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In this installment of The Creative Spark, Brian talks about why he uses historical processes and shows how he combines them with Photoshop and other modern imaging tools. We follow Brian as he creates a digital negative, exposes a print, and then adds additional layers to create a final image.
Skill Level Appropriate for all
(music playing) I am drawn towards alternative processes like cyanotypes and platinum printing and gum printing. These are still very much handmade photographs where the artist touches the process with their hand. I think the reason why these antiquated 19th-century processes, these alternative processes, are still popular today is that you actually touch this paper.
You made it light-sensitive yourself. You made this work of art. (music playing) These alternative processes that I'm drawn to originated in the 19th century. Oddly enough, in the 21st century, filled with digital photography, digital everything, there is this resurgence of interest in threes 19th-century processes. Even in my teaching, these young people today, who were practically born with Apple white earbuds in their ears, actually choose these alternative process classes over digital classes, and one reason is they are actually easier now than they ever have been, because the main roadblock that stops so many people in the 20th century for making cyanotypes or gum prints or platinum prints was coming up with a big negative.
Now, you could do it with the really hard way and lug around a big camera to give you a big negative so that you can contact print it and make a big print. But luckily, nowadays, in the 21st century, we photographers are lucky enough to be able to mix new technology with this old 19th-century technology. I'll take digital pictures or I'll take traditional film pictures, digitize them, fix things in Photoshop, turn the image negative, send it off to my Epson printer, and print on transparent film instead of a piece of paper.
I'll make a black-and-white negative image on an acetate, and slowly but surely, chugging out of my Epson printer comes a beautiful silvery transparent negative image. (music playing) I have my full-sized negative that I can contact print with my sheet of watercolor paper that I have coated with gum bichromate, light-sensitive emulsion, or cyanotype, or Van Dyke, or platinum.
The negative and the watercolor paper gets smashed together in a contact printing frame, and we'll put it out in full sunlight for about ten minutes--very 19th century, but it's a beautifully peaceful way of working. It's such a treat to put this contact printing frame out in full sunlight, check your watch, go into the darkroom, take the negative off the watercolor paper. They just go in a tray of water and soap there. And in my case, when the print is dry, I'll recoat the sheet of watercolor paper with a new layer of gum emulsion, with watercolor squeezed into it--any color I want--take the same negative, put it down in register, and that's the hard part.
You have got to have registration marks and make sure your negative lines up right where it was the first time. And when that's done, back into the contact printing frame it goes, out into the sun it goes again, and now you have a multicolored print, of greens and browns or whichever colors you chose. So, now we have got brown over blue, and now what I want to do is make the sagebrush in the foliage green. This may not exactly be digital photography, but it is a kindred spirit to things like layers in Photoshop, or even channels. So, we are, in a way, working in the same kind of principles as Photoshop: laying down distinct layers of just one color at a time.
Another reason why I love working with these 19th-century processes is, as you can see right now, this is a perfect example of these being a real handmade process. But each one of these is going to be one of a kind, because I'll never quite brush this onto the next sheet in create the same way. Eventually, my love for texture and this handmade quality of art led me to the idea of making handmade books in the early 1990s.
The book format was just perfect for me because it allowed me to juxtapose one image next to another image and tell a story. I could create a narrative, or story, that's larger than either one alone, and I'm old-fashioned enough to believe that a work of art that's touched by human hand retains a little bit of that human touch, as though it retains a lingering aura. What I am going to do now is hide my registration marks.
I am actually going to tear off these margins so that the image fits inside the handmade book that I have waiting for it. (music playing) The journey of my art over these last thirty or forty years has been what every artist hopes for, and that is to say what it is they have to say as clearly and as poetically and beautifully as possible. (music playing) I am finished with this book. It has all the things I love about handmade art.
It's just filled with texture, it has plenty of imperfections, and it's got all of my little hand gestures in here. It's got a lot of me in here, and that's the kind of art I like from other people. This is the kind of art I like to bring into the world. (music playing)