Alternative print processes

Last week the printer and photographer, Jack Lowe, added a new posting to his blog about Calotype printing. He has been experimenting with digital negatives suitable for old print processes, and has collaborated with photographer Richard Freestone in producing two prints using the Calotype process. This struck a chord with me. During the late 1990’s, I spent a long time in my darkroom working with similar techniques. My particular interests were gum bichromate and Kallitype printing.

These are contact printing processes, which require negatives the same size as the final print. The sensitized paper with the negative on top is exposed to light before developing in the required solution. In the case of gum bichromate, this is water.

A quick glossary:

Kallitype –  a suitable paper is first coated with a solution of ferric oxalate and silver nitrate.

Calotype – a suitable paper is  coated with a solution of weak salt solution, dried, then brushed with a weak silver nitrate solution, dried, making silver chloride. Fox Talbot used this process and he referred to it as the Talbotype.

Gum bichromate – a suitable paper is coated with a solution of gum bichromate mixed with water colour pigment.

Kallitypes and Calotypes may at first glance appear very similar, as they can have a similar red-brown hue.

Richmond lock on River Thames - Kallitype print

Richmond lock on River Thames - Kallitype print 1998

When I made my Kallitypes, I masked the negatives to create a clean straight line edge to the print. This was due to my coating method. With Jack’s prints, a brush is used and the brush marks are left in the final images. Jack said,”It’s as if someone’s come along with a magic brush and painted the image onto the paper!”. With some of the gum bichromate images below, I used this brush technique, and have included the edges in the final print.

fritillaria meleagris - gum bichromate print

fritillaria meleagris - gum bichromate print 1998

With gum prints, I nearly always printed three layers of colour to build up density. This means you have to be accurate with registering the negative over the image with the subsequent layers. The whole process, with paper preparation would take around five days. The paper had to be left to dry and shrink properly before applying a new coat of sensitizer, otherwise it would be bigger than the negative, causing registration problems.

Although I think the effect can be beautiful, it made the art directors I showed the images to flinch! The time it took made them nervous. I remember showing these to the art director of Gardens Illustrated in 1998, who complimented the prints highly. But she said that, “Unfortunately the editor would not allow gratuitous flower images to be used in the magazine”. Oh well!

lavender - gum bichromate print

lavender - gum bichromate print 1998

chrysanthemum - gum bichromate print

chrysanthemum - gum bichromate print 1998

It’s unlikely that I will be returning to these particular processes in the near future. My darkroom was replaced by a digital studio in 1999. But I do hope to work with Jack soon in producing some photogravure or polymer gravure images using his digital negatives. See my posting from last year. Perfecting and understanding the use of the printing plates has taken slightly longer than I hoped, but I would expect to have some images to show in the next few months.

Parrot tulip - gum bichromate print, 1998

Parrot tulip - gum bichromate print, 1998

Should one squirt, spurt or spray?

I sold my first limited edition photographs as a student in 1982. They were C-type prints, in the days when a C-type was still a C-type. At that time, it was a very much a pariah process, as the archival stability was suspect. Probably with good reason, as about 20 to 30 years was the estimated life span.

Polaroid SX-70 - Palm leaf at Kew from 1982. My first print sale. The original was copied onto colour negative film and then printed on agfa paper, producing an image approximately 15 inches square.

Polaroid SX-70 - Palm leaf at Kew from 1982. My first print sale. The original was copied onto colour negative film and then printed on agfa paper, producing an image approximately 15 inches square.

OK. What is a C-type? Remember the faded prints you used to see in the window of your local chemist, showing happy, smiling people on holiday? A C-type. Slightly faded is probably being generous – they were more than likely faded to the point where only the darkest elements of the prints remained, probably with a horrid blue cast – in my memory at least. They were prints made from colour negatives. They still are. Only now, with improved papers and chemistry, they have a much longer life span – maybe 150 years or more.

According to Wikipedia, the name was introduced by Kodak – as a Type-C in the 1950’s. Perhaps a slight variance depending on which side of the pond you are on, but nevertheless, an understandable term.  Essentially, in common parlance,  C-type prints are from colour negatives – and latterly from digital files. (The only difference with digital C-types is that the images will be scanned first, before being printed onto traditional style paper and developed.)  In the UK, any professional lab would use this terminology – and they have done since I entered the profession in 1979.

So why the rant? I go to quite a few exhibitions, and I’ve noticed that the terms Chromogenic print or Colour Coupler print becoming more common. Not strictly incorrect, but it is a re-invention of the wheel. What’s wrong with plain English? I suppose it adds a bit of fluff to the description for customers in upmarket galleries who   pay a lot of money for photographic images. In reality, it leads to confusion and something that ends up being meaningless. So if you see either of these terms…….it’s a bloody C-type!

Then came digital. And inkjet printers. And inkjet prints. And the end of civilization. Only the term Giclée could rescue us from the abyss.

Wikipedia’s definition:  The word “giclée” is derived from the French language word “le gicleur” meaning “nozzle”, or more specifically “gicler” meaning “to squirt, spurt, or spray”.

I made my first inkjet prints in 1999, and I remember the term ‘Giclée’ being popular on photographic forums. It seemed to quickly fall out of use, and now most professional photographers in the UK refer to prints that come out of a digital printer, rather surprisingly, as an inkjet print. If it is printed on archivally stable paper, with archival inks, the term ‘archival inkjet print’ or ‘archival pigment print’ will probably be used.

Giclée is meaningless. Why the fluff? I went to a gallery two weeks ago, where some prints were listed as archival inkjet prints and others still referred to as Giclée’s. You need consistency and clarity. It’s like calling an oil painting a linseed and colour particulate image.  A spade is a spade, a C-type is a C-type and an inkjet print is not a Giclée. Let’s leave the term for the high street and be done with it.

OK. End of rant!

For further reading, have a look at Jack Lowe’s website and blog. Originally a photographer, he is now one of the most respected printers in the UK, producing work for many photographers and artists. He sniggered at the term giclee, telling me that one of his assistants was French – and the term was  a source of great amusement to him!