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What an Age-old Process Exposes

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Artist & Instructor Timothy McCoy explaining tonal variations on a sample print.

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to take part in a two-day workshop on albumen printing taught by the talented Timothy McCoy. What I discovered in this process was far more than I’d imagined to find. I’ve been doing digital work since I began shooting about give years ago – but have been itching to try some alternative developing techniques this year. So when I saw this class, I jumped at the chance. Albumen printing was invented in 1850 by Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard, and was the first commercially exploitable method of producing a photographic print on a paper base from a negative. It uses the albumen found in egg whites to bind the photographic chemicals to the paper and became the dominant form of photographic positives from 1855 to the turn of the 20th century, with a peak in the 1860-90 period.

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Albumen coated papers drying

The developing process for albumen printing is quite slow and tedious. Many washes in various chemical solutions and baths… ten minutes in water, another twelve in gold toner, eight more minutes in two other baths and a final two minutes in a fixer before one last six minute wash. And that’s not including the 30 or so minutes of exposure, the time converting digital files to film negatives, coating all the papers with both albumen and silver nitrate and the dry time for each of those. It takes hours to produce just one or two prints. But it is all worth it for that moment you walk out of the darkroom to see that print. And for me, it was worth a lot more…

As I watched my first image slowly develop… there were many moments that tears nearly came to my eyes. As I rocked this precious piece of paper so gently and tenderly in each solution – I fell into an mesmerizing private world. For a time, it was just us… no one else’s eyes had yet seen this print. That moment was for me and me alone, and for my late-fiance – who set on fire my love affair with photography in the first place. I felt an overwhelming connection to my own story… a mix of pride and pain, child-like wonder and deep soulful love. It sounds overdramatic I know, but the metaphor of creating something quite literally out of the darkness was not lost on me. It is what I have been doing for the past two years – and now, literally doing. There was something incredibly moving about being so delicate and careful with a piece of myself. And a piece of him… of us. Of spending painstaking hours on a part of our story.

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My two final prints

And then the moment came to walk out of the darkness. I can say that nothing has compared to the experience of walking into the light with this piece of myself in my hands and seeing it for the first time. I was awe-inspired. Beautiful warm brown and purple tones and subtle textures unlike anything you could ever achieve via printing. And then laying it out in the open, exposed, for all to see. It is what self expression is all about – the private moments between you and your story – which gives you one gift – and the moment where you allow yourself and your story to be seen, which gives you another.

I long already to do more of this process… more importantly, I feel like I discovered another part of the journey that my Still, Life collection needs to go on. I will most certainly follow where it’s leading me.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Sounds like you gained more than you could possibly have imagined from that workshop, Sarah.
    When we see new things we would like to try, we should jump in head first and explore those things. Good or bad, new experiences are what shapes who we in the future.

    Monday, September 15, 2014

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