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Printing with Kombucha

Updated: May 29, 2022

With Mchaela Davidova

When I saw this artist printing with kombucha I immediately knew I had to investigate.

Michaela Davidova is a Czech artist based in the Netherlands.

She graduated from BA (Hons) Artist: Designer Maker in Cardiff and is currently pursuing her MA in Ecology Futures, which really resonates with her interest in exploring sustainable photographic practices. Personally, I lead a lifestyle that I would define sustainable: I never questioned however the use of harmful chemicals in the darkroom when it came to my photographic practice. This was until recently. Thanks to the Sustainable Darkroom, a project promoted by the London Alternative Photography Collective, I got increasingly more interested in an environmentally friendly approach to developing and printing. Michaela is passionate about alternative processes and techniques and one of her recent pieces really got my attention. She shared this silver nitrate image on her instagram account that involved the use of kombucha.

First of all: How did you approach sustainability in the darkroom and why Kombucha?

My practice involves experimenting with alternative photography and its cross-combination with different media. Recently, I had a chance to work and learn in the bio lab with @growingculture_ecologyfutures led by Emma van der Leest and Emma Luitjens. I was taking care of Scobies and tested them as a bio-photographic material. I think that at some point, all artists ask the question of their own environmental imprint, therefore, it came naturally to play with an idea of re-thinking the darkroom experience. The alternative approach in photography is becoming a movement, for example the pioneering work of the Sustainable darkroom project led by Hannah Fletcher and many great artists are contributing to the field. So I am not the only one who is currently experimenting with the bio materials and Scobies.

What is the set up of your working station?

I grew kombucha at home and did not really bother so much about working in gloves but since I have worked in the bio lab the requirements for the sterility are very high. Perhaps, less experiments can go wrong if you sterile your working area well and use gloves or wash your hands. It is ok to work in your kitchen, at least when preparing the kombucha tea, but the part when silver nitrate is involved requires a dark room with a safe red light. Also, silver nitrate is still a very toxic solution and can blind you if it gets to your eyes so I recommend that some prior knowledge of darkroom chemistry is needed here. I have also experimented with a cyanotype solution on Scoby which is probably less dangerous and also gives interesting results.

What do we need to print with kombucha?

First, you need a mother culture that will produce new Scoby layers. There are multiple recipes and instructions online on how to take care of Scoby and make a kombucha tea. I suppose it does not really matter what recipe you use. After you see 0,5 mm to 1 cm thick new kombucha layer, you can harvest it, clean it with the soapy water and lay it over the baking paper. The Scoby starts the process of drying and will shrink in its thickness. You can flip it in a few days and clean it with the wet paper towel if it feels too sticky. I layed the scoby over the glass sheet because after some experiments I realised that the thinner sheets of kombucha work better for printing but are also more fragile when washed in the water, the glass thus served as a support medium. For coating the kombucha you need either a cyanotype solution (I think this is a standard recipe - 25g Ferric ammonium citrate dissolved in 100ml water; and 10g Potassium ferricyanide dissolved in 100ml water) or you need 2% silver nitrate solution mixed in distilled water. Finally, you need a brush for coating.

What is your process when it comes to coating, exposing, developing and fixing?

I evenly coated one side of the kombucha sheet with the light-sensitive solution under the safe red light and let it dry in a dark warm place. Then I placed over the coated side a negative transparency and lit it under the UV light for about 4 minutes (for the image treated with silver nitrate solution) or 10-20 minutes (for the image treated with the cyanotype solution) The exposure times will vary. Then I washed the images in water. The image that was treated with silver nitrate was also fixed with hypo (sodium thiosulfate). The images eventually disappeared. Those images that were treated with the cyanotype solution appeared back when I washed them under the water but eventually dispersed in ‘the flesh’ of Kombucha.

Do you see yourself further exploring this project?

Perhaps, I will. But first I need to answer some critical questions I have. For example how to treat scoby waste or what is my role as a maker in a more-than human world or what is sustainable practice at all. It is important to me to not only question my accountability to the environment but also ethics which come to the forefront especially when working with the bio materials. Therefore, I like to take a critical stance before being overly enthusiastic about ‘sustainable’ solutions, future innovations or utopias, because it is always questionable who/what we are sustaining. I wish to find a balance in exploration and listening to matter.

Have you experimented with other substances that are eco friendly and could replace traditional darkroom chemicals?

I am mixing my own developers. I started with instant coffee, then went on using the wasted grounded coffee beans, picked my own herbs that are a great tea but also a developing soup. I am just about to give a try to my urine as a film developer and I experimented with alternative fixers too using sea water. I would definitely like to do more Anthotypes and Chlorophylls as they are probably the most eco-friendly printing methods I know. As an investigation into new photographic materials I have tried a cheese brin as an alternative photographic material. It did not work for me. I think there are so many interesting processes to try and twist but, at the same time, I am also in a stage of my practice when I like to look at the overall position of my work - like the usage of water and its disposal, materials’ waste and their origins, means vs ends of photographic practice, continuity, ethicality, accessibility, community..

I would really like to thank you for inviting me to answer your questions and say that anybody is also welcome to reach me if they have more questions or suggestions at @aytacrayta

Author: Chiara Salvi

Photos by courtesy of the artist.

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