The Early Technologies of Pictorialism

The Origin of Pictorialism

When Louis Daguerre introduced photography to the world in 1839, the invention immediately started serving dual purposes. These were to utilize this new medium both as a scientific instrument and a medium for artistic expression. It was from the latter stream of thought that the early technologies of pictorialism emerged. Daguerre wanted to use photography for both these objectives. In fact, originally he was a painter. However, most people started believing that photography would only serve the purpose of recording laboratory experiments.

But gradually, the medium developed into a new form of artistic expression. By the end of the 19th century, artists had invented means to manipulate images to introduce their own mark of artistry. The result was a hybridization, as artists blended the personal touch of painting with the impersonal technology of photography. These artists mainly tried to evoke the impression of a painting in a photographic image. This they achieved through photographic printing procedures like gum bichromate, oil printing, and platinum printing.

The gum bichromate process

Of the early technologies of pictorialism, a key procedure was the gum bichromate process. It was one of the favorites of the pictorialists who referred to it as delicate and expressive. Some of the most popular photographers of that era, from Robert Demachy to William Fox Talbot, implemented this technique. While invented in 1855, the gum bichromate process, however, was not used commonly until the 1890s.

Figure Study by Robert Demachy using the gum bichromate process, one of the early technologies of pictorialism

The most interesting aspect of this process is that no two gum printers ever executed the procedure in the exact same manner. But the general process requires the creation of working emulsion consisting of three components. These are a dichromate solution, gum arabic, and water-soluble pigments. The gum bichromate emulsion essentially is a modified watercolor. Watercolor brushes help in cleaning of the emulsions. So, it is an essential tool. Finally, the procedure also requires a clean piece of paper.

The emulsion spreads over the paper. Then it dries for some time. The printmaker then puts the negative on the dried emulsion. Then he exposes it to a UV light source, which hardens the dichromate. A heavy glass sheet ensures that this contact is constant and even. The hardening occurs in perfect proportion to the negative’s density. After this, the printmaker baths the paper in plain water. The paper then keeps developing till all the unhardened emulsion portions have dissipated.

The Crowd by Robert Demachy (1910), using the oil pigment printing process

The Oil Printing Process

This technique was originally invented by Alphonse Louis Poitevin in the 1850s. G.E.H. Rawlins refined the technique in 1904. After this, it also came to be known as the Rawlins process. The oil printing process follows the same principle followed by lithographic printing, that water and oil do not mix.

A paper of gelatin size is coated with a solution of bichromate. The artist then dries the paper and exposes it by negative. The light hitting the paper selectively hardens the gelatin. The artist then washes and dries the paper. After this, it gets soaked in water. The gelatin starts swelling. However, the hardened gelatin areas do not swell. The printmaker then applies oil-based printing ink thickly on the paper. It sticks in the regions where there is the hardened gelatin. The water-swollen areas of the paper do not attract the ink and repel it. This process is the predecessor of the bromoil procedure.

Coming Home from the Marshes by Peter Henry Emerson,1886, using the platinum printing process

The Platinum Printing Process

Like the other forms of early technologies of pictorialism, this process too is a result of the contact between a paper with emulsion coating and a negative. The difference between this process and the previous ones is that platinum printing explores more levels between pure white and pure black. The above picture showcases that the change from black to white or vice versa is not sudden but gradual. The pictures thus give a richer and deeper feel of tone and look. Also remarkable is the medium’s sensitivity towards shadows and its range of depth.

The platinum printing process, also called platinotype, requires three primary separate solutions. These are ferric oxalate (Sol. 1), ferric oxalate with potassium chlorate (Sol. 2), and potassium chloroplatinite or sodium tetrachloroplatinite (Sol. 3). These solutions mix to produce a light-sensitive emulsion. The mixture is applied in the paper’s center for hake brush coatings.

After coating, the artist needs to dry the paper with cool air. Then he should place it with the negative in a hinged back contact printer. The UV light then falls on the negative and the sensitized paper, due to which the ferric salts chemically react and convert to a ferrous state. Following this exposure, the printmaker should reduce the paper to the state of metallic platinum with a developer (ammonium citrate). After this, an acid bath will clear the developed print of any leftovers and iron ferric salts that have been unexposed. The print that is left behind is of pure platinum (or palladium). Finally, the artist needs to wash the print for permanence.

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