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Anthotypes for everyone

Updated: Jan 19, 2023

a simple guide to a sustainable process

Christine Elfman, from the series Anthotype Dress Project, 2011.

If you have been having remorse about the environmental impact (and cost) of photography, you should try anthotypes!

Anthotypes, or making photographs out of plants’ juices, is a process that originated around the same time as cyanotypes. In fact the process was discovered by Mary Sommerville in 1842, who presented her findings to Sir John Herschel, the same guy who invented the cyanotype.

In a nutshell, the process involves exposing a positive image on a surface coated with vegetable pigments to UV light in order to create a photograph. The parts exposed to the light will be bleached out while the covered parts retain the pigment.

The making of an anthotype consists of three major components:

An emulsion

Paper - needless to say, the paper you use matters. Too thin and it will melt under the weight of the liquid. We recommend printmaking, or watercolor paper, We have seen some beautiful results with handmade cotton paper. Of course, experimenting with the surface is exciting, some cool surfaces to try: wood, fabric, glass and rocks.

A positive - (it can be either a flat object, or a digital transparency of an image)

  1. The first step is to prepare the emulsion. The emulsion is composed of two parts: pigment and a binding agent: water, denatured alcohol, or even vodka. Some popular plant ingredients for anthotypes are spinach, beet root, turmeric, berries, and flower petals, due to their high pigment concentrations. Find here our Anthotype recipe book with tons of ideas for your Anthotype prints.

Whichever vegetable matter is chosen it must be crushed using either a mortar or a blender. According to Malin Fabbri, author of “Anthotypes,” which tool is preferred will depend on which part of the plant the pigment is concentrated:

A lot of times the pigment is in the peel - like in the blueberries - and when crushed and strained through a cloth later on, the pigments stay in the cloth. If mixed with a blender, more of the pigment of the peel may end up in the emulsion.”

Achiote (red) and parsley (green) emulsions

In order to ease the crushing process water or alcohol can be used. For example, Edd Carr, from the Northern Sustainable Darkroom, suggests on to add just enough alcohol to wet the leaves of the spinach to ease the blending process. The ratio of pigment to binding agent will affect the pigmentation strength. It is important to have in mind that the ph of the binding agent and its ratio to pigment will affect the color.

Either way, anthotypes are all about experimentation. And we love that.

After having prepared the emulsion, it is important to use it as soon as possible while the pigments are still fresh.

  1. To apply the emulsion simply brush it onto a piece of paper in a room with no direct sunlight. Then, leave the paper out to dry somewhere dark. If the paper is not going to be exposed right away, store it in a dark place as well.

  1. Exposing! In contrast to cyanotype and some photograms, anthotypes can take from hours to weeks depending on the light sensitivity of the pigment and how much sunlight is available which varies depending on weather and season. It goes without saying that it requires patience.

Tim Boddy anthotypes, respectively:

- Spinach emulsion

- Beetroot stem emulsion

- Red wine emulsion

For exposing the anthotype use a positive transparency or a flat object (leaf, flower, paper cut-outs, etcetera). Have in mind that the parts exposed to light will bleach out, while the covered parts will retain their color. It is advised to use a positive with high contrast for a better exposure. Then, place the positive on top of the paper, put both in between a board and a piece of glass or acrylic. Finally, clip them together and leave it out in the sun. It is possible to check every few hours by carefully lifting the glass and the positive without moving it.

Eventually, if the weather and the plant gods permit, you will have a photograph!

On a last note, since this process does not involve fixing, to preserve the image over time, store or place it away from direct light.

Want to became a Michelin star Anthotype chef? Alternative Processes Academy teaches you a variety of recipes + how to print on marble, pebbles, eggshells, shells, fabric...

Author: Ana Sofia Camarga

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