by Laura Harrison
Recognized for his intimate wildlife portraits, David Johndrow often finds his muse in his hill country garden. Each insect, spider, or lizard is approached as a model for a formal portrait, set against the backdrop of the subject’s natural habitat. Choosing natural light to shoot, Johndrow also uses an extension tube instead of a telephoto lens, bringing him inches away from his subject. Following each model closely, he captures each distinct personality.
A darkroom enthusiast, Johndrow becomes an alchemist, spending hours perfecting the methods to achieve his desired imagery. His current show at Photo Méthode Gallery features prints offering five different processes. He spends hours getting each technique just right – usually setting up his darkroom to work with a particular process for about a year before transitioning to the next. When printing, he draws from his vast collection of images, both old and new. A photograph often won’t show its full potential until printed with the right combination of methods.
In all of his images, Johndrow moves back and forth between traditional and digital technology. He prefers to use digital not as capture, but in the intermediate processes. For example, with the platinum/palladium and the gum bichromate, he’ll scan the film and output it to a digital negative. This allows enlarging the image with much less intensive labor, which he appreciates: “You still have to have the eye, and you still have to translate the image from one medium into the other, but it sure takes out a lot of the work.” The original cyanotypes are also scanned due to their delicate and temporary nature and some are “reversed” so that they emerge in a beautiful golden brown tone that perfectly complements the original blues of cyanotype.
David Johndrow’s Blue Alembic series, recently completed, is featured in his current solo exhibition, Natural Light, at Photo Méthode Gallery at the Flatbed Building. Also on view is the Terrestrials series, which showcases Johndrow’s passion for gardening and photography. “These images give an iconic power and weight to beings small and seemingly insignificant,” notes gallery owner Tina Weitz.
In a recent interview (see the following pages), Johndrow articulated his approach to using varied processes and shared his enthusiasm for experimenting with each.
Platinum/palladium printing was invented in the 19th century and still has the widest tonal range and is the most permanent of any photographic process using chemical development. To make the print, cotton rag paper is brushed with a mixture of platinum and palladium metals combined with a sensitizer. The negative is placed in contact with the dried emulsion and exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light, then processed in a chemical developer.
“I think I like this printing method best of all the alternative processes because of the rich warm color and the quality of the image surface. Unlike the silver gelatin process, the metals lie directly on the paper and not in a gelatin layer. This gives the print a soft matte surface that has very rich shadows and delicate highlights. Changing the ratio of the chemicals involved can also effect subtle changes. Because of the non-uniformity of the mixing/developing process, no two prints are exactly alike.”
Gum bichromate printing also originated in the 19th century. The print is made by coating cotton rag paper with a mixture of gum arabic, watercolor, and photo sensitizer. Like most other alternative processes, the paper is exposed to UV light. Development is done with water only.
“What makes it different from other processes is that it allows multiple layers of color to be built up by multiple printings, using a different color for each pass. The image is very fragile during printing and is very unpredictable, but the result is very beautiful and subtle. I’ve always loved unpredictable photo processes because they allow for surprises and new discoveries. Some photographers use the color layering of gum bichromate to get true color separations, making full color photographs, but I prefer to make monotone images with subtle shadings of color.”
Silver gelatin printing was invented in the late 19th century, greatly perfected in the 20th century, and became the most widely used black and white printing method until the emergence of digital printing. The emulsified paper is very light-sensitive, allowing for easy enlarging and great control of the image using techniques such as dodging and burning and multicontrast printing. It is also a very stable process, allowing for long storage of the unexposed paper.
“Silver gelatin printing is still preferred by some black and white photographers because of its sharpness, rich contrast, and the depth of the silver image. Many modern labs still print silver prints from digital images. I first learned to print on silver gelatin and continue using it after more than 30 years. I find that the glossy version of the paper gets the brightest whites and the deepest blacks of any photographic paper. When viewed in the right light, the silver has a beautiful glow.”
The most recently invented alternative photo process is gumoil printing. The late Karl Koenig developed it in the 1990s. It involves hand painting a gum arabic/sensitizer solution onto a cotton rag paper and exposing it with a positive transparency. After a water wash, a negative gum impression remains on the paper. Next, oil paint is applied and then slowly rubbed back off, rendering a photographic image. Bleaching and recoating with a second color can further enhance it. It is a very labor-intensive and unpredictable process, but the reward is a very painterly image with a rich polychrome oil color.
“I love the challenge of this process. When you get it right and the image is emerging from the oil paint, clearer and clearer the more you rub it, it feels magical. There are a lot of surprises and corrections that can be done with this process. It’s great if you like to experiment with prints because there are so many stages in making the print, each one changing the look completely. Let’s just say I don’t get very many finished prints when I delve into printing gumoils, but when I do the result is very satisfying and unique.”
Cyanotype, also known as blueprint, is considered among the easiest of all the historical methods. Dating from 1842, this process is still practiced due to its easy water development process and because of the classic Prussian blue color. Blueprint paper is often sold in toy stores for kids to make photograms, the process of laying objects on the paper and exposing it in the sun.
“I’ve always loved making cyanotype photograms, and I became fascinated with the effect of glass on cyanotype exposed to the sun. The complexity and 3D quality of the shadow floored me the first time I saw it. I started experimenting with coating the paper myself and doing multiple prints of all the interesting glass objects I could find. The result is my Blue Alembic series.”