Process as Metaphor

Printing in Cyanotype and Gum Bichromate from Pinhole Negatives: A Personal Journey

Creating images from pinhole negatives can be a process of discovery as well as art. Through the 1/32nd inch aperture of my twelve-inch pinhole camera, reflections of what “was” accumulate on my 8×10 Tri-X film. The durations of my pinhole exposures can range from seconds to hours, but in bright daylight they usually equal one to three minutes. A figure or a face within a landscape appears as circles of confusion on film — sometimes clear, sometimes opaque, and sometimes in-between. I process the film in trays, one sheet at a time, using paper developer to ensure sufficient density for printing in non-silver.

Tearing, soaking, hanging, sizing, brushing, exposing, washing, and manipulating are some of the steps of the non-silver dance. It seems strange that these actions, somewhat abstract in themselves, can add up to a print of a recognizable subject. A blue skeleton of cyanotype is clothed, after gelatin sizing, in fleshy glazes of gum bichromate emulsion.



I brush patches of watercolors side by side on test paper–the new transparent yellow and Perylene maroon, sepia and Paynes gray, lamp black and ivory black. On the aesthetic level, I assign different weights to different hues and to varying dilutions, and I balance them with my own sensibility. I’ll use the same group of colors for printing from several different negatives. However, for the next group of prints, I usually shift the palette to extend my exploration of color.




The brushing-on of gum emulsion, a viscous mix of pigment, gum arabic, and ammonium dichromate in water, is an abstract, painterly act that I imbue with as much good energy as I can muster. My final strokes are horizontal, so they’ll flow through the subject like a river of time made visible.



The success of my work is dependent on the weather, since I make pinhole exposures outside. In addition, I usually expose cyanotype and gum layers by sunlight, taping the large pinhole negative against the coated paper that I place in a hinged contact frame and position facing the sun. Timing the exposure is a matter of intuiting through experience the magnitude of light falling on the sensitized paper and deciding how far to let a particular layer harden into the highlights.



“Development” happens in trays of water. What has been exposed to the actinic light of the sun is attached to the paper while the rest floats off. By varying exposure times through the continuous-tone pinhole negative and through hosing and brushing while each layer is being cleared, I have some control over where each layer of color prints. The result is a sculptural image in which landscape and figure seem to be created from the same material. The colors of the highlights, mid-tones, and shadows suggest weather and time of day and convey the emotional atmosphere of an image. This method of printing suggests a view of the human within the environment that is holistic, as if everything were carved from a single source.

With repetition and experience, I come to associate certain choices and acts with the final print, learning to connect means with ends. Each non-silver process offers its own biases, as does each pigment. It’s good to be aware of these tendencies and to know when to court their influence and when to assert a greater degree of will over the medium.
For a while now, I’ve been scanning my pinhole negatives onto a G3 Mac and bringing them up as positives to see which ones interest me enough for me to print them in non-silver. Slowly, I’m exploring the vast territory of Photoshop, learning how to select and work in layers. Using elements from my own negatives, I attempt to compose scenes and meanings that were inaccessible within the constraints of the original situation. As I continue to print in non-silver, I may vary my format from 8×10.

I’m currently experimenting with inkjet acetate negatives and will soon try an image setter. After a lifetime of patient bending to necessity, I’m delighted to find I now have so many choices in composition, format, and approach that I feel as though gravity has been suspended.

by Sarah Van Keuren

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