This blog post has sat in my draft folder for a couple of years now, I can’t believe I’ve not blogged it. Mea Culpa.
The Strines Journals of Joel Wainwright and John M. Gregory, 1852-1856. The monthly journal, produced in manuscript as a single copy only, records events in Strines and Marple, and wider occurrences, with articles on scientific, industrial and literary subjects. It is illustrated with watercolours, pen-and-ink drawings, and photographs. Joseph Sidebotham contributed drawings, photographs, and articles. Through him the editors were introduced to James Nasmyth, who contributed an article on the Moon, and there were several other notable contributors. There are five bound volumes in total, plus an extraordinary issue on the occasion of Joel Wainwright’s marriage in May 1856. These volumes are now in the Rylands Collection at The John Rylands Library, University of Manchester.
In 2015 Jamie Robinson, fellow Heritage Photographer at The John Rylands Library, had begun digitising the journals and called me over to look at something he thought I might find of interest!
An ink sketch of a street photographer. On further reading I found there were several chapters on the Sliding Box camera, lenses and a number of photographic processes – the Calotype, Salt Printing, Cyanotype, Energiatype, Chrysotype, Wet Plate Collodion and many others. The photographic camera and lens, relatively new inventions, had to be described in great detail to the reader.
This got my attention and had me thinking – wouldn’t it be interesting to try and reproduce some of these “new” photographic processes as described in the journals. How straightforward would it be? Which process should I choose? Can I get by without resorting to Google and follow the written instruction word for word?
I chose to concentrate on one of the main chapters on the Calotype with instructional notes on Talbots original recipe/process and then produce a positive with the salt print techniques also described. I had not paid much attention to Talbots Calotype/Paper Negative process in the past but was interested in how accurate the instructions were and would I even be able to produce a discernible image.
The Calotype was developed in 1840 by William Henry Fox Talbot and patented in 1841, as a paper negative process.
As mentioned I’ve never thought of attempting the calotype process, at the time I found the diffuse soft resultant image unappealing when compared to the wet collodion process. Although I can see it’s aesthetic sitting well with some.
So, after reading over the journals I began to start, taking time after work at my studio in Manchester to trial and test what I’d read.
I already had a suitable camera. Here’s my early sliding box camera with Ross lens, its very similar to the example pictured in the Strines Journals.
One of the first problems I found was the paper type, I was to later find this is still a problem for modern day Calotypists. It is well known that Talbot used a fine writing paper called Whatmans Turkey Mill, that is no longer available unfortunately. So my first attempts were with my usual art papers that I use for other printing processes.I was aware that the paper needed to be thin enough to transmit light but strong enough to withstand long washes in water. After various attempts I found most of my art papers provided poor results, some even falling apart when lifted from the wash, I then tried various drafting and copying papers with limited success, some were better with pre acidifying but I finally settled on Bienfang Graphics 360, thank you Richard Cynon Jones for the help with that one. This withstood multiple washes and accepted the chemicals easily.
Next was an issue with weights and measures. Translating Grains, Drams and Drachms into mg and ml. Most of the chemicals I had in my studio/darkroom as they are used in other processes. One big problem I found was the use of Gallic acid, it seems Talbot was aware that this caused early staining/browning of the paper and he soon stopped using it in his sensitiser. The Strines Journal entries, although written several years later, still include it in the recipe/process. It wasn’t till further reading in other resources that I found this out.
It didn’t help that I also ran out of Gallic acid early on and replaced it with Pyrogallic acid, as mentioned in some contemporary writings. This proved very problematic as it is much more potent than standard Gallic Acid.
It was fortunate timing that brought Professor Roger Taylor to visit the John Rylands Library. I mentioned this little project to him, he chuckled and said he’d send me a paper he’d written on the subject. It was most helpful. One quote stood out as very appropriate.
” Talbots directions, though sufficient for his own pre-instructed hand, were too vague to be helpful, and anyone joining the Pilgrims of the Sun was bound to meet with disappointment.”
Lady Elizabeth Eastlake 1857, The Quarterly Review
Roger was also kind enough, on a later visit to his home and collection, to show me some original Calotypes. Its difficult to make something if you’d only seen online versions. You can appreciate the subtitles and nuances of a calotype when viewed in hand. I was also gifted a few pages of Whatman Turkey paper from a book watermarked 1833. These are far too precious to experiment on. I have kept the watermarked sheets but one small plain sheet was given to a research paper mill in the Lake District to analyse and although highly unlikely they would ever produce it they did say they can compare it to other papers they have made and get the nearest match. That is a blog post for another day.
To give you and idea of the steps in the process, heres a short summary.
- Iodise 4 minutes
- Wash 2-6 hours
- Dry overnight
- Excite 10 seconds
- Expose 2-60 minutes
- Develop 1-120 minutes
- Wash 5-10 minutes
- Fix 1-2 minutes
- Wash 2-4 hours
- Dry overnight
- Wax 10-30 minutes
Lets just say I found the whole calotype making experience very frustrating but also great fun. I tried to stick to the written instructions in the journals but found myself veering away from them and tweaking the concentrations and timings to get it to work, probably very much like a the struggling Victorian photographer of the time.
As I had no idea of the photosensitivity of the calotype, it was difficult to even start to know if the process was working or not. Was the image over exposed, over developed or just… wrong!
Here are some of the first tests on various papers, some didn’t even get this far and fell apart in the initial wash. Some browned and stained on first contact with the chemicals.
Slowly, very slowly I started to get somewhere. From a hint of an image to totally overblown. Please forgive the composition and framing of these as that was the least of my concerns, and repetition and consistency were not words I’d like to use in this particular Calotype project, no matter how stringent I was in repeating every step.
Some later tests… As you can see I could get an image, then repeat the same steps just making a small change, and the resultant image would be totally different.
I almost gave up on a few occasions just through frustration, but this last image was made with my final prepared piece of paper. It was winter, so I’ll not excuse myself for not venturing out of the studio. I either shot my favourite studio chair or just pointed the camera out of the window at the wasteland surrounding the mill.
I had originally set myself a limited ammount of time for this project, so this final negative would have to do. I had already given 80 plus hours of time to it, granted most of that was washing the paper.
All in all not that bad really. At least theres an image.
There are numerous Salt printing recipes in the journals, I used Talbots recipe, they are all pretty similar with only changes in hue being discussed in any detail. Toned.
A close up of the salt print, showing that the negative does hold a lot of details and tonality. Its just a shame about the paper structure of the Bienfang 360, I find it distracting, you actually see it less in this close up but its blatantly visible when viewed first hand.
This fun project has led to a number of presentations and talks at conferences and and events, often in collaboration with Stella Halkyard (Joint Head of Special Collections), discussing the Strines Journals and the Photographic Collections of The John Rylands Library.
Whilst researching for one Conference I found a reference to an exhibition of Hippolyte Bayards early experiments with Direct Positive in camera images. The similarity to my early failures was uncanny. Maybe I’ll hold on to mine and sell them as art work?
Hopefully this link still works to a video of the accompanying exhibition catalogue. I would love a copy if anyone has one.
The Strines Volumes can be found on Manchester Digital Images, the online image collections of The University of Manchester.
Special thanks to Stella Halkyard, Roger Taylor and Richard Cynon Jones.
For further information on W.H.F. Talbot and the Calotype I thoroughly recommend The Talbot Catalogue Raisonne and its blog.
On making this blog post live and re-reading through it I have a new found respect for Calotypists and I think I’ll be revisiting the process but maybe with one of the recognised “easier” recipes and a more appealing paper. This blog post is a much shortened version of its original.
All images of the Strines Journals are Courtesy and Copyright of the University of Manchester Library.