By Katharine Whitman, Conservator, Photographs
Suzy Lake’s The Natural Way to Draw and other interesting photograph supports
Until the relatively recent advent of digital photography, in which many photographs exist solely as pixels on a screen, every photograph was printed. By far, the most common support on which to print has been paper. However, even since the early days of photography, they have also been printed on paper, fabric, metal, glass, ceramic and a host of other surfaces.
And now, with the advent of digital printing technologies, we can print photographs on almost any substrate. They can be ink-jet printed on to canvas, plastic, vinyl or paper: the possibilities are endless. As photograph conservator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, I’m fascinated by the wide array of other materials on which photographers and artists have printed their images.
Suzy Lake is an American-Canadian artist based in Toronto known for her work as a conceptual photographer, performance artist and video maker. Her photographic work The Natural Way to Draw (1975) is composed of photograph emulsion adhered to canvas. Lake printed the images on traditional photographic paper, then removed the paper backing, leaving only the emulsion layer, and glued it onto the canvas. She then applied white acrylic paint between the prints to give the work an orderly grid pattern. This work is on display until March 22, 2015, on level 4 of the Vivian and David Campbell Centre for Contemporary Art in the exhibition Introducing Suzy Lake.
Historically, photographs have been applied to a wide variety of surfaces, particularly in the 1850s to 1880s, when Collodion photography was popular. The Collodion process produces a pellicle, or skin, that can be transferred to almost any surface, such as ceramic, cloth, stone or even leather.
Another photographic method that can be used in this way is the carbon process, wherein a carbon pigment is suspended in a gelatin base that can be applied to the materials listed above.Modern photographers have experimented with the application of photographs using “Liquid Light,” a silver-based, light-sensitive liquid that they can paint onto almost any surface using standard darkroom procedures: the emulsion is brushed onto a surface under a safe light, dried and then exposed with an enlarger. It is then processed in normal darkroom chemicals and washed. The resulting print has a full range of tones that reveal the texture and colour of the underlying material.
This posts only grazes the surface of photographic processes that can be applied to a wide variety of surfaces. Since its introduction in 1839, photography has undergone a plethora of changes, improvement upon improvement, many of which are represented in the AGO’s photography collection.
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