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The endless possibilities of liquid emulsion

Updated: Jan 19, 2023

Bringing your photographic practice into the third dimension

Liquid Emulsion on Carrara Marble, Chiara Salvi

Jill Enfield’s must-have guide to photographic alternative processes teaches us that the first experiments involving silver halide emulsions with gelatinous date back to 1853 and were spearheaded by French chemist Marc Antoine Auguste Gaudin. At the time, colloid was often result of long, laborious process only few could master but nowadays we are lucky enough to have ready-made photosensitive solutions that can be easily purchased online and can be applied on wax, leather, metal, glass, china, canvas, paper, fabric, plastic, wood… even seashells and eggs! So if you feel like bringing your photographic practice into the third dimension, we hope this article will give you some useful tips and inspiration to move forward!

First off - which brands of liquid emulsion are available on the market? Keep in mind that it usually has a shelf-life of max two years… so in order to get a bang for your buck choose wisely and get ready to experiment!

1. Liquid Light, produced by Rockland Company, is popular to the point that its name has become synonymous with the process itself. Rockland also manufactures Ag-Plus with a higher concentration of silver halides.

2. ADOX Polywarmtone liquid photographic Emulsion - with a fixed 2.5 contrast, this emulsion will give you warm, beige-green, high-definition, extremely vintage-looking results.

3. Rollei Black Magic Emulsion offers a wide array of contrast options, even variable!

4. Foma Normal Contrast is a high-yielding emulsion rich in silver content - one coat will suffice. It is even suitable for glass.

QUICK HOW-TO GUIDE for Liquid Emulsion:

1. Prepare your material. Some surfaces require previous washing and an oil-based primer such as spray gloss polyurethane in order to remove any pre-existing protective film. Liquid emulsion prints might be problematic when it comes to water finishes so these will need an oil-based primer. Using a hardener is recommended in order to avoid emulsion lift and guarantee the print's resistance on various surfaces.

2. Keep in mind that liquid emulsion is made exclusively for darkroom coating so do not open the container before having accessed a light-tight area. At room temperature, liquid emulsion is a solid gel. Put the tub of liquid light in a hot water bath so that it softens and can be spread out on your material’s surface. Some suggest using a baby bottle warmer to get the job done!

3. Use a brush, sponge, paint roller or other tools to apply the solution to your surface- watch out for air bubbles! Even coating is key to a good emulsion print. Poor distribution will reveal brushstrokes and loss in detail. Apply two to four thin layers depending on the material you will be printing on and the emulsion you are using. Remember to coat a few smaller pieces of your material to use as test strips.

4. Allow to dry thoroughly in total darkness. Once this step is complete, you can go through the motions as if it were a normal darkroom print. Depending on the size and consistency of your chosen material, you can develop it in a tray or by applying the chemicals directly with a sponge or a spray bottle. Developer temperature should not be higher than 21 degrees Celsius. Hardeners can also replace a stop bath.

The final wash should last at least an hour to make sure that the print is cleansed of all chemical residue and has more chances of lasting over time. The finished prints can be hand coloured or toned.

*ALWAYS REMEMBER that these are chemicals and must be handled properly. We suggest using eye, face and hand protection at all times.

Now feast your eyes on some out-of-this-world examples that showcase the truly endless possibilities of liquid emulsion!

Tina Rowe @tinaroro

In her series "Oyster Shell Ghosts", London-based photographer Tina Rowe printed a series of found negatives on discarded oyster shells, breathing new meaning into forgotten items. Each shell is first subbed, to help the emulsion adhere to the surface. They are then coated with multiple layers of customised photographic emulsion.

Irene Zottola @irene_zottola

Using pages torn out of an abandoned encyclopedia, selected fragments of a novel, and photo prints made with liquid emulsion in the darkroom, Spanish photographer and social worker Irene Zottola's book project "Icaro" establishes a parallel between the flight of birds and human beings, their life journey, and their relationship with the surrounding environment.

Nathalie Hannecart @hannecartnathalie

Belgium-based experimenter Nathalie Hannecart explores the concepts of time, transience and the sexualization of the female body by printing with liquid emulsion on stone.

Lluís Estopiñan @lluis_estopinyan

Visual Artist Lluis Estopiñan lives and works in Barcelona. Within his emulsion-based projects, surfaces play a very important role. Printed on braille pages, "Undisclosed Memory" is a take on how our truest, deepest memories are unknown and encrypted even to us. “¡Tengo ganas de verte!” (I Want to See you!) applies emulsion on vintage letters and envelopes to tackle the topic of memory in the context of migration.

Tatana Kellner @tatana1950

American printmaker and founding member of the Women's Studio Workshop, Tatana Keller's installative work "While You Were Sleeping" uses liquid emulsion to print on pillowcases that are then displayed hanging in mid-air. Thanks to a sensor, the pillows light up when approached by the viewer. Tatana's artistic practice explores politics, economy, environment and social justice issues.

If you live your life by looking at things wondering if you can print on them, Alternative Processes Academy is for you.
Focuses on Cyanotype, Anthotype and Liquid Emulsion on: glass, marble, pebbles, wood, eggshells, fabric, shells...

Author: Michelle Davis Images courtesy of the artists

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