Alternative contact printing was a process used by all the great photographers. Alfred Stieglitz printed his palladium images with solarization which made his prints dark, a look he ended up loving. Man Ray was famous for his Rayographs, a contrast technique that was made in the darkroom.
In the age of digital technology, where the inkjet printer spits out line after line of color pixels to make your desired image, this analog process using film negatives becomes more and more a thing of the past.
When I came across a large mesmerizing series consisting of contact prints, such as gum, at a recent photography exhibition, I was immediately drawn to how the photographer created an entirely new aesthetic using a 19-century printing process.
I discovered that this analog process was being updated and taught at Montana State University (MSU) by Christina Z. Anderson, an expert in the field. I transferred from Flathead Valley Community College to take this course, among others.
Christina Z. Anderson, or Chris as I call her, teaches several classes on the alternative printing process and has written numerous books about the topic that have sold in more than 40 countries. One of the many books was entirely about the types of paper you can use.
Chris said “When I hit upon gum printing it was like that’s it, that’s what I’m doing. I knew right away that would be my photography of choice.”
Chris graduated in 1998 from MSU and was introduced to contact printing in her final year. Once she put the brush to the paper she was hooked. In 2003 she started her ten-year Gum Research period and practiced many of the other processes. Here she talks about her work.
Chris has taught me all that I know about alternative printing. The many different alternative printing processes you can choose from include gum, platinum/palladium, chromo, albumen, salted printed paper, Cyanotype, gelatin silver prints and many more. These processes bring an iridescent dreamy look that you can only achieve now in the digital age with a filter app.
Most of Chris’s thick books are targeted towards college-level students and not your everyday do-it-yourselfer. This is due to things such as Quad Tone Rip (QTR) software that you have to use to make negatives can be quite technical and requires extra training. If you have some dedicated income and are familiar with the process of printing, you’ll be fine. If you’re unfamiliar with QTR software and the printing process, you might not get the hang of this expensive way to print.
Alternative printing process was coined in the ’60s because people were sick of big box stores being the only place to find light-sensitive paper and other photography supplies. Now, these processes are primarily alternative to digital printing.
“Alt process is definitely, that’s my area period, I haven’t printed a digital print ever in my life,” Chris said.
Supplies You Will Need
The basic list of things you will need to do a contact print is: An inkjet printer (an Epson p800 will cost between $800 to $1400); a light box ($300) or you could make one yourself or use the sun; transparency film to print your negatives (these come in packs of 25 sheets for about $25- $80); a two inch Kobayashi Synthetic Japanese Alt Process brush (you can find it on Inkjetmall.com for $88.32), a 4×5 21-step wedge (on Stougger.net for $52.25); contact printing frame (varies in cost); paper (get 100% cotton if possible on Dickblick.com); and a humidifier for your paper (this can be made by a couple of trays and using your everyday screen).
If you’re just starting out, I would suggest a paper that doesn’t need to be acidified such as an Arches Platine, Platine LW, Hahnemuhle Platinum Rage, or many others. Each process has different materials based on the aesthetic you want.
How to Print
Contacting printing is when you place your negative positive side down facing the brushed on photosensitive solution on your watercolor paper.
After you have installed the QTR software: Data tool, print tool, and QTR Curve. You should see in photoshop that you can convert your image to Generic Gray Gamma 2.2. You take an image you have edited and flattened in Photoshop convert it to Gray Gamma 2.2, save your image. Then make your image into a negative and save your image again.
Once your desired image is edited and converted, you will now need to open up QTR print tool to print your negative on an Epson p800 or an equivalent inkjet printer. Make sure that your printed negative is a brownish color and not black. Let your negative dry.
From here if you haven’t already, you can set up your working space with an LED light box, a humidifier for your paper (hopefully you already have humidified paper), a drying rack or to make things quicker a hairdryer, trays for the developer, clearing chemicals, and a wash. If you have space for a clothesline and clothespins so you can hang up your prints after being in the wash. If not, blowdrying them works too.
Typically, the first thing you will want to do is make a print of the 21 step wedge. This is where you figure out your standard printing time (SPT), which is your exposure time in the lightbox. Once you figure that out you’re on your way to making a print. To figure the SPT out, you coat your humidified paper with your process choice of chemicals, let it dry, place your step wedge on top of the coated paper, put both paper and step wedge into your contact printing frame, slide that into your lightbox and expose it for ten minutes. Once the ten minutes is up, develope, clear, and wash your paper. Hang it up to dry or blow dry. From here you can get your standard printing time for the paper you have chosen. For every different paper, you use you will need to figure out the standard printing time.
Now that you have your SPT, you are ready to experiment with your chosen paper and desired images. Don’t worry if you make mistakes. Chris taught me that every mistake is just one step closer to finding what works for you.