TLF Tutorial Workshops

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2. Getting Started

Participating in a workshop that is held in a physical location can be a marvelous experience. The facilities are usually excellent, the location is often in a prime vacation area, and the camaraderie of fellow participants and the instructor is rewarding for all the reasons that real relationships are rewarding.

But, the advantages of a "brick and mortar" workshop are, paradoxically, the disadvantages—at least when it finally comes down to creating the process in your own environment.

Imagine (or remember) you're just home and unpacking your bags after a great workshop. The facility had all the bells and whistles. You had an excellent instructor. He/She cared about teaching the process and giving participants their money's worth. For the last week, you were crash-coursed through a process that took the instructor years to learn. You have stacks of samples and page upon page of information. You're happy, but you're also tired and the week is already a little hazy.

As you look around your own work area, nothing looks like it did at the workshop. The prospect of pulling together your own space is a little daunting, especially when you realize you're actually home and there are other tasks and responsibilities that need attention. Procrastination sets in, and the workshop week gets hazier and hazier. Soon, you find yourself thinking you might need to take the workshop all over again. Or, maybe better yet, next time try a process that's "easier."

A virtual workshop experience can't replace the advantage of hands-on instruction. It certainly can't replicate the workshop-as-vacation experience. What it can do is help people learn handmade silver gelatin in their own space—"space" as a physical location with its unique characteristics, of course, but also space as a time frame that fits into the rest of life.

The tutorials will cover papers and negatives (both dry plate and film). I have imagined that silver gelatin is as much a part of the public school system as reading, writing, and arithmetic. We've all been through pre-school and kindergarten where we've looked at pictures and are aware of the general breadth of the subject. We're all ready for "1st grade." We'll start at the level and in measured steps spiral up and through increasingly complex recipes and techniques. I'm going to try to hit a speed where everyone participating in real time will have plenty of time to keep up.

Soapbox Alert: But, here's the thing. It is important to start at the beginning—not just as an observer, reading along, but as a participant. A craft is so much more than an intellectual exercise. You would never think that you could learn to play the piano by listening to music and watching a musician's hands. You would understand that you have to start with scales and practice every day, and each day add a little bit to what you know you can do. Your hands and body are learning just as surely as your brain is learning. This is the reason I have been so vocally opposed to big recipes (ex. "If I make up a couple of gallons of emulsion, I won't have to make any again for a year.") Yikes. Wrong on so many levels. But, enough said on that. Hopefully, if you've read this far, you already agree.

Also, hopefully, you've got your general workspace/darkspace set aside and waiting.

Getting Started

Everyone's favorite analogy to emulsion making is cooking. It's a natural. Emulsion making is cooking. Think about basic bread for a minute. Wheat, water, salt, and yeast. Nothing could be simpler in concept, but a lot is going on, right down to the Krebs cycle of the yeast. The fermentation process makes carbon dioxide. If the gluten is properly developed, the gas will push up the loaf so that you get bread instead of a brick. The salt is in there for both taste and fermentation control. If you decide to substitute rye flour for the wheat, you know you'll get a different kind of loaf. You might know to make subtle changes to the rest of recipe.

The point to all this is that I suspect few people would think they have to draw the Krebs cycle or a gluten molecule, or know that salt is sodium chloride to make a simple loaf of bread. Understanding all that stuff is interesting, even great fun, and might help your cooking skills advance to higher levels, but when it gets right down to it, the scientific details are entirely optional for making bread. You just need a good recipe and a tummy hungry for homemade bread.

Just as important to our approach to ingredients is our approach to equipment. Imagine for a moment that you've never made bread but would like to try your hand at a loaf. I hope you would look for a recipe that calls for as little equipment as possible. You can make do with a big bowl and wooden spoon, a surface to knead the dough, and an oven. If you decide you really like homemade bread, you might consider buying a good mixer. I doubt you would believe that you had to buy an automatic bread making machine in order to get a loaf to eat.

Humor Break: From one of my favorite humor books, How to Talk Minnesotan—a vistor's guide, by Howard Mohr, Penguin Books, 1987. "...the Minnesota taco, pronounced tack-oh... Many cooks substitute pickled herring for the hamburger and use cream of mushroom soup instead of Cheese Whiz as a topping. Lettuce is optional. Buttered and folded white bread can be substituted for the tortillas..."

The point of the joke: Stretching the cooking analogy just an inch further—we are learning a cuisine. it's only smart to follow the recipes very carefully. As we get closer to "high school" level, we'll start looking at recipe modification, but not yet. True fact: I've had people tell me they've essentially substituted pickled herring for hamburger and can't understand why they didn't get a nice emulsion. In addition to the potential pitfalls of random substitution, the recipes have been designed to be used together—a cuisine, if you will.


The first recipe, a chloride paper emulsion, calls for

  • Distilled water
  • Photographic gelatin (I buy mine from Photographers' Formulary)
  • Potassium chloride
  • Silver nitrate
  • Photoflo 200
  • Everclear, or unflavored vodka

To give you an idea of how much to order, per recipe we will use 3 g of potassium chloride, 5 g silver nitrate, and 25 g gelatin. Most recipes follow those general quantities. Since it is cheaper per gram to buy larger quantities, and shipping costs can almost equal the price of many ingredients, I suggest you buy enough for at least 10 recipes. After you get your feet wet, and decide you love doing this (and you will!) you can amp up your quantities.

Also, you will need to lay in processing chemistry. Kodak HC110 is an excellent all-purpose commercial developer. BW-65 liquid paper developer from Photographers' Formulary can give beautiful results. Handmade developers work as well, or, in some cases, better than commercial. The Light Farm book has recipes and instructions. D-23 (home-mixed from metol and sodium sulfite) in perfect for plates and film. The recipe for D-23, along with variations, is in lesson #13.


The paper recipes in the first half of the workshops are designed to be wet-coated on lightweight watercolor paper. I highly recommend Arches watercolor paper, HP (smooth), 90 lb, and/or Fabriano Artistico Traditional White, HP, 90 lb. The Arches is a clean white, and the Fab Art is a warm white. Both papers are available from Dick Blick supplies in 22"x 30" sheets.

For Paper Coating

  • Coating surfaces: sheets of thick glass (expanded information coming in the next installment.)
  • "Puddle Pusher" glass coating rods (at least two). The 9-inch size is the one I use most often.
  • Tape and wall putty (you will be prepping the rods like the first two pictures on this page).
  • Several sheets of Duralar, acetate, mylar, or Yupo.
  • A squeegee. I use two different styles with equal success—one made specifically for photography and one made window cleaning and shower drying.

Locate a glass supply house near you, and start doing some research on any of the items you don't already have, but don't order anything except the paper and coating rods just yet. In a couple of days I'll post an equipment list. Many items will be available at the same places you find the chemistry, and ordering things at one time will save on shipping costs.

Don't be intimidated or feel rushed. The first couple of recipes may be simple, but getting started is complex.

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