As part of a research project for a course I am taking at the University of West Florida, I chose to gather organic materials from the campus to create anthotype photographic prints. The basic premise of the anthotype process is to create images through the use of photosensitive plant material. I am here to share with you my findings and the ins and outs of how to produce beautiful anthotype prints.
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Step 1: Gather Your Materials
Note that this process takes PATIENCE and TIME. This is not a process you can expect immediate results from, so settle in. Having prior experience with photography does make this process much easier, but know that you are in for a challenge.
You will need:
-pencil & notebook
-cheesecloth OR handheld strainer (I would suggest the handheld strainer)
-BFK Rives Heavyweight paper OR similar watercolor paper
-foam brush(s) (you can get by with just one if you don't mind rinsing in-between toning paper, otherwise, buy a few)
-pestle & mortar OR food processor/juicer
-clothesline & pins
-printing frame (OPTIONAL)
-Sylvania Spot-Grow 50W indoor light bulb & floodlight (OPTIONAL)
-several ortho-litho film transparencies (or digital photo transparencies) with high density AKA a lot of contrast
-a variety of fruits, vegetables, flowers, and/or leaves
Step 2: Juicing
After you have gathered all of the materials you need, you will begin the process of juicing. This is the most rigorous part of the whole project so if you can make it through this, you're in the clear! Be sure to take note of each step you go through, recording observations for future reference.
First, make sure you have a space cleared off for working, such as a countertop or a table. Go ahead and select the fruit, veggie, flower, or leaf that you would like to begin with. What you're going to do is extract the juice from your choice of organic matter to tone your paper. The method of which you will obtain the juice (i.e., with a pestle & mortar, juicer, or food processor) will largely depend on what object you have chosen. Play it by ear and use your best judgement to determine which method of juicing will work best for you. For example, I found that trying to use the pestle and mortar to grind up beets is much more of a challenge than just using a juicer.
Next, begin the process of grinding up your selection. The first fruit I tried was blackberries. Before I actually began grinding, I took my cheesecloth and spread it across a bowl. At first, I thought one layer would do it, but found that three layers is much more effective if you're going the cheesecloth route. Using a handheld strainer is much faster, as you don't have to change the cheesecloth each time you try a different fruit/vegetable, and is generally more effective at straining. After arranging my straining method, I gathered about one cup of blackberries. I ground them up using a pestle and mortar and then strained the liquid into another container.
After your mixture is fully strained, evaluate how much liquid was yielded and use that to determine how much alcohol and vinegar to add. My one cup of blackberries yielded about 3 tablespoons of liquid. From that information, I chose to add 1 tablespoon of isopropyl alcohol and 1 tablespoon of vinegar. The alcohol is meant to dilute the mixture (can also be done with distilled water if preferred, though I have not personally tried this process). The vinegar is meant to enhance the pigment and create a more rich coloration. Note that finding the right juice to alcohol/vinegar mixture can be tricky, so you may have to experiment with this to determine which mixture will produce the best results.
Step 3: Coating the Paper
Now it's time to coat your paper!
Once you have extracted all the juice from your plant, you're ready to prepare and tone your paper. Before doing anything to the paper, take your pencil and take note of information about that print for future reference (i.e., 1 cup blackberries, 1 TBSP Isopropyl Alcohol, 1 TBSP White Vinegar, 3 day exposure with UV of 7). Trust me, you don't want to skip out of this step. It will save you time and frustration in the future when you attempt more prints.
Now, set out a plate for your paper and a bowl with water in it (1 cup should be more than enough). Use your foam brush to apply water to both sides of your sheet of paper, being mindful to simply dampen, not soak the paper. Coat in alternating vertical and horizontal strokes. If your paper becomes too wet from the water you may want to try dabbing it with a paper towel to remove the excess water.
I found that I received better results when I coated my paper and let it dry in a dark place. For this reason, I would suggest either coating your paper at night and letting your prints dry with the lights off, or coating in a photo darkroom, if you have access to one. Before you begin coating, make sure you have your clothesline and pins set up to let your prints dry. Place a layer of paper towels beneath the prints as some of the mixtures DO stain, especially beet juice! I set mine up between two cabinets in the kitchen with some wire and wooden pins, so don't fret if you are limited on space.
Once your drying station is set up you'll brush the juice, alcohol, and vinegar mixture onto your damp paper. Like you did before, coat in alternating vertical and horizontal strokes as many times as needed. You may also consider submerging your paper in a bath of your mixture, especially if you're printing more than 2-3 prints at a time. I chose to brush the mixture on to ensure a more even coating.
After you're finished coating paper, hang your prints to dry in a dark space.
Step 4: Printing the Anthotype
You've made it to the final step: printing.
Now that your prints are dry, you'll need your high density transparency images and printing frame. The printing frame is helpful, as it keeps the transparencies in place without leaving tape marks on your prints, though you can just use your masking tape to adhere the transparencies to the paper if you don't have a printing frame. I personally used a few ortho-litho film transparency that I made in the darkroom from a film negative. I also used several old glass negatives I inherited to see if I could get any good results.
In order to achieve the best results, you need to place your prints in FULL SUN (UV index of 6-7, though preferably 8-11). Do not try to print on overcast days like I did; you won't see much progress, if any. (There is a possible alternative solution to overcast days that I will explain below if you happen to be on a time crunch). Rainy days are also NOT a good idea. You can say goodbye to your transparencies and prints if rain gets to them.
When I attempted this process I was, unfortunately, on a bit of a time crunch and lucked out with several overcast days that had a UV index rating of 3... If you find yourself in a similar situation, consider purchasing 1-2 Sylvania Spot-Grow 50W indoor light bulbs and place them in floodlights. These bulbs are used to help indoor plants grow so I tried them on my prints at night after the sun had set. I used them continuously for about 10 hours on my prints. Unfortunately, I did not see any noticeable results and suspect that the wattage on my bulbs may not have been high enough. Another factor could be that they just didn't sit under the lights for long enough (though their exposure to the lights was in addition to about 12 hours of sunlight. Ultimately, there are A LOT of variables that go into this process that can effect your print quality. Be sure to take this into consideration throughout this process.
Fixing your prints:
"Fixing" is a darkroom term to describe the final process of making a photograph insensitive to light. Anthotypes do not require fixing because of the bleaching that occurs as the print develops in the sun. As a result of this, anthotypes fade over time. One way to prevent fading would be to pour your print(s) into resin to preserve them. The other option would be to store your prints in a cool, dark place.
Step 5: Conclusions
>What I used
-2 dried Camellia flowers from the UWF Camellia garden = light orange juice
-1 beet = deep magenta juice, stains
-1 cup of blackberries = purple/pink juice
-1 half cup of frozen blueberries = light blue juice
-about 2 cups of fresh, organic spinach = deep green juice
As previously mentioned, I developed my prints in sunlight with too weak of a UV index, which resulted in a few failed prints. The first prints I tried were made with blackberries, and seemed to yield the best results. I made three prints with the blackberries. One, without vinegar, and two with, one of which was coated in a way alternative to the vertical/horizontal stroke method. I observed that the two with vinegar produced darker, more vibrant images so I continued using vinegar in the rest of my mixtures.
After making the blackberry prints, I made prints with the camellia flowers, blueberries, and spinach. Despite being able to collect only two flowers (since they are out of season), I was able to collect enough juice for one print. The blueberries yielded a good amount of juice but produced a rather light juice. The spinach took the longest to collect juice from as I had to use both a food processor and pestle and mortar, but produced good prints.
All in all, the best prints I got were exposed to light the longest (at least 2 days or more), used the most dense negatives, and were shielded from light most during the drying process.
If you'd like to know more about the anthotype process, and alternative photographic process' in general, I would highly suggest consulting this book: The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes 3rd edition by Christopher James
I hope my findings are helpful to you as you attempt this fun process. Just remember that, if at first you don't succeed, try, try again!