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Printing with mud

With Lucas Leffler

Back in Paris in April 2021, I discovered a small festival dedicated to unique prints. During my visit of the a ppr oc he festival, I discovered the work of Lucas Leffler. I was intrigued by the texture of his works and even more fascinated when I discovered that Lucas was printing with mud.

Lucas Leffler (1993) is a Belgian visual artist. He graduated from the Royal Academy of Fines Arts in Ghent, Belgium. Since then he has exhibited his work in multiple solo and group exhibitions, such as Contretype (BE), a ppr oc he (FR), Musée de l’Elysée (SU) and many more. Experimentation is at the heart of Lucas Leffler’s practice. Through multiple investigations and experimentations, Lucas Leffler takes us on a journey filled with creativity, texture and surprise.

How did you discover/create this particular printing technique ? Can you tell us more about the story behind the project Zilverbeek and why you wanted to experiment with mud ?

I started the project Zilverbeek (Silvercreek) back in 2017, while I was doing research on a Belgian photography factory called Agfa-Gevaert. I had access to the historical archive of the company and I was fascinated by the technical production of the silver gelatine emulsion. I was equally interested in silver recovery techniques used by industries to get the metals back from their old and used fixers.

During my research, I found an article explaining the story behind the creek (Zilverbeek), in which Gevaert used to dispose its wastewater. These waters were filled with disposed silver, and a strange chemical reaction made the metal mix with the sludge and mud of the creek. Between 1920 and 1950 a worker at Gevaert starting filtering the silver from the mud, and selling the silver he recovered. He earned enough money to quit his job at the factory and he ran this business for 30 years.

Since 1970, the factory has built wastewater cleaning plants therefore the creek is no longer polluted and there is no silver left in the mud today. In order to “reactivate” the story I decided to see what was left of the creek and experiment with its mud, eventually deciding to make and print images with it.

When I think about the mud that would have been rich in silver, due to the waste of the factory, I like to think that it could have been used to print photographic images. This however is not actually true, I don’t think that would have been possible in these polluted times, but still I wanted to find a way to make it possible.

Can you tell us a little more about the mud you use ?

The mud I use comes directly from the creek. I created this specific printing technique for this specific project. The mud is your typical and regular mud and you could probably get very similar results with other ‘types’ of mud or earth, like the earth you might find in your garden.

What is the process/ steps for making prints using mud ? And are there any challenges ?

After first collecting the mud, I leave it to dry for a few days to make sure that there is no longer any humidity, and for it to become dried earth. The idea is to turn the earth into a photo-sensitive mixture with the use of photo-products. In my case, I use liquid light photo emulsion (Rollei Black Magic) but any other photosensitive products can also work. I mix the two in the darkroom under red light and I apply the mixture onto the paper using a regular paint brush. (If you’re feeling experimental you can also try it on any other type of porous support). The gelatine present in the liquid light will make the earth sticky, and adherent to the paper. But to make this mixture more paintable you can also add a binding product to the mixture.

Through a lot of experimentation I figured out that I had better results while applying the mud and the liquid light in two separate layers. First I apply the mud and let the paper dry, and then I apply the liquid light onto the dried earth. Depending on the absorption qualities of the earth you might need to use more or less liquid light, which can make this technique quite expensive.

The exposure and the developing part are similar to the regular b&w printing process. The manipulation of the print should be very delicate as the wet earth-emulsion can dissolve a bit into the chemicals.

I think the most difficult challenge is trying to control the paper’s tendency to curl. Since your are placing a very thick solution onto the paper, it will curl a lot when drying. In my case, the final prints are mounted into an aluminium or dibond plate so it was important to get them very flat at the end of the process. I achieve that, by taping the prints on a glass plate with wet tape. We use this drying technique mainly for fiber-based analog prints and it took me a long time to learn how to do it properly.

The other challenge is to be sure the earth won’t fall or come off the paper at the end. To avoid this, I pre-coat the paper with polyvinyl acetate, and I also add more gelatine to the muddy photo emulsion before applying it onto the paper

Can anyone start printing with mud ?

Yes! As long as you are not afraid of getting your hands a bit dirty!

Have you thought about conservation or what time will do to the prints you made with mud ?

I talked to a few people who work in the conservation of old photographic prints but they couldn’t really give me clear information or answers. It is very difficult to speculate on how and if the prints will deteriorate since I am using an organic material, and there could be organisms in it that can change it or have an effect on its appearance and/or conservation. However since the image is fixed, the emulsion should not fade with time. I made my first prints for this project, three years ago and they have not changed since then, which is definitely a positive thing! However I think that the fragility and the instability is the very essence of this technique and I personally like the fact that it might evolve and change with time.

How does this series reflect your practice as a whole ?

My practice has a lot to do with what we call “a new materialisation of the photo process”.

“For a generation, photography has experienced a noticeable tendency towards its rematerialisation while digital culture has imposed itself. Many photographers practice an archeology of the medium, launching attempts to reconnect with nature and the work of the hand.” I took these words from the photography theorist Michel Poivert who is currently writing a new book on this concept.

What other materials or techniques are you currently working with or thinking of using and experimenting with in the future ?

I am currently working on another side project where I am experimenting with what some call « silver mirroring ». For those who are not familiar, « silver mirroring » is what appears with time on old photographic prints such as daguerreotypes, gelatine dry plates, etc. I like this shiny effect because it gives a true materiality aspect to the metallic quality of silver-gelatine prints. Through a lot of experimentation, I discovered that there is a way to accelerate this effect with the use of sulfur compounds.

One of my dream projects, is to live in a natural and isolated place for a few months and to make photographic prints only with the materials and the nature that is available around me. For example, learning how to make my own paper with wood, and to use the surrounding plants to make the emulsion.

It is not directly the ecological concern that motivates me but it is more the idea of limiting myself to a very specific place and to extract the natural elements to create something new. In a way, I think it can be linked to land art and performance.

Learn 10+ alternative photographic processes, including liquid emulsion on 9 surfaces, in our Alternative Processes Academy

Author: Ella Strowel. Photos by courtesy of the artist.

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