Developing Photographs on Stone in a Darkroom

Photographer Profiles

March 3, 2022 ·

Tom Bates

I’ve always loved photography and have been shooting mostly analog photos for the past few years. About a year ago, wanting to take this interest in analog photography a little further, I decided to set-up a darkroom at home. Even shooting analog, more and more I found I had the tendency to view my images as scans on a computer and, through making my own prints, I hoped to again establish a more tangible connection with my photos.

Having already learned the basics of black and white darkroom printing, I became more interested in how photographs could be manipulated using certain darkroom techniques such as solarization and selective development. It was while researching some of these techniques that I learned about liquid emulsion and saw some great examples of how it had been used in the past by photographers such as David Prifti and Jill Enfield.

View over Cappadocia in Turkey on Nine Tiles
View over Cappadocia in Turkey on Nine Tiles

 

Portrait of Ina on Nine Tiles
Portrait of Ina on Nine Tiles

 

Developing-on-Stone
Developing-on-Stone

 

Liquid emulsion is photographic emulsion which you can melt down and then paint on many different surfaces; in essence, you can turn all kinds of materials into your photographic canvas. I was instantly intrigued by the options that this opened up and ordered some to try out. After playing with the emulsion on some objects such as watercolor paper, wood and metal, I found that I got the results I liked most using stone. I really liked how photographic images took on a new perspective when combined with the natural textures and tones of the stone.

This interest grew over the last year and I have now practiced using liquid emulsion on stone quite a bit (although I would certainly say it’s a process and I am still learning!). The basic steps I follow to create photographic prints on stone are as follows: Firstly, I wash and clean the stone in water. Then I coat it with two layers of gelatin so the stone surface becomes a little sticky (this helps the photographic emulsion adhere to the stone). Next (these steps are now done in the darkroom), I paint the stone with two layers of liquid photographic emulsion, so that it becomes sensitive to light. Then I take a large negative, place it directly against the stone surface and expose light through the negative and onto the stone. I then soak the stone in photographic developer solution – This is when the image appears. Next I wash the stone in water (as a short stop) and Fixer. Finally, I can work in the light again – I rinse the stone to wash off the photographic chemicals and, when it is dry, paint it with two layers of UV protective varnish. The whole process for producing a single stone takes up to a week because of all the layers I need to hand paint onto the stone and then wait to dry (although each step taken individually doesn’t take too long, thankfully).

Working In the Darkroom
Working In the Darkroom

 

Darkroom Equipment and Test Strips on Paper
Darkroom Equipment and Test Strips on Paper

Whilst the technique I use to develop photos on stone is analog, I can also develop photos on stone using digital negatives. Digital negatives are full-size negatives which are contact printed onto the stone, as opposed to enlarging from smaller analog negatives. I create digital negatives by converting a photo to black and white, flipping it, inverting it, applying a tonal adjustment and printing it out on an inkjet printer. I prefer developing from digital files because it offers a little bit of control over a process which in general is quite unpredictable.

So far, I have found that certain types of photograph work better than others to develop on stone. Often, simple compositions with a clear subject work better than complicated compositions – The details in images such as complex landscape photographs or photographs with small faces can become lost in the textures and rivets of a single stone tile. Secondly, areas which are white in a photograph will show as transparent when developed on stone and this allows the natural texture of the stone to show through – So photos with light/white backgrounds usually work better than darker backgrounds, since this way the subject appears strongly in the foreground and the stone texture shows through in the background. Thirdly, high contrast photos seem to work better than low contrast photos which are very light/bright – This is because often stones are slightly colored, so very subtle tones which might have shown through when printed on white paper, for example, may be lost within the natural tones of the stone.

Digital Negatives
Digital Negatives

 

Hand Study on Stone
Hand Study on Stone

 

A selection of prints on Stone
A selection of prints on Stone

One of the main reasons I fell in love with this type of analog darkroom developing is that it is hard to tell exactly how the final result will look. I wanted every print to feel slightly different to the next one – And the fact that every stone I develop on has its own texture and tones, paired with the analog development process, gives this result. In a way, I was searching for a way to bring the same feelings of excitement and anticipation that I always had from shooting on film to photographic print-making. I was keen to find a technique which would transport us back to a time before we could copy/paste presets or automatically apply filters to our photos (although of course I have nothing against these! I just think that sometimes we can go a little too far in our reliance on digital manipulations).

I must point out that developing photographic prints on stone isn’t always a smooth process. So far, I have encountered various obstacles. The first has been finding the right type of stone – When I first started testing the process, I was using a stone which had small holes and the emulsion and photographic chemicals used to get trapped in these, causing some staining. Also, despite using gelatin as a subbing agent, I have had some trouble getting the photos to adhere to some stone surfaces such as concrete. The type of stone I have settled on for now is called Solnhofen and is a type of limestone from Germany. Finally, when I was starting out with the process, I didn’t varnish the stones and this led to some prints cracking in the sun – Now I apply two coats of UV varnish to help remedy against this.

Now that I have reached the stage where I am quite consistent with the technique, I have started to offer some of the photographic prints I develop on stone commercially – If you are interested in finding out more, you can do so via my website.

qq-View-over-Meteora-in-Greece-on-Six-Tiles
View over Meteora in Greece on Six Tiles

 

 Detail of a photograph developed on Stone
Detail of a photograph developed on Stone

 

Two Prints on Stone
Two Prints on Stone

Tom Bates
December 2016

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Tom Bates

Tom is a photographer from the UK who is currently based in Vienna, Austria. He has a particular interest in analog photography and alternative photographic processes. He develops photographs on stone tiles in a darkroom under the name of Shots/on\Stone.

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