Photography, as an art form, has long been considered to be an excellent medium for capturing the essence of life, moments, and memories.
Its sculptural quality however, has long been overlooked. Using alternative printing processes offers a rare and unique opportunity to make photography three-dimensional, incorporating form, shapes, and textures.
Alternative printing processes often involve a photosensitive emulsion plus a surface on which you apply this emulsion. And that surface can be anything: fabric, wood, glass, rocks, etc. We’re interested in all those images that, when you see them, you’re not exactly sure what you’re looking at.
Alternative processes can produce unique and often unpredictable results, the warm brown tones of a toned cyanotype or the dreamy pink of a beetroot anthotype. Some don’t even need the emulsion, because the object is photosensitive in itself, like plants.
While some of these techniques have been around since the early days of photography, they continue to inspire and challenge contemporary artists and photographers who seek to push the boundaries of the medium.
Photographers are making chemical reactions happening on the most curious objects: pillows, bones, fences, a wooden piano, or an old shoe. Some of the most amazing alternative prints are collected in our Photo-Object online exhibition. Most of these processes don’t even need a camera; they’re made by contact-printing a large format negative (that can be created digitally) onto the treated surface.
Artists stopped being confined to the belief that photography = printed paper and started looking at objects and surfaces differently.
Some Alternative Processes Techniques
The cyanotype process was introduced in the mid-19th century, and It involves the use of a photosensitive emulsion made of potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate.
These two powders are mixed with water then mixed together. The resulting emulsion is then applied on a chosen surface and exposed to sunlight using a digital negative (or objects), causing a chemical reaction that results in a deep blue print.
Chlorophyll printing, for example, is a unique process that involves creating prints using the natural pigment found in plants known as chlorophyll.
You collect fresh leaves and place them in the sun with a digital negative on top. The photosynthetic properties of chlorophyll allow the plant to absorb sunlight and transfer the energy to the surrounding plant tissue, resulting in the unique patterns and colors seen in the final print.
Chlorophyll printing is an eco-friendly and sustainable alternative to those traditional printing methods that rely on harsh chemicals.
The anthotype process uses natural plant pigments to create images.
A light-sensitive emulsion is made by crushing plant material such as flowers, berries, or leaves and mixing it with a solvent such as alcohol.
This emulsion is then applied to a surface and, once dry, exposed to sunlight or UV light through a negative, causing the pigments to react.
The process is environmentally friendly, and it does not produce any hazardous waste, however, the prints are not as durable as traditional photographic prints and can fade over time if exposed to light.
4. Liquid Emulsion Printing
Liquid emulsion is a light-sensitive emulsion, like the one found on Ilford photosensitive paper, except this one comes in gelatin form and, when melted, can be applied on any object. The coated substrate is then treated exactly like you would a regular piece of paper.
For this, we need a fully operating darkroom with an enlarger and a wet area. The liquid emulsion process was popular in the early days of photography and is still used by some artists today to create unique and handmade prints.
It requires a certain level of skill and patience, but the results can be beautiful and unique.
Cyanotype, anthotype, and liquid emulsion are some of the most versatile processes when it comes to incorporating an object. Of course, it’s easier said than done.
Printing on glass for example involves a process of cleaning, sanding, and pre-coating in order to make the emulsion stick on a non-porous surface. It also involves a great amount of tests, patience, and failures.
Printing on wood is the opposite, because it’s a highly absorbent material that risks soaking up all the emulsion leaving none to the surface to react to light.
Each material needs to be prepped. Eggshells are surprisingly unproblematic, seashells are surprisingly problematic. They all need their special care in order to become a photo-object.
Learning Alternative Photographic Processes
I founded Alternative Processes in 2016 to promote and educate about alternative photographic processes and celebrate all experimental darkroom endeavors.
What we really want to celebrate at AP is the absence of a right answer. Yes, we’re dealing with chemicals, temperatures, and dilutions, but we encourage variations, different approaches, experimentation, tweaking recipes, and “just trying” (safely).
Many photographers and online educators still enforce a “purist” rigid approach towards film photography and alternative processes, which leaves very little room for experimentation and discovery.
At AP, we’re about to launch the Alternative Processes Academy, an online, self-paced course that teaches you alternative processes with a focus on surfaces and gives you the knowledge and the support to print and experiment at your own pace.
The processes you will learn: introduction to darkroom printing, cameraless photography (photograms, chemigrams, and watergrams), cyanotype and cyanotype toning, lumen, anthotype, chlorophyll, liquid emulsion, caffenol, and bioplastic.
As an AP student, you will get access to all future modules. The next releases planned are: polaroid lift, cyanolumen, and albumen process.
Every enrolled student will be part of our private academy community and can participate in our monthly group call where we discuss processes and get feedback on anything we’ve been working on. Sign up to receive the launch price. The Academy will start enrolling students April 30th.
Thank you so much, Chiara! You can learn more about the Alternative Processes Academy on their website and Instagram.
Leave your questions about alternative film photography processes below in the comments!