liquid emulsions

albuquerque, 1996

I introduce the possibilities of liquid emulsions to students in their third semester of photography. After two semesters of learning camera anatomy and functions, darkroom etiquette, and quality black and white print production, students begin to explore alternative approaches to darkroom printing.

Photography’s inherent reproducibility is both a gift and a curse. It lends itself to making saleable editions and to widely disseminating original prints. However, the ease of reproduction denies the possibility of producing a unique photographic object. Liquid emulsions allow artists using photography to combine lens-based media with expressive and gestural applications, the artist’s distinct hand and mark-making becoming additional aesthetic components that supplement the mechanical ones.

As an undergraduate student at UCLA, I experimented with liquid emulsions on cold press watercolor paper. My selective hand coating excluded distracting compositional elements, allowing me to organically “crop” within the negative’s boundaries. Self-portraits comprised the majority of my output, and a sculpture professor described one of my liquid emulsion prints as being a “shroud” onto which I “wiped” the impression of my features.

When demonstrating basic liquid emulsion application techniques, I emphasize two objectives. The first objective concerns the photographic frame. I try to impress upon my students the camera’s ability to impose a distinctive frame on the world and encourage them to honor that format by printing negatives full-frame. However, I make an exception when they use liquid emulsions, because “incomplete” edges and variable surface coverage enhance the expressive and individual qualities of each print.

The second objective concerns attitude. I want students to be open-minded, period. Using a sometimes unpredictable, yet rewarding alternative process requires students to embrace unforeseen possibilities. Negatives might not translate literally onto hand-coated surfaces (faithful reproductions of negatives are better achieved with commercially produced photographic papers); flaws and loss of photographic detail become part of the liquid emulsion aesthetic and facilitate the creation of exceptional photographic objects.