Mordançage, or the gentle beauty of the tortured print

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©Ellie Ivanova

As the New Texas Talent exhibition at Craighead-Green Gallery in Dallas is drawing to an end, I realize that I haven’t talked about my new work in the show. The images are done in an arduous process that took months to research and produce that it now deserves to be told about. It’s a process that makes for unique prints that also fits so well in the broader direction I’ve been following in the past couple of years. See some examples above.

Mordançage is an old and obscure photography process (known since the late 19th century as “etch and bleach”) that was resurrected and given its new name by French photographer Jean-Pierre Sudre in the 60s. He trained several American artists in this process and they, in their turn, brought it to the US. While today there are a few more people practicing it, it’s still very rare. Most photographers I’ve talked with, not to speak of art fans in general, have not even heard of it.

Basically, the process consists in treating a silver gelatin print in a solution of copper chloride, glacial acetic acid and hydrogen peroxide, then redeveloping and washing it. As a result, the silver-rich areas of the print lift from the paper and form bubbles or veils. They take their own independent life while also expose the bleached surface underneath to create an unexpected, ghostly variation of the image you’ve taken and printed and know well. Perfect balance of deliberate harshness and surrender of control.

Why mordançage? It’s the perfect process to visualize the eternal struggle of photography to document reality against its deterioration at the hands of memory. The photographic image, that can be a technically precise reflection of what was in front of the lens, takes its own path of change by accident and predictable decay.

There are many formulae for working it. But the technical side, albeit important, is not the crucial aspect of the process. You have to adjust the recipe and tweak it until you discover the right one to fit your own vision. For example, some artists relish the veils formed by the treatment to the point that the whole image is about them. The veils become just veils that seemingly were there in the original image. Others rub them away completely to achieve a reverse image: what was black in the original photograph becomes brighter than the remaining white areas. Something like solarization. I don’t subscribe to either approach: My goal is to show how memories change the past and use a different balance according to the specific image.

The challenges of this process is that it takes a LOT of time, space and of course chemical harshness while handling a very delicate object at the same time. Each print has to be washed separately and extensively to neutralize the acid, yet, if you want to keep the veils, you can’t agitate it too much, lest they detach and float away. And then there is the question of archivability. While a normal silver gelatin print would last hundreds of years, there is no standard way to ensure the mordançage prints will not change over time. But! Another beauty of it is that it’s one of the very few photographic processes in which the artist touch becomes visible – the physical mark showing where the artist’s hand had actually worked on it –  in the manipulation of the veil and the lifting.

Don’t try this at home, unless you do it outside and/or have access to industrial strength ventilation, respirator mask and nitrile gloves. You should know how to handle acid – always add acid to water and not vice versa. Also, don’t just pour out the exhausted chemicals down the drain when you are done – the acid will destroy your plumbing before contaminating the water system.

However, if you work in mordançage, I’d love to see your prints!


One response to “Mordançage, or the gentle beauty of the tortured print

  1. Pingback: Recent and upcoming exhibitions | Parasol Photography

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