Photography Student Combines New and Old Processing Techniques

2013-03-21 08.23.11Working for more than a decade in the photography field, Robin Miller watched as advances in photo printing technology drastically improved the clarity and color of photographs. “Even when I pick up a picture from the 80s when I was a toddler, they have a certain look to them,” says Miller, who graduated in January with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts with a focus in photography. “They have an orangish, yellowish hue and the colors are off.”

With much curiosity, Miller has also witnessed the rising popularity of cell phone applications, such as Instagram, which use filters to give photos an aged, vintage or distressed look.  “I watched things get better for so long and now that ‘aged look’ that they moved away from is getting more and more popular,” says Miller, a resident of Laurel Springs.

Miller now brings progress full circle, combining simple, modern techniques with century-old methods to create stunning new images, in a research exhibit, entitled The Modern Past: Camera Phones and Early Printing Processes. Researched under the guidance of Ken Hohing, an assistant instructor of art, the project recently earned a Dean’s Undergraduate Research Grant. It will be on display at the Celebration of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity, to be held on Thursday, April 18, in the Campus Center Multi-Purpose Room.

According to Miller, she first used a cell phone camera, the Samsung Galaxy S3, to take a series of photographs. She then uploaded the photos to Instagram and selected an appropriate filter. She subsequently brought the photos into Photoshop, made minor adjustments, and created full-sized negatives. Lastly, she developed positive images using three printing processes dating back to the 1800s: gum bichromate, cyanotype, and kallitype.

In each process, Miller explains, she coats a piece of paper in a particular light-sensitive chemical, places a negative against the paper and, using a homemade light box – made from a wooden wine crate – exposes the chemicals to light. Any chemicals exposed to light harden on the paper, while the remaining chemicals are washed off.

The cyanotype process, Miller continues, was discovered in 1842 and first used in photography in October 1843. It employs potassium dichromate and UV light. Gum bichromate is an extension of this process, using potassium dichromate as the sensitizer, gum arabic as a hardener, and water color paint. Fully developed in 1858, it was used to make the first color images. Lastly, kallitype, patented in 1889, was the first iron-silver developing process, which is a precursor to the black-and-white printing method that is still in use today. This process exposes sensitized paper, which is then submerged in developer, a stop bath and, finally, a fixative for permanence.

Miller demonstrates the use of her handcrafted light box.

Miller demonstrates the use of her handcrafted light box.

In addition to perfecting these complex methods, Miller centered her research on the notion that people share too many personal images through social media. She thus captured “intimate, quiet moments,” focusing primarily on herself, her son and her boyfriend. One particular image shows a U.S. Marine shaking hands with neighbors as he is welcomed home.

“Her work challenges us, as viewer, to re-evaluate the value of ‘her’ shared images as something more valuable than the countless transient images one processes on any given day through social media venues, most of which originate from technologies that require no photographic knowledge aside from how to point a cell phone,” says Hohing.

According to Miller, her research has now given her an even greater appreciation for the developments made in photography over time. Nonetheless, she adds, there is nothing like the real thing. “All of these processes have given me a better understanding of the infatuation with the beauty of ‘ageing’ photographs,” says Miller, “but I’ve come to realize that the digital versions commonly seen in Instagram and its counterparts are nowhere near as interesting and beautiful as the images one gets using the actual processes.”

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