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From Darkroom Waste to Jewellery

with Charlotte E Padgham

Recycling Silver from photographic fixer
From Waste Resin Coated Photographic Paper to Sculpture

Could you tell us about your exploration of repurposing exhaust photo chemicals in your sculptures and jewelry? What drew you to such unconventional material?

In essence my work has always been rooted in what's discarded and in the potential of renewal, physically and conceptually, through a cyclical process.

Initially this was focused on the remnants and traces of myself - skin and hair - using myself as tool and material to explore notions of transference, intervention, preservation and preciousness. I'm also a magpie for discarded and decaying objects, forms and textures and enjoy the fusion of typically regarded 'precious' and 'non-precious' elements. I am naturally drawn to unconventional materials!

I actively recycle and reuse found discarded materials especially all those within my own practice. It's important to me to be as waste free as possible, and to create my own materials and tools whenever I can with whatever resources I have around me. I strive to maintain a circular studio.

In April 2020 I was asked to take part in The Sustainable Darkroom's residency to contribute with ideas and actions for recycling and reducing darkroom waste and in particular the potential recovery of silver from photographic chemicals. This investigation aligned entirely with my practice, and certainly appealed to the alchemist in me! During and since the residency I've researched and developed systems for reclaiming and reusing waste silver from used photographic fixer to plate and form elements of my jewellery and artworks.

I have also established several methods of reusing waste non-recyclable resin-coated photographic paper as a new material for creating wearable photographs and jewellery including 'gemstones', sculptural objects and intaglio prints.

Recycling photographic chemicals
Fixer Silver Plated Chemigram

To me, going from exhausted fixer and developer to jewellery seems impossible and almost magical, can you guide us through your process and how it has evolved over time? Don't leave anything out! I'd love to know the tools, the time, the substances.. How does something liquid and toxic become something pretty and wearable?!

The concept of re-framing or rediscovering waste as a resource as opposed to something to be discarded is integral to my work. I'm obsessed by the alchemy of it! The circularity of the process and concept I've developed engages me on every level and is constantly evolving.

I'm not going to lie though, each process is insanely time consuming and unpredictable. Just when I feel as though I've harnessed the technique it throws a curveball, which can be frustrating but I fully embrace the chaos alongside the control. I really enjoy letting a material or a process inform the outcome and to work with it wherever it wants to take me. When your mindset is to reduce waste you see that everything has potential, even the 'failures', and that in itself is magical.

Silver is infinitely reusable. So as a jeweller I automatically reclaim every scrap and particle of dust within my studio, I have a lot of little jars with varying sized fragments to melt down and reuse.

Essentially I've been researching and developing ways of using a fairly simple electrolysis set-up to plate out the silver directly from the exhausted fixer onto other base metals that have also been reclaimed in some way. I was already very familiar with the process of metal plating and electroforming, however the conditions for this are usually highly controlled.

Precious metal plating is a very exacting and stringent process, even when using specialised purpose-made plating solutions slight fluctuations can hugely affect the results depending on the specific chemical content and precious metal saturation of the solution as well as all the other variables such as

PH, temperature, current, voltage, the materials used for and current density of anodes and cathodes, the quality and stability of solutions, the ability of accurately measuring silver saturation in the solutions, pre and post treatments, etc etc etc. So using exhausted photographic fixer was always going to be a challenge!

My initial goal was to test whether it was actually even possible to reclaim any of the silver from my fix bath on a very DIY ‘domestic’ scale (particularly as I started these experiments at the very beginning of Lockdown and already had limited resourses!). With the optimistic intention to reuse the silver directly within my jewellery practice, or at the very least be able to reclaim it in a state that could be sent to a refiner to recycle along with my other silver scrap.

Recycling photographic waste
Bracelets made with reclaimed silver from fixer

Unexpectedly my first trial onto reclaimed copper was fairly successful at very low amperage but the plating was easy to remove when polished in places, but I formed a cuff bracelet from it and chalked it up as beginners luck. It also very quickly tarnished from the sulphur in the fixer. One of the reasons jewellery tarnishes is because of sulphuric gases in the air - hydrogen sulfide being the most common. Sulphuric compounds are often used in the jewellery industry to patinate metals - essentially accelerating the tarnishing process giving a yellow, grey or black finish (which is silver sulfide), normally using Liver of Sulphur (potassium sulfide) or my preferred method of putting the jewellery in a bag of boiled eggs or chopped onions for a much slower but more natural method.

It's worth mentioning at this point that the electrolysis of the fixer at too high amperages can generate hydrogen sulfide - which in large quantities is toxic. I undertook a great deal of research and preparation to ensure that I could perform the work safely and with the appropriate PPE, ventilation and extraction.

A discovery I made during my experiments last year having moved on to using my rectifier rather than a battery with my original batch of used fixer there seemed to be a very fine line finding the plating sweet spot and the current being too high causing the formation of silver sulfide precipitate. I believe this is possibly due to the saturation of silver in the solution, at this point I'd used the same solution repeatedly since 2020 so it was no doubt extremely low in silver content and no matter how low the current was it would, for want of a better term, 'burn' what silver was left and turn it into sulfides. This is important to avoid as this decomposition of the solution is what will off-gas hydrogen sulfide.

Having tested other solutions that I was gifted by London Alternative Photographic Collective some appeared to work better than others, again probably due to the different saturations of silver amongst other factors. A simple way I use of testing silver saturation in the fixer is to immerse a strip of brightly polished copper – if there is a grey deposit after 5 secs there's pretty good saturation (possibly around 1.5 gr/lt) but after 30 secs it appears to be too low to pursue electroplating and poses a greater risk of decomposition.

I then undertook some extensive research on the recovery of silver from the precipitate and was able to smelt the small amount of silver sulfide I had filtered out of the solution and saved into enough silver metal to create 2 entire pairs of stud earrings!

Recycling Photographic waste
reclaimed brass etched from failed chemigram plated with silver from photographic fixer

Your emphasis on sustainability and reducing waste is commendable. What challenges did you face in working with it? How do you ensure the safety and environmental responsibility of incorporating these chemicals into your creative process?

Nothing leaves my studio!

By that I literally mean that all 'waste' is retained until I can first and foremost reuse it in some way or if not can try to reduce its impact as much as I can to dispose of it as safely as possible. I am extremely Health & Safety conscious (a result of my background as a theatre Stage Manager) so I employ a lot of research into understanding the principles, consequences and safe working practices of the processes and materials that I use.

My photography output generally isn't enough to produce a significant amount of spent fixer. After being gifted with 12l of used fixer from a workshop held by London Alternative Photography Collective a couple of years ago I identified that there was the opportunity to collaborate with other photographers and darkrooms. It feels like a mutually beneficial system whereby I alleviate the bother of disposal for the photographer in exchange for raw materials for me to experiment and work with. I still have ALL of the solutions I've been using since April 2020.

I would like to add that there's nothing quite like holding on to EVERYTHING that gets discarded when making work within a tiny studio space to really open your eyes to the reality of what is wasted! I encourage everyone to spend a week/fortnight/month retaining every single bit of waste generated and then assess what changes could be made to reduce or reuse it.

Recycling photographic waste
Waste Resin coated photographic paper silver from fixer plated gemstone set in 100% recycled sterling silver ring

The concept of transformation and evolution over time is a recurring theme in your work, I think using exhaust photo chemicals to produce artworks is an embodiment of this concept. In what ways does the inherent nature of these chemicals reflect the ideas of transition and imperfection that you explore in your pieces?

Degeneration often leads to regeneration. I think a lot about stripping back to basics, the purity of discovering potential and how far you can push a material, and by material I include all the solutions and compounds etc I use to create my work. That everything has the potential for more than one function/existence and can act as a catalyst. To really consider the entire lifespan of a material or piece of work, for better or worse, and realise that all matter is in a state of flux. And that's exciting!

I've always been interested in the total journey.

A small example being my jewellery and small sculptural forms that are made from failed chemigrams on resin coated photographic paper and then silver plated from the fixer the photos originally emerged from. Reuniting the silver and paper. A cyclical process.

Jewellery, in particular, when it is worn it will start to show dents, marks, patina, imperfections giving it a history unique to the wearer, like scars, imprinted moments in time. Pieces are often passed on or passed down, much like photographs, and take on different meanings and degrees of personal connection throughout their journey.

The possibility that a material or a piece of work can undergo a journey of transformation and its lifetime extended through reuse, reclamation, reimagining to look or become or create something entirely different to how it started is fascinating.

I have the same fascination and affinity for the impermanence and ephemerality of materials - in work that can just disappear without a trace.

Recycling photographic chemicals
Earrings made entirely from silver reclaimed from fixer (except posts)

5) As an artist, what are your future aspirations and visions for your work in relation to sustainability and environmental impact? Are there any specific projects or collaborations you are currently working on or would like to explore in the context of reducing waste and promoting responsible alternatives?

It is so important to me to pursue this work as it has opened up so many possibilities and avenues for further development within and beyond my practice. It's my overall goal to ultimately create a closed loop waste recycling system within my own practice but also a means to collaborate with other artists and industries to share and manage resources.

I am actively pursuing cross-discipline collaborations to reuse waste material produced by other industries and have already been reusing resin/paint overpour waste from boatyards and car manufacturers, and photographic waste from resin-coated photographic paper, negatives and x-ray waste from live event companies and my local community as well as from my own studio to produce pieces of jewellery

In terms of my next steps I’m currently experimenting with how reusable the fixer becomes once it has been almost completely depleted of the waste silver and filtered of any other sediment to hopefully extend its lifespan. There are several stages to this and although I realise there are expensive commercial cell units available that are much more efficient than a DIY approach, I'm hoping it is possible within the context of my circular studio operation.

It would be incredible if this could potentially lead to the fixer being returned to the original donor or passed on for educational workshops to use again in some form or other. I'm very close to testing my first batch! Ultimately I want to create systems to use across my photography, jewellery and artwork practice with minimal equipment that are as resource efficient as possible – particularly with metal recovery in mind so that solutions can also be potentially reused, and if this can also extend to replenishing materials for fellow artists then it can only be a good thing!

I really hope that my work can help highlight and inspire that all material is precious, but also that there are consequences born from the materials we choose to use, in how they are extracted from the earth, in how they are processed and ultimately in how they are returned to the environment.

If you want to read more about this area of my work my initial experiments and explorations were documented in two publications by The Sustainable Darkroom - This is (Still) Not A Solution and re·source. Further insights plus links to talks, resources and the above publications can be found on my Ethical Making page via my website

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