Photography Arts | Field Notes |

November 14, 2019

Conceptual Art Practice | Materials | Printing and evaluating materials


This post combines several darkroom sessions and preparation of Silver Gelatin coated pieces in advance in two sessions. All together I prepared the following materials with Silver Gelatin Emulsion:

  • Papyrus
  • Brown craft paper
  • Tracing paper (2 weights)
  • White glitter card
  • Gold card
  • Handmade South Indian recycled cotton rag 150gsm
  • Handmade South Indian recycled cotton rag—lightweight and translucent (2 weights)
  • Cotton duck x4 large pieces + smaller samples

The first session was for samples for testing and the second was for my four large cotton duck pieces (based on enlarger measurements outlined below) and collage materials. The cotton duck pieces were large enough to cover my base boards entirely. My goal was to make enough prints to collage my four centrepieces with, plus make the printed base cloths.

Negatives and determining print size

My first consideration in the printing process was enlarger choice. I had negatives made from my digital panorama shots which were on an 8x10 sheet. I needed to decide which enlarger to use and trim the negatives to fit a negative holder. Since my negatives were Medium format panoramas (6x2) my first choice was the medium format enlarger, but I found that the light falloff was too great with the enlarger head high enough to illuminate the print size I wanted. Specifically, because I needed to put two negative images onto the same 6x6 area the falloff would have been on a different side of the image depending on which negative I was working from.

With help from the darkroom technician I moved to a condenser enlarger normally used for 35mm. We tried out some different lenses and I decided to go with the condenser—much more even light, but at maximum enlargement my prints would only be 80% of the intended size. (I was aiming for a physical centrepiece size that would be 'actual size' when the final overall piece is printed at 6'x2').

One reason for aiming for the large centrepiece size is that I didn't want them to look too miniature when viewed in the final images. I didn't want the centrepieces to be so small in reality that when digitally comped into the final images the illusion of grand scale would be lost. One of my reasons for wanting to go with the 6'2' overall print size was so that the centrepieces would be big enough (about 3' across) to be closely examined by the viewer. I wanted the detail of the centrepiece collages to be observed and understood, so I wanted to make them large enough to get a good look at.

This made the decision to go with an enlarger that would only produce 80% of the physical size I was aiming for a difficult one. But having decided to go with it, the knock-on effects with respect to building, printing and collage were all on the side of making everything speedier and simpler to produce.

The enlarger constraint overcome, I knew the size to make the cotton duck pieces for the centrepiece base boards.

Trimming my negatives from an 8x10 sheet

Fitting negatives in pairs into a suitable negative holder

Choosing the right enlarger

Changing enlarger lenses to try to achieve a larger print area


WIth the negatives and enlarger set up I started making test strips on the materials that I'd prepared with Silver Gelatin Emulsion.

8sec, 16sec, 32sec at F8 with a number 3 contrast filter

Collage pieces

I knew I had a large quantity of collage pieces to make in a relatively short space of time, so as I became more confident in the process I began to expose multiple pieces at once. Exposing each piece individually was going to take more time than I had, and was unnecessary.

In a sense I began the collage process in the darkroom because I was able to arrange the entire print area with small materials fragments and expose them together. I typically did this twice for each centrepiece plus additional pieces when I felt the need to readdress a particular print.

In this way I was able to make decisions about the relationships between the materials and their placement on the centrepieces, even before beginning to collage onto the base boards.

One batch of collage pieces

Drying the pieces

Materials properties

Each material had a unique reaction to printing. Some of the tracing paper pieces failed to hold their prints at all but still proved useful. The large cotton duck pieces worked well although they were very large to move around the darkroom and wet side. The following is a summary of materials properties relating to Silver Gelatin Emulsion printing.


The papyrus has a rough texture but very good adhesion to the emulsion. Strips tended to curl up when dried. I thought the curled up pieces could make an interesting relief surface on my collages so I decided to proceed with these.

Papyrus curls when dry, especially if cut too thin.

Brown craft paper

Not good at retaining a print. Very faint and faded images. Good rich brown colour and faint textured lines.

Tracing paper (2 weights)

Often didn't retain a print well at all. Usually quite patchy. Therefore I felt it worked well thematically.

White glitter card

Highly absorbent therefore difficult to coat with enough emulsion. When properly coated, resulted in a dark contrasty print. The light areas very glittery, the dark areas less so but still with some glitter to them.

Gold card

The emulsion tended to come loose in the washes but if handled carefully resulted in a strong print with good tonality.

Handmade South Indian recycled cotton rag 150gsm

Ideal for printing with Silver Gelatin. GIves a beautiful rich tonal print. Useful for introducing areas of vivid image into my collage.

Handmade South Indian recycled cotton rag (2 weights)

Lightweight and translucent these disintegrated a great deal in the fix and washes. Nonetheless a few pieces made it through to be dried. They print very poorly and are in no way suited to Silver Gelatin work. Nonetheless some made into my final collages.

Cotton duck

A highly robust material. Very absorbent so it's possible to under-apply the silver gelatin emulsion.

Cotton duck

Cotton duck produces a strong print with good tonality — if properly coated (at centre above). Coating with emulsion can be tricky because the cotton is very absorbent. A good runny emulsion is recommended. If not coated well the print comes out with textured areas missing (on right above).

A cotton duck base cloth printed

A rare piece of well printed trace

A more typical example of tracing paper printed

The light weight cotton rag disintegrating in the wash

A printed piece that was eventually used in collage

The brown craft paper, horizontal lines visible

Conclusions and next steps

The next step was to work through all the printing and assemble all the dried pieces for collage.

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