Category Archives: Experiments

Vortographs

What is a Vorticism?

Vorticism started in 1914 in London and encompassed sculpture, photography, painting, woodcuts and graphic design. The movement, which was a ‘response to French Cubism and Italian Futurism’ (1) was led by Wyndham Lewis and named by Ezra Pound. The photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn first exhibited his vortographs in 1917. I’m a huge fan of Coburn, and that’s how I originally learnt about vortographs.

All I could find out when I first started to research this was that Coburn was using an arrangement of mirrors, like a kaleidoscope, to create his images. If you look at Coburn’s vortographs you can see two slightly different types of images. One style looks like it has fractured the planes of the image into star or triangular shapes.

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Vortograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn

I think these are true vortographs made with an arrangement of mirrors like so….

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Taped triangular arrangement of mirrors that measure 2 x 6 inches

The other type of vortograph Coburn made looks like this:

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Ezra Pound by Alvin Langdon Coburn

I wonder if this image of Ezra Pound by Coburn is made by using a stack of mirrors instead of a triangular arrangement? I have experience of making different types of vortograph myself; the only way I can think of to achieve this style is if it was made using a stacked arrangement of mirrors.

Star Vortograph
Star Vortograph
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Piano Keyboard Vortograph

To make my prism (pictured above), I used 4 mirrors which I had cut at a local glaziers. They each measure 2 inches by 6 inches. If you get mirrors cut, remember to ask for the edges to be smoothed as you’ll be handling them quite a bit.

They need to be taped together to make a prism. The sides of the mirrors give really nice effects, so having a side which is thicker works well if you want to capture that, so add the extra mirror to one side. I also added thin copper tape to the sides of my mirrors at one end to help give a more defined pattern. If I don’t want the pattern I just flip the mirrors around – they don’t interfere with the image if they’re at the lens end.

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Top left is where the thicker mirror edges are. You can see the copper tape showing up which makes the triangular nature of the images clearer.

I found that the technique works best with a wide angle lens; if you zoom in you can loose the effect. I’ve tried several different camera and lens combinations – all work, including an iPhone which is much easier to work with and I don’t have worries about my lenses getting scratched. But essentially it’s just experimenting to see what works. There isn’t a clever set up as such – just hold the mirror in front of the lens until you see the image you want. A tripod would help for this as it’s a bit fiddly. I’ve found that taking a ‘normal’ image and then printing it and taking the image again through the mirrors works well, or otherwise taking a vortograph of an image displayed on a computer monitor. If you look at some of my other work you’ll see the colours that are produced when using this technique of photographing a monitor or iPhone screen using a prism.

(Eyes, buses, Union Flags, New York and yes, that is Brendan Fraser top left)

To see how the planes fracture it helps to use a subject that has strong lines as you get a more pronounced effect.

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Stairs, The British Museum

I started using vortographs to represent the fracturing of the UK in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. Many of my original references will be in the initial work I did for an assignment on my photography degree which I will add to this site soon.  

I didn’t find many photographers using the technique now, if you use it after reading this post I’d love to hear from you and see how it went!

Cyanolumens

If you’ve tried cyanotypes and enjoyed them, you can take them a bit further by introducing cyanotype chemicals to black and white darkroom paper.

What You Need

This technique combines a lumen print with a cyanotype to introduce various tones and colours that you cannot achieve with cyanotype alone. For this example I’ve used Ilford RC (resin coated) multigrade paper, freshly mixed cyanotype liquid, turmeric mixed to a paste with water, and plant material to produce a cyanolumen photogram. You’ll also need photographic fix, I’m using Ilford Rapid Fixer which I will dilute, but you can now buy pouches of fixer which might be easier to use if this is a one-off trial for you, as you won’t need to dilute it. You also need a darkroom tray or other shallow plastic container that will fit your paper size.

Method – Prepare Your Paper and Expose to UV

If you will want to use your darkroom paper for darkroom printing as well as lumen prints, remove the paper you need from the pack in darkroom conditions. If not, you don’t have to worry too much about light contamination. Open it in a shady room, removing just the paper you need and closing the pack as quickly as possible to shield it from light.

Quickly coat the darkroom paper with cyanotype mixture (see here for details). I find that on the resin coated paper the liquid sits on the top of the paper. That’s fine because this is going to be a wet cyanotype. Arrange your plant material on top of the paper and add a sheet of glass to hold it all still. Put it outside in the sunlight or alternatively place under a UV lamp. If you want the yellow colour I have here, then add turmeric while adding plant material. How you add it will depend on the effect you want to create, and you’ll need to experiment to find out what works. I have randomly added turmeric to the base and placed plant material on top. Next time I might dip the plant into turmeric and see how that works. Remember, the strength of this type of technique is that the process can create happy accidents. You have to be willing to let go of control and really experiment in order for those accidents to happen.

This cyanolumen print was left outside for 6 hours in strong UV light, but you don’t need to leave them that long; however, they do take longer than a standard cyanotype to create, and among the community of creators it seems the general feel for these is the longer the better in exposure terms with 24 hour exposures being perfectly normal. This is not instant photography! I’m not yet practiced enough with various plant materials to be able to put more accurate timings on exposure and it will also depend on where you are in the world, but for thicker plant material I’d go for a longer exposure time but for anything delicate I’d look at about 3 or 4 hours in high UV light.

The main things to look for when creating the print are that the plant material is making good contact with the paper, and that the whole thing is held together firmly to create sharp edges. I find that using heavy glass works well, but if yours is thin then use some clips to help to create that firm contact and to hold everything together firmly.

Rinse, Fix and Dry

When finished with the exposure, I first rinse my print in water. You might want to take a photograph of it at this stage because colours can change once the print has been put in the fix. Remove any plant material that remains on the paper – it’s helpful to have an old, small paintbrush at hand for this.

For the fix I’d recommend you wear gloves and leave a window open because it’s an unpleasant smell for most people and you don’t want this getting onto your skin. You don’t have to do this in darkroom conditions, you can mix this stuff up in daylight. I mixed my fix at a ratio of 1 part fix to 4 parts water and put in in the tray. I do this just before I finish the exposure so the fix is not hanging around because of the smell. If you’re not sure how much to mix, fill your tray with enough water to cover your paper easily (maybe half way), pour the water into a measuring jug to see how much liquid you will need. Divide that number by 5. That will give you the amount liquid in each part. So if I want 500ml of water, I want 100ml of Ilford rapid fixer, and 400ml of water. Check the instructions on the fix you’re using to make sure you get the ratio correct.

When you’ve finished rinsing your print in water, wearing gloves put in into the fix. I dipped my print in fix and then rinsed with water immediately. I didn’t let it sit in the water, but if you have a fibre based paper you might like to leave it for up to a minute. You can keep the fix in a dark bottle out of direct sunlight and reuse it. Please dispose of this responsibly because it is toxic to aquatic life.

Rinse the fix from the paper thoroughly in running water, and leave the print flat to dry.

Tips

Because of the long exposure times, you may get better results from firm, thick plant material. Anything delicate tends to produce a texture on the paper rather than an image. The example below was my first try at a cyanolumen; it’s fennel seed heads and fronds, exposed for 24 hours. As you can see, this is mainly textural. I also didn’t rinse it well because I was worried the blue would disappear.

I suspect (I’m going to try it but I don’t know yet) that fibre based paper is better than resin coated paper for this. I will put the results here when I have them.

Look out for cats sitting on your nice warm glass. Mine did this, although I’ve no idea how long for! I looked out of the window and there he was, settled on the glass for nap time.

Like a standard wet cyanotype, you can try adding vinegar, bubbles, etc to your base.

You can try a straightforward lumen print.

Cyanotype: Taking it Further

My guide to creating a cyanotype.

I decided to try a few experiments to work out how various additions to a wet cyanotype can effect the outcome, and then to tone these experiments.

If you’re particularly interested in this I’d recommend you follow the blog as I intend to do a lot more of these as I found it a useful exercise. I’ve also now got a UV light specifically made for photography. I’ve not used it in this instance, but I hope it will give more accurate results in the long term.

Creating the Wet Cyanotype

I coated my paper with two coats of cyanotype emulsion and let it dry assuming I would begin work the next day. Thanks to the weather that didn’t happen, and it sat in it’s light-tight envelope for about four days until I used it.

My paper was a Windsor and Newton 100% cotton watercolour paper, slightly larger than A4, and I used ivy as my material to create a photogram. Ivy isn’t great because it’s quite thick and doesn’t lay flat, but I knew I’d be leaving this out for a few hours and I wanted to use something that would definitely block the light. So I used a foam board under my paper to allow a bit of room for the ivy to squish down properly under the glass.

I divided the paper up into three parts. The right here is is brushed with a 50% white vinegar 50% water solution using a foam brush. The middle has a paste made from turmeric and water brushed across it, and the left side has bubbles from a tray of washing up liquid added to it. So the paper was wet – when this is the case it’s a good idea to expose the cyanotype for longer than usual. A minimum of about 4 hours, but you can also try overnight. I added the ivy, put it all under glass and left it outside for 5 hours. The UV was medium to high, and it went out at 12pm and came back in at 5pm.

Above is the dried image scanned the next day. You can clearly see all of the materials I added to this. You can see bubbles, the turmeric is clear and the vinegar solution has clearly increased the contrast of the image on the right.

Toning Trials

I then cut this cyanotype into four so I’d have a piece for each of the three toning treatments I wanted to experiment with that would have the wet cyanotype trials on each piece, and one reference piece to compare the toned papers to the untoned.


Bleach

I placed one trial paper in a dilution of standard thin household bleach; this was 100ml of bleach and about 700ml of water, and it was left to soak for about 20 minutes.

You can see that green has been produced here. I didn’t keep an eye on it as it changed and I should have done because other colours might have appeared. With this type of process you do have to use your judgement, and it’s best to keep an eye on it. I find things dry a bit darker than I expect so if you’re bleaching in order to tone later on then you might want to let it go a bit paler than you think. Something to keep in mind. You can clearly see the effect of the vinegar has persisted on the right hand side of the image leaving the blue intact. The colour of the turmeric has disappeared.


Citric Acid

This piece has been placed in some anhydrous citric acid but you could try lemon juice. I initially used 250ml of water to 25g citric acid. I had no idea what dilution to use so that seemed like a good starting point. I left it for half an hour, and the yellow of the turmeric looked almost gold. I wasn’t sure if that was the result of the acid or the result of just putting it back into water, so I upped the concentration to 100g citric acid to 600ml warm water to see if the paper would get lighter. That made no difference at all, so I rinsed and dried. Again, the result of the vinegar solution is clear to see.


Tannin

The next trial was tannin. I’ve used tea bags to tone a cyanotype before, but this is tannin powder used for wine making. I used 8g tannin to 700ml water. I left this for about 10 minutes. This is easily my favourite result. The bubbles are clearly visible, the turmeric is just beautiful, and the vinegar is still clearly increasing the contrast. So tannin is something I will certainly return to for toning, while keeping in mind the results from the other chemicals in order to adjust my results.


Comparison

Here you can see the original cyanotype put back together and scanned. So this is the top image of this post turned 90 degrees counter-clockwise. This comparison shows the results most clearly. Next on my list to try is borax, soda crystals, and maybe some bicarb or baking powder. I also want to add more bubbles because I didn’t get enough onto the paper during this trial so I can’t see what effect the bleach or citric acid have had on those patterns. I also want to try to create some prints on coloured paper.