Striking gold – An attempt at carbon transfer orotones

A few weeks ago I was at Unseen Amsterdam, where I saw many gorgeous works. One of the things standing out to me was a series of orotones by Naohiro Ninomiya. Drop dead gorgeous! Partly because of the orotone process, but to be frank, to a large extent due to the minimalistic, contemplative compositions that worked very well as presented at Unseen, in a collage of small images. Well, at least, I could try my hand at this orotone thing, couldn’t I?

The first time I heard about orotones must have been a couple of years ago, and some research indicated that Edward Curtis was one of the early pioneers of the technique. The basic principle is simple: make a photographic print on glass and coat the backside with gold. The result is a black and white…err…black and gold photograph, with the highlights being, well, golden.

Yes, it’s on the verge of kitsch by definition. But hey, guilty pleasures and all that.

The basic principle is simple enough, but this still leaves plenty of parameters to play with. Taking the work of Curtis as an example (the process is nicely documented here): he took a glass plate with a silver halide black and white emulsion, and made a positive print on this using a negative. He then poured brass powder suspended in ‘banana oil’ (isoamyl acetate) on the backside of the print. The resulting image, when viewed through the glass plate, is a black positive on a gold-colored, lustrous background. So no actual gold – but it looks close enough.

If all you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail.

The only work I do with black and white silver gelatin is on ready-made fiber-based and sometimes resin coated paper. No home-made emulsions, not factory-made even liquid emulsion (e.g. Adox Polywarmtone, Foma, Rollei Black Magic). What I have been doing lots of lately, of course, is carbon transfer. And since that works perfectly fine on glass…why not? So let that be my black hammer.

Now for the gold one. Frankly, I’m just scratching the surface here and I basically picked the first thing I could get my hands on. I went to my local arts supplies store and picked up a little jar of ‘glimmer fish gold yellow‘ pigment. It’s really finely ground mica with a pigment added to it. The pigment is unspecified, but if I were to guess, it might be something really simple like iron oxide.

‘Gold’. Or, really, a mixture of ground mica and pigment.

Having worked with dry pigments a lot over the past year or so, I was prepared to experiment with making a sufficiently stable and even dispersion with it by whatever means necessary. Turns out it doesn’t have to be that complicated, because the manufacturer absolutely loaded the stuff with a dispersing agent. If you drop it into water, it’ll disperse pretty much by itself. Convenient, and surprisingly effective!

The first thing I wanted to try, was to make the gold coating that would constitute the bottom layer of the image. After all, this was the bit of uncharted terrain for me, since I had done carbon on glass many times before, so I knew how to approach that part.

The first thing I did was take some acrylic medium (basically thick acrylic paint with no colorant added), mixed in some of the faux-gold pigment and then used a foam roller to roll it onto a scrap piece of glass. Well, that didn’t really work. The acrylic just stuck to the glass in small bumps, leaving most of the glass uncovered. I then proceeded to dilute the remaining acrylic paste with water to make a free-flowing liquid, and poured that over the same plate. This nicely filled in the valleys between the bumps. But it took a loooooong time to dry and harden. It works, but it’s slightly inconvenient.

First coating tests: bumps created by applying thick acrylic with ‘gold’ pigment using a foam roller, and then pouring the same stuff diluted with lots of water to fill in the gaps. Just messing around, really.

Why not keep things relatively simple, materials-wise, and use the same colloid I’m using for the black part as well? It’s going to be a gelatin-based image, so in keeping with the carbon transfer part, I might as well just use gelatin for the gold layer.

That was easy enough to figure out – since there is no need for an exposure, just pouring a pigmented gelatin onto glass should do the trick. So that was my second angle of attack. Lo and behold – this worked perfectly! I guessed the gelatin to pigment ratio as something like 10% (for 1g gelatin, use 100mg pigment) and that sure enough seems to be in the ballpark. Using the Gelita 280 bloom porcine gelatin, a gelatin-to-water ratio of around 5% works well enough. It flows easily during application and yet, it sets within a reasonable amount of time as well.

Gold layer applied as a pigmented gelatin on glass

The only caveat with this approach is that the glass plate needs to be kept steady on a level surface until the gelatin sets. This takes a couple of minutes, depending on working conditions, and seems feasible enough. As soon as the gelatin has set, the plate can be put up vertically to dry – which takes a long time, as with carbon tissue, but it can of course be done in daylight.

Right, so now for an actual image. I figured that this orotone thing would work the best with images with lots of bright highlights and perhaps even entirely open areas. So I rummaged through an old box of collodion negatives I made some years ago and picked something that seemed technically suitable: a negative that I intensified using a copper sulfate & potassium bromide bleach followed by a silver nitrate & nitric acid intensifier. Lots of density. Good.

Wet plate collodion negative; intensified with silver nitrate intensifier

For the print, I picked a carbon tissue literally from the top of the stack, which turned out to be a lucky guess. It was a DAS-sensitized high-pigment load tissue (2% Kremer XSL black w/w to gelatin). I guessed exposure at 10 minutes, which also turned out a very reasonable guess, and produced a passable print on a sheet of glass a little larger than 4×5″ that I simply scrubbed thoroughly with some handsoap. The print has a bit of an alignment issue, with the print sitting on top of (actually, hanging over) the bottom edge. Beginner’s luck only extends so far, eh.

For the gold backing, I used the gelatin approach and went with a 5% pigment to gelatin ratio, poured directly onto the dried gelatin image matrix. This pigment load was a little on the light side, although it actually works fairly well with the final plate sitting on a white background.

Here it is, scanned on the old Epson 4990:

Problems with digitizing these orotones manifest themselves immediately. Indeed, it’s hard, or even impossible, to capture the unique nature of these plates. It’s a combination of the glossy/reflective glass surface and the pearlescent nature of the gold backing that shines through the image itself. You really need to move your eyes in relation to the print/plate to see this. Hold the plate at an angle to the light, and the gold starts to shine brightly through the highlights of the image. Look at it at a straight angle, and you see a black & white image with very appealing contrast and a rich and deep hue to the highlights.

These plates have to be experienced in order to make sense. So the illustrations on this page are really just that – examples that may help you form a mental image of what the real thing looks like.

Above is the same plate at an angle; note the reflection of the window on the glass surface in the top left corner and the lustre of the gold backing.

There were a few things I wasn’t quite happy with on this plate. Firstly, I had some trouble during the carbon transfer exposure. My printing frame is really made for film negatives, not for glass plates, so I didn’t have a way to ensure good contact between the glass plate negative and the carbon tissue. This results in a large area of unfocused blur in the center of the image. It is also responsible for the fuzzy edges on the black mask around the image, which I don’t particularly fancy.

A second issue was the covering power or opacity of the gold backing. I felt that more density in the gold layer was worth a try, in the hopes of getting a richer golden hue, much like the small test plates I coated with just the gold layer.

Finally, there was the alignment issue, which is just a matter of paying attention when positioning the negative on the carbon tissue.

So for a second attempt, I picked a film negative that was conveniently lying around. Again, I picked an image with lots of density in the negative and a large patch of open sky in the center. I also mixed in some more gold pigment into the melted gelatin and I paid attention for a change when making the carbon transfer contact print.

My first try of this new image was a miserable failure, with the entire image just sliding off of the glass plate. Not really sure how this happened, but I guess that the glass plate that I cleaned along with the one from the first test had perhaps in the meantime collected a super thin film of grease or contamination as it sat in my darkroom for a few hours. Or maybe the main contributing factor was that in this new attempt, I did get a sharp edge to the black mask, and during warm water development, the water will beat against such a sharp and high edge with some force, resulting in it dislocating and tearing off the rest of the image with it (‘flagging’).

Either way, I had to improve the adhesion qualities of my glass a bit, so I resorted to first rubbing the glass with some water and calcium carbonate to thoroughly polish it. I then made a mixture of a tiny bit of albumen in water, and dipped the plate into it. Finally, after drying the albumen subbing on the glass, I misted the plate with ethanol to harden the albumen.

This did the trick alright and the next transfer was robust. Here’s how that image came out:

Well, again, digitization problems. What looks like a harsh image with garish orange and yellow tones, is in reality quite different. This smartphone snapshot of the plate held at an angle to the light makes a little more sense:

Well, I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it that the visual effect is really quite compelling. It’s everything I imagined it to be and approximates closely (if not, duplicates) what I saw in Ninomiya’s work at Unseen.

Maybe this final photo of both plates side by side is the most realistic representation I’ve managed, although in reality, the gold lustre is so much richer than in the snapshot.

Well, in any case: the process seems straightforward enough, and I’m actually starting to think about a small project I’d like to print with this method. But it will have to wait for a little bit until I’ve figured out where I’d like to take this exactly. Creative opportunities!

PS: since these are essentially carbon transfers on glass, the relief of the image is actually visible on the backside of the print:

It’s a nice touch, although it’s a bit of a hidden gem, since the relief is of course not visible when the image is viewed properly; i.e. from the front.

2 thoughts on “Striking gold – An attempt at carbon transfer orotones”

  1. I know that you already had the carbon tissue made up but I was wondering if you could also make these prints as a ‘no transfer’ method. By first coating the glass with sensitised carbon gelatin, then exposing the gelatin from the back-side through the glass (so the hardened layer starts at the glass surface), developing away the soft outer layer and finally coating the back of the glass plate with gold pigment.

    I suppose the glass would block a lot of your UV light and the exposed image would be quite fuzzy due to the thickness of the glass creating a gap between your negative and the gelatin layer. I probably just answered my own question there… The second issue might be worked-around by exposing with a laser in a raster fashion but even then the glass will block and potentially disperse some UV causing some softness.

    1. Yes, pouring the tissue onto glass and then exposing through the glass would work as well, in principle. There will indeed likely be some degradation due to the glass being in the optical path. It’s not so much the blockage; this will only be a few percent for thin (2mm) glass. The main concern is diffraction/refraction on both glass surfaces, and most importantly, the negative-tissue distance would be a few mm’s and this will only work with extremely well-collimated light. Indeed, laser might be the answer, although it would have to scan perfectly perpendicular to the glass/print. In principle, it could work, but I wonder if it’s worth the hassle. Exposing the tissue in the normal way and transferring it to glass isn’t insanely difficult; it takes a little practice and determining a good glass prep routine. Once that’s settled, it’s pretty straightforward.

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