so much is to use large format X-Ray film.  I leverage these characteristics in the context of my subject choices.

I have tested and tried a variety of ortho and ortho-like mediums this past year and I have settled on the Kodak Ektascan B/RA film for a variety of reasons.  I found a perfect balance between film handling and processing, dynamic range, and that all important "ortho-look" that I am after.  KODAK EKTASCAN B/RA Film is a single coated, tabular grain, orthochromatic medical x-ray film. It is coated on a blue, 7-mil blue-tinted polyester support with a dyed peloid backing which affords anti-halation protection.  The fact that this film has an emulsion on only one side is a huge benefit over other X-Ray films that have emulsion on both sides which leads to difficult handling and processing methods.  It's sturdy base makes for easy handling and the fact that it has a notch on  the corner of the film indicating the emulsion side is very helpful.  I develop the Kodak X-Ray films in Rodinal at a dilution of 1:100 for 6 minutes in a special Jobo Expert drum that is made specifically for 8x10 film.  I have tested the film and subsequent densities with my densitometer to achieve the best possible dynamic range that I am capable of creating with this combination.  I envision very delicate whites and very dark blacks/browns/etc. in many of my forthcoming prints, so this is important to me.

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8x10 and 11x14 Cameras

Since I will be making contact prints, I need the negative to be the same size as the final print.  I have the knowledge to make "digital-negatives", but I have no interest in doing that for my fine art portfolio work.  I also enjoy the rigor and physical demand that I must endure in order to hike with my gear and ultimately create the exposures.  There will be a day when I can't do what I do right now physically, and when that day comes I will simply adjust to that change but continue with large format photography.

Lenses/Optics

The choice of optics is always a difficult and very impactful decision for me.  For my work in 2016 I have a clear notion to use some of my vintage 19th-century brass lenses.  In particular, my 13 inch Cooke variable soft focus comes to mind and also my 20th century Verito does as well.  Both of these lenses have a unique signature that I can instantly recognize.  As I work through the process I will provide more updates on my choice of optics.

Printing Medium

My choice for printing medium is one that I have been working on to perfect for the last few years.  I will be making the collodio-chloride emulsion from raw chemicals and hand pouring onto a baryta or watercolor paper substrate.  The collodio-chloride emulsion dictates a printing out method known as POP versus the modern day developing out method that we use in the darkroom now.  In other words, the print develops out in the natural light, versus developing out with chemical in the darkroom.

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I sandwich the large format X-Ray film on top of the I sandwich the large format X-Ray film on top of the collodio-chloride paper inside of a contact printing frame and then take it outside in the natural light.  I employ a variety of techniques that I have learned from other POP printing methods to control the contrast and overall look of the final print.  The raw chemicals and formula for my emulsion is listed in the table below.  I will be using baryta based paper and also some hand-torn watercolor papers based on the mood and direction of each print.  Each print will be toned with real gold to enjoy a range of colors from warm brown to a purple and blue-gray.  The gold toner also significantly helps the archival stability of the print which is already very significant because of the emulsion.

Solution A Solution B Solution C Solution D
  • Strontium Chloride – 1g
  • Alcohol – 4ml
  • Glycerin – 4ml
  • Distilled Water – 5ml
  • Collodion USP – 250ml
  • Alcohol – 85m
  • Citric Acid – 1.8g
  • Alcohol – 85ml
  • Silver Nitrate – 6g
  • Distilled Water – 7ml
  • Alcohol – 20ml

Contemporary photo historian Mark Osterman has to say about collodio-chloride printing:  "The collodion chloride printing out process was first introduced by Gaudin in 1861 but never realized commercial success or general acceptance until the1880s when clay coated paper stock was adopted for photography. In 1884, Liesegang introduced a collodion chloride emulsion for paper which he called Aristotype. It was related to the wet plate collodion process, used to make negatives, ambrotypes, and ferrotypes, but relies on emulsion technology.  The Aristotype Company in Jamestown, New York, introduced the most popular collodion papers in two different finishes: glossy and matte.  Glossy papers were typically toned to a purple brown using gold chloride. Matte papers were toned with platinum and gold and look very much like a platinum print. Regardless of the finish or toning approach, collodion papers were the most archival of all silver halide photographic papers and are easily identified today because they are usually found in excellent condition."

Bringing it All Together

I will be dry mounting the 8x10 and 11x14 prints on 4-ply museum quality acid-free mounting board and custom cutting each mat window.  I hinge the mounting board to the overmat with an archival tape made specifically for this process.  I envision leaving a small border around the print to show the emulsion and a place for me to sign, title, and number each print. I am really excited to explore the aforementioned places this year and to have the privilege to create artist original work that I get to share with the world.  I am sure some of the details will change based on the creative process and real-world experiences, but I am hopeful that I have given some insight into my fine art process for this year.  I will continue to keep everyone up to date with the progress on my 2015 Winter Tree Portfolio and the forthcoming work that I discussed in this article.

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