Thursday, August 28, 2014

Blogging for Thor: Dem Blue Bones

Shoulder #1 -- My first real success at printing on bone!
Hello, spiders! Exciting news!! I've been meaning to try printing cyanotypes on bone for a fairly long time, but it was only within the last week that I finally got some appropriate bones. One of my friends goes hunting with his family, and they just toss the bones and other scraps in the woods for scavengers. He was kind enough to go digging around the woods where they drop the bones and found me three scapulae and half of a femur. The results are very encouraging, and I'm hoping to get more bones to print in the future.

In addition to the bones, I also had a single deer antler to test out. Last semester, one of my students offered me some antlers that she was using in a biology experiment. She'd taken core samples from them to do analysis on, leaving most of the antler perfectly intact. She didn't need the remainder, so she gave me several antlers that I could test on. I coated one of them months ago, but never got around to exposing it until this week. There are more antlers, hiding somewhere... I'll have to track them down eventually.

In-Progress Author's Note: Whew! This post is ending up a lot longer than I expected, and it doesn't even have any pictures added yet! I'm breaking it into sections. Don't worry my Spiders, I just said sections, not different posts.

Cleaning the Bones
This is actually something I'm more worried about in the future than something I had to deal with in these tests. The bones given to me were weeks or months old and had been laying out in the woods. Scavengers and nature had already done the cleaning for me. If you end up having to clean your own bones from something fresher, like a Thanksgiving turkey, then this guide might be helpful. It's written by some awesome little kid that loves collecting skeletons. Rock on, creepy little dude.

Seriously, listen to him when he says stuff stinks. I was foolish enough to try boiling some turkey bones from a Thanksgiving turkey (what, you thought that was a random example?) a few years ago and my entire apartment stank for days. Never again. Next time, I'm stuffing the bones in a bag, tying the bag in a tree and letting nature have at it.

Coating the Bones
Coating is messy work.

The antler coated much more easily than the bones, but both surfaces required several coats of chemistry to achieve a decent stain. Even though bone's theoretically porous, the surface is not very absorbent. Coating took a good while, since I allowed each coat to dry partially before applying the next one.

As I said, I coated the antler months ago, so I don't remember precisely how long I waited between coats, or even how many I applied. I do remember it was several, though. It was kept in a dark box, sitting on a metal grate, so it could dry thoroughly. A few days of drying turned into months because I just couldn't figure out what to print on it. I'm still not super happy with the antler, but at least I know the general theory works, if I can find the rest of the antlers from that bag. I've put them somewhere in my lab and just can't figure out where. Don't you hate when you misplace body parts, Spiders?

On the first scapula, pictured at the top of this entry, I applied several coats of chemistry, allowing each one to soak in as much as possible before adding new liquid. The first few coats were allowed to set overnight, then I added some more the next morning before finally exposing the bone to sunlight. I'm not sure if it was just the sheer amount of chemistry applied to that first scapula, or if it was allowing a longer drying period, but the  the color on it is much deeper and truer than the later tests.

The other two scapulae and the femur got fewer coats and less drying time. I'm not nearly as pleased with them, so next time, I'll be more patient and more generous with the chemistry. Still, they're perfectly acceptable results, just not as really nice as the first one.

I also tried soaking a knuckle bone in cyanotype chemistry (one good soak for about 2-3 minutes of sloshing and swirling) but that didn't come out at all. The rounded shape did not prove very easy to adhere a plant to, so the image is almost invisible. A majority of the blue color also washed right out of the bone, leaving only a dingy blue-grey. Not real happy with either the color or the image, so I'm probably not going to be doing much more with the rest of the ankle, knuckle and joint bones I have.

Printing the Bones
Packing tape to the rescue!
The biggest challenge of printing on a substrate like bone is getting, and keeping, tight contact between the object used in the print and the surface of the bone. Bones aren't flat, and even if I could balance a sheet of glass on them somehow, pressing down with a solid object wouldn't give me good contact. So, after very little thought or consideration, I used clear packing tape to hold the leaves in place against the bones. It seems to have worked rather spectacularly well on the mostly-flat bones, and even on the antlers. The packing tape did not work well on the almost-round knuckle bone, but I don't think anything could have.

This just didn't work.
In the second set of bones, I ran into a small problem with the tape. Using a fresh leaf created a kind of miniature green house effect, where the moisture that sweated out of the leaf beaded and gathered under the tape. The evaporated moisture created a small bubble and made the tape lose a lot of stickyness. I lost a bit of contact and got some image fuzz as a result. In the future, I'll stick to dried plants for bone prints.

After taping the bones up, I exposed them for a few hours. About 2 for the first set (the antler and the first scapula), then I went up to 4 hours for the second set (femur, other two scapulae and the knuckle). Again, despite a much longer exposure the second set was never as bright or deep a blue as the first set. Coating was the issue there, not exposure. Both sets were out in direct, bright, hot sunlight.

Washing the Bones
I just dumped the exposed bones into a big tub of water and let them soak for about an hour. Afterwards, I hit them with a bit of hydrogen peroxide. The first scapula reacted fairly well to the hydrogen peroxide, forming the intense blue color seen in the photo, but none of the other bones showed any reaction at all to it. Their blues did become slightly darker and more true after drying was complete, but overall they look much the same as they did once washing was complete.

As a warning for any Spiders that want to do their own cyanotype bones, you are generally not going to get any kind of idea what the final result is going to look like just by looking at the unwashed bones. The washing and a nice long soak is necessary to allow the image to develop, much moreso than for a traditional cyanotype.

Shoulder #2 -- Second success!
Drying the Bones
I honestly didn't have to do much drying or final cleaning. It's been so hot here lately (90s and up) that I just left everything outside in the blazing sun for a few hours. They're ...heheh... bone dry now, and looking great. There's a tiny bit of tendon left on one scapula, but it doesn't smell at all, so I'm not going to mess with it.

There you have it, Spiders. It's entirely possible to print cyanotype images onto bone and horn. It's not even that hard! You can find more photos of the bones and antler prints on my Instagram (I have an Instagram now!) and, soon, on my Flickr.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Blogging for Thor: Photographic Typos

A friend sent me this article last week and it's pretty cool all by itself. I'm relinking it here because it isn't just relevant to typos. This quote really sums things up:
We don’t catch every detail, we’re not like computers or NSA databases,” said Stafford. “Rather, we take in sensory information and combine it with what we expect, and we extract meaning.” 
That isn't just true with typing. It's true with all perception, especially visual. That means it's true for photography. As photographers, we see in our cameras what we expect to see in our minds. It's easy, especially when you're first starting out, to mentally blank out everything but your intended subject. Not notice the light socket in the background, or the lamp growing out of your subject's head. Not notice that you're out of focus, not notice this shadow or that power cord. It's so, so very easy.

Writing may not be easier than photography, but it does tend to have a bit more time. Even if there isn't an editor specifically checking your work, you may have time to allow your brain a few hours to dump all its expectations and review your work fresh. Remember in high school, being told to wait a full day between writing a draft and editing it? I hated the idea, but it often worked so well.

Generally, as photographers, we don't have that time. We're expected to finish an entire shoot in a few hours, and may not have a chance to re-do the shoot to correct mistakes. So it's vital that we teach ourselves (and our students) to look at what is actually in the picture. Try as much as possible to force yourself to see reality instead of expectations. It's not easy, because your brain is fighting you the whole time. That isn't how it's wired. It's a difficult skill to master, and no one can do it right every single time. But even trying to do it is a great achievement. It puts you leagues beyond most camera users. Visual awareness is probably the single thing that defines a good photographer. It's knowing exactly what will be in your photo. If you can't get it down before you shoot, you're still doing well to be able to review your photos and notice the unintended contents or mistakes on the second pass.

If you can tether, or load your photos onto another device for review during a shoot, do it!! Just as the article mentions that you can improve your proofing results by printing out or otherwise re-formatting your text, you can get the same improvement by viewing your photos in another manner. Even aside from that, it's just hard to do a good job reviewing photos on the back of a camera.

Well, spiders, that's all for this week. I'm probably going to miss next week, but I'll try to write an article early and get it up via auto-post. I might have the same problem week after that, too. Next weekend is Dragon*Con and the week after, I have a solo show up in Asheville that I've got to prep for. It's a busy month, spiders. I'm stressed and excited about everything.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Blogging for Thor: Too Alternative?

I don't enjoy feeling like a hipster, but I end up feeling that way quite often. Talking to non-specialists about my work is often not an enjoyable experience. When I say I'm an artist, the natural question is what kind of art I make. So I explain that I'm a photographer. Their eyes light up! Photography! That's something anyone can do! It's so easy and relatable! They do photography! They have a camera, they take pictures. They understand me!

What kind of photography do I do, they ask, eagerly. That's where it stops. They expect an answer like "landscapes" or "portraits." Instead, I do alternative processes. Not even 'normal' alternative processes like wet plate collodion, which at least uses a camera. Nope. I use lumen printing and anthotypes, which even most photographers have little or no familiarity with. My subjects are leaves and flowers, but they aren't rendered in the familiar way. My work isn't accessible.

So what can I do? I explain that I do alternative process work. Blank stare. I say some words like "contact printing" and "cyanotype" or "non-silver processes"... and more blank stares. At best, there's a flicker of interest and maybe they ask how it works. Another stab in the gut. Explaining alternative processes has two possibilities.

1) An in-depth explanation of light sensitive materials, chemistry, paper treatments and different printing materials. This often results in vacantly blank stares.

2) "It's magic!" Which often results in laughter (forced or real) or in slightly offended looks. It's just one step above the true hipsterism: "You wouldn't understand it."

I have had some interesting discussions with regular (anyone who isn't an alternative process photographer) people about my work. I've had fun talking about my work with them, but it's a halting, slow conversation and far more often I find myself trying to avoid discussion about my work because of previous experiences.

It's just something that bugs me. I get people that say my work is colorful, pretty and interesting. I get compliments and questions, I do. I like that. I love doing my work. It's just a bit of a bummer that the stuff I really love, the chemistry, the records, the experiments, the trials... that's not something I can have easy discussions about. So for all you academics out there looking for someone to talk about pre-Roman Gaulish culture, or the architecture of ancient Sumeria... I feel for you. I really, really do.

Also, I totally love ancient Sumerian architecture. Let's chat!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Blogging for Thor: The Life and Times of Salt

Sensitized salt paper
24 hours after coating
I have discovered a flaw in my approach to salt printing. Time. I was assuming that as long as the salt print was kept in a dry, dark location, it wouldn't expose quickly. I could coat a decent sized batch of sheets one night and then wait for good weather to use them.


Even waiting a full day after applying the silver nitrate was too long. I opened the door of the cabinet where I was storing the paper and found this.

Print on fogged salt paper
All five coated sheets looked the same. I tried printing them anyway and both images made with negatives are so distorted that they're basically invisible. I did get a passable, in fact quite interesting, result from a contact print of a Mexican Heather sprig. The spotting and patterning becomes even more visible during the exposure. And for some reason, despite using kosher salt, these prints came out deep violet splotched with black and pink. Not at all the reds and browns I was expecting.

So, from now on, I'll have to dry the silver-coated paper fairly quickly and try to use it the same day. Or at least coat during the evening (as I do now) and use it the very next morning. I might even try using a hairdryer to accelerate the process so I can coat and print within an hour or two. It's just a bit of a bummer that I can't store the paper. Anthotype paper keeps basically forever if it's out of sunlight. Cyanotype paper keeps for a few days before it begins to fog too much. Salt prints, though, just won't keep for more than a few hours. Bummer.

Lesson learned, y'all!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Blogging for Freya: Fiber and Plastic

While it's entirely possible to create a lumen print on non-traditional surfaces by using liquid photo emulsion or an alternative process like cyanotype or salt printing, most lumen prints are made on photographic darkroom paper.

Darkroom photo paper comes in two forms: Resin-Coated (RC) and Fiber-Based (Fiber or FB). There are pro's and con's of both for normal darkroom printing that have been covered in-depth by dozens or hundreds of different photographers. Lumen printing, however, is not traditional darkroom usage. There are some different reasons you may want to work with either RC or FB papers for your lumens.

First off, remember that lumen color profiles vary by the type of paper and, yes, that includes a difference like RC vs FB. Not always significantly different, but different. Some brands might vary to a considerable degree, but all of them will vary at least a bit. So one thing you have to consider when making your choice is simply if you care. Maybe the specific colors you want don't come from RC, or can't be produced on Fiber. In that case, this guide will just help you deal with the downsides of that particular material.