There are times in the ether of cyberspace I have posted images and comments on those postings told me people had not really seen or understood what the image was, how it was made, and what it was made with. The digital life or myth pervades earth to the extent that people think you can’t get film anymore. I don’t mind, because they give me their beautiful old SLR’s, so I go and shoot paper in them.
In a digitally dominant world, analogue or old school photographic processes can look like the product of an IPhone app, or some kind of Photoshop Plugin, a computer concoction. I smile to myself sometimes at how cool these apps seem to people, yet they are merely immitations of analogue processes, some historical and some contemporary. I have totally fallen in love with the ‘old school’ processes and technology. The latest isn’t always the greatest or the most artistic, usually it’s simply way way easier, less hassle and idiot proof, but based on traditional methods by recreating digital improvements, simulations or further development of analogue concepts.
Several years ago I realised that for me, the totally digital world was sterile, distant, clinical, repetitious and predictable. Everything seemed so ‘the same’. In contrast, the world of older technology and processes promised to be far more rewarding, warm, somewhat unpredictable, very different, and a hands on way of creating images. My current photography workflow involves the blending of an analogue birth (by capturing images using light sensitive emulsions), with digital tools like scanners and image processing software. I am moving towards eliminating the digital all together.
All the images on this page were created using this process.
When you first encounter the term ‘paper negatives’, it can mean different things. Outside of photography, the word negative exists as a concept of being minus or the opposite. If you are lucky enough to be somewhat old school, you will know what a negative is as an object, and maybe even held one, or observed an xray. These experiences and knowledge will help form some basic idea of what a paper negative may look like, or be used for, even if it is somewhat hazy.
As mentioned above, my present evolving style of doing paper negatives www.ipernity.com/doc/kiwivagabond/album/412209 is a blend of old and new school ways. It begins as an analogue birth where a light sensitive emulsion is exposed to light within a camera, then in a darkroom, photographic chemicals are used to develop the image captured by that exposure. This developed image becomes the negative. That analogue birth, as with our own, leaves a characteristic imprint that remains unmistakeable even thru a digitally ‘kissed’ production process. Images from analogue births when observed within a digital processing workflow, have often left me drop jawed and breathless by their beauty, in a way that images captured by a digital sensor never ever have. I hope in another short article to make an attempt to show you that difference, and do a comparison.
What follows is a loose breakdown of what traditionally ‘paper negative’ as a process has mean’t, and then examples and thoughts surrounding my adaptive blend of old and new technologies.
Shooting paper is addictive and fun.
What it means?
Explained more fully, in a historical and even a modern sense, it is the use of light sensitve paper in a camera instead of film, or some other light sensitive medium. eg. wet plate, dry plate, tintype, glass etc. In the truest sense by definition, it could be the use of any paper as a negative, like a laser photocopy, or a piece of paper with any graphic on it. eg. a page from a book, a drawing. These are then used in a traditional sense as negatives in a printing process.
Making prints as part of the paper negative process will almost invariably be a contact printing process. I need to do more research as to how the likes of the people in the 1860’s www.ipernity.com/blog/kiwivagabond/722097and earlier printed onto paper. I know Le Gray and contemporaries waxed and oiled paper negatives to increase transparency, but I am not up to speed with the paper they used to print onto back then. They would have used the sun most likely to contact print. I am up the for the exciting journey of finding out. I love the prints of Julia Margaret Cameron, and Lady Hawarden.
Unless I am being ultra experimental, and I am seized by that mood at times, my paper negatives, and I could probably say most of the negatives where the process is mentioned, are all in camera exposures………in a variety of formats, developed out and processed in a variety of analogue and digital methodologies.
Forgive me for the need to mention in an effort to be absolutely clear for people who are starting this journey, and may be photographically illiterate as I once was, photographic paper is not inkjet paper or some other kind of printing paper which you use in your computers printer. It is paper with a light sensitive emulsion as a layer on its surface. Plus, and forgive me again for saying something so basic, you can’t do paper negatives in a digital camera. 🙂
One of the absolute beauties of this method of taking photos is that you can use any kind of analogue camera. I use a huge range of cameras from 35mm to A2 size, ones I have made, to cameras made over 100 years ago. I lament the cameras that sit still and silent in glass cases, them being looked ‘at’ rather than them being used to look ‘at’ the world with as they were intended. All those beautiful visions lost when they need not be.
Using photographic paper in the camera instead of film is common practise with many pinhole camera users. I use paper in any of my cameras, from 35mm to 5 x 7 and when I make my 8 x 10, I will use it in that too. Part of the reason being that film for a larger format camera is prohibitively expensive for me, and partly because I enjoy using paper, the immediacy of the process and the variety of old and new papers available. I have Kodak papers from 1975 and older. Recently I bought some Ilford Contact paper as old as myself, 57 years later it still works and is beautiful. www.ipernity.com/doc/kiwivagabond/31542839//in/album/640691 With tenderness and wizardry needed sometimes, it is a so cool see an image emerge in the darkroom from paper that some people would throw out and class as rubbish. That is the wabi sabi of the PNP (paper negative process) to me. And 35mm paper negatives are really cute. www.ipernity.com/blog/kiwivagabond/716513 Paper negatives can be a very economical process (paper and chems), and with the reusing of older cameras and paper, it is fully about recycling. The earth needs more of that. Many of my chemicals are expired also. (Caffenol is kinder to the earth maybe)
This image below was shot on paper that was last opened in 1982 and developed in expired developer. I love the lith like grain.
This image (below) was shot on paper bought in a photography shop in Minesota in an old No.2 Box Brownie and although fogged and with light leaks……..its perfect! Kodabromide single weight.
In the digital world or perhaps even the analogue world, clarity seems to be touted as the most wanted attribute in a lense or print. Some of the most moving pictures to me personally have nothing to do with clarity, but lots to do with story, essense, emotion, light, and atmosphere. I say this because many of the lenses I use have fungus and dust in them, some of the camera’s lenses are far from perfect, the chemicals are expired, the papers way way way past their used by dates and prime time uses.
That imperfection attracts me rather than bothers me, and perhaps points to the reasons that attract me to silver gelatin paper negative processes. The process leaves is room for variants outside of my control. These variants contribute to the creative outcome, the ‘imperfect flawed’ things, I cannot predict the outcome everytime.
The digital world seems to be based on ease and clarity, power and perfection. Indeed in some ways it seems to mirror the hidden agenda of western civilisations. That being in total control is a virtue. The problem is that while new technologies facilitate ease, technological power and perfection, and the elimination of mistakes, there seems to be a point where there is no longer random (unless driven by software). We are in such total control with a digital camera, the outcome is always predictable and near perfect, and eventually, we the users can become isolated, lose touch with, and a sense of involvement with what we create, and the tools used in the creative process of making images.
The silver gelatin paper negative process brought random back into my image making. It restored a sense of differentiation in my images and gradually I realised I was not looking like a million other photographers, PLUS I was learning masses about what I believe photography is really about. The capture of light with emulsions. As I learn to make images using any of the 19th century processes I realise that what I have learned with the thousands of paper negatives I have shot and processed has put me in a good space for understanding what photography can be and how it works. In that process of understanding have been first hand experiences showing me powerfully that digital photography is still a long way from capturing the beauty of light reacting with a chemical emulsion.
Silver gelatin paper negatives opened me up to making images on glass, metal, art paper……….and all with the same drop jawed sense of wonder. Beautiful and unique.
Maybe I have got you thinking about a lovely process that is overlooked, and need not be expensive. A process that brings new life to old cameras, lenses and photographic paper.
You may enjoy this article I wrote that goes back to the beginnings of photography in the 1840’s and some of the artists doing work with paper negatives……beautiful images. www.ipernity.com/blog/kiwivagabond/722097
I am adding to my paper negative album on Ipernity weekly, please it check out again if you are interested in developing this, it may make more sense perhaps. www.ipernity.com/doc/kiwivagabond/album/412209
I have started doing analogue prints from my paper negatives, bypassing digital processing totally, except for scanning the print. Here are some of the results you may enjoy. www.ipernity.com/doc/kiwivagabond/album/644729
I am more than happy to answer any questions or correspond with others who are as keen as I am about this process. I am learning still but very happy with the images I am creating.
As a parting shot, here are some of my fav silver gelatin paper negative images I have made. My home is full of thousands of paper negatives of varying formats and all represent a stage of my journey with this. Lots of wonderful failures, and wonderful successes.
All Images are © Graham Hughes 2014 All Rights Reserved.
© Graham Hughes 2014