Old School

I have been shooting for 25 years. I count the time from when I stole my dad’s AE-1 and didn’t give it back.

Yesterday I was going through my archive. Not the TB drive that has the last 5 years on it, but the silver prints, small, medium and large format slides and negatives, VanDyke Browns, Salt prints and Cyanotypes as well as the large format negatives needed to make the contact prints.

It got me all reminiscent and wishy-washy, even had me surfing the net for cyanotype recipes. I miss the darkroom, though I have all the equipment, I lack the actual room with the darkness in it. I loved trying to perfect the giant negative so I could make even bigger cyanotypes, and using different developers and techniques for reducing grain size and increasing sharpness in my prints.

Anyway. I photographed some of the cyanotypes and I’ll share them here.

For the most part here is the process for each of these:

Medium format black and white film processed in PMK (Pyro-Metol-Kodalk) also known as Pyro.

Pyro removes all of the silver from the film leaving a stain, for those of you unfamiliar with film, silver is what negatives are, the dark part of the negative is varying density of silver halide, the problem with that is the more dense the silver is the more aberration you will find in the print, because the thickness actually prevents a sharp image. PMK replaces silver with a megenta stain making the thinnest possible negative resulting in the sharpest possible enlargement.

Cyanotypes are contact prints, they use sunlight for exposure as opposed to enlargers , so whatever size the negative is, is the size the final print will be. So a medium format Mamiya negative will produce a print that is 6x7mm. Not very big. Kodak used to make an enlarging paper that was actually on a clear base so it was really just giant sheets of film. There were two types, positive to positive and positive to negative. I used positive to positive (which also works as a negative to negative) You basically make an enlargement like you would a regular print, but instead of being a positive image of the small negative you end up with an enlarged version of the negative. Exactly what you need for making giant cyanotypes. The film I had was 20×24 so I made 20×24 negatives.

The next step is testing papers because different types of paper absorb the chemicals differently and the results are quite varied. The paper also has to be able to withstand not only being painted with the cyanotype emulsion but then being washed clean with water.

This is alot of information that is probably very boring. Today you can take your digital camera, make an image, process it in photoshop to look like a cyanotype and send it to a printer to be printed on art stock. It just isn’t the same. And it never will be. I love the new process, believe me. I am not a digital hater. I just also very much love the old processes. The discovery, using the sun and water. Touching, adjusting and learning. Starting over and finally coming away with a final image. Photography, in all of its’ forms, is magic.

The one last thing I will say here is if this blog post has inspired you to run out and try some alternative processing of your own, that is fantastic. HOWEVER; the reason these processes are no longer widely used isn’t just due to convenience, these are chemical reactions that can be very dangerous! Be very careful when handling the chemicals used for cyanotypes and never, NEVER do more than one kind of alternative process at a time. The fact is that the chemicals in one are not compatible with the chemicals of another, and when combined can produce extremely toxic, fatal gases. There is my warning. I wouldn’t recommend doing this without someone who knows what they are doing.

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  1. […] I’m a geek. I talk golden hour, full-frame/crop, medium format, RGB, B&W, potassium ferricyanide, PMK (pyro-metol-kodalk), Oriental paper, velvia, f-stop, filter, strobe, aperture, logorithms, […]


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