Andrea Barbier
Andrea Barbier

Andrea Barbier is a fine art photographer and educator who specializes in historical and alternative photographic processes. She finds inspiration in travel, farm, and family life, which are frequently represented in her artwork.

Discovering the Mordancage Process

September 27, 2017

I am a photographer who wishes she was a painter.  My undergrad degree is in photography, my master’s is in photography, and yet I crave the ability to manipulate an undeveloped surface as a painter does a canvas. I am a photographer because I understand light, exposure and composition, and because it’s an art form both beautiful and boundless. But often my artistic sensibility craves less structure and more hands-on time than what a camera alone allows me.  In my search to find the appropriate artistic outlet for me, I dug deep and recalled a beautiful French process that a dear professor taught me; the process is known as Mordançage, which translates from French as “to bleach” or “to etch.” This is where I found the balance I craved between the captured image and the created image.

After Matisse, Mordançage on silver-gelatin

Jump, Mompos, Mordançage on silver-gelatin

The basics of the Mordançage process are this: begin with a silver-gelatin image.  For those who are unfamiliar, a silver-gelatin image is one printed in the darkroom on silver-based photographic paper, developed in the traditional printing chemistry of developer, stop bath, and fixer.  Your developed and dried silver-gelatin image is then soaked in a solution comprised of glacial acetic acid, copper chloride, and 35% hydrogen peroxide until the emulsion begins to bubble and lift off of the paper base.  This emulsion can then be fully removed, or gently manipulated to flow across the paper in a way that resembles sheer fabric. The result is an image that remains both photographic in nature but also, now, something more abstracted and genuinely painterly.  

A wet Mordançage print, showing the loose and manipulated emulsion. Highlights in the print remain unaltered – the chemistry only affects the darkest areas of emulsion.

And now for the dilemma: I’ve become so accustomed to shooting high-end digital, and this process that formalizes my artistic inclinations must begin in a darkroom.  To my absolute delight, the solution came in the form of the ‘digital negative.’  This is a negative created using a digital file, inverted, and then printed on transparency film.  Instead of using an enlarger to determine the size of the image, you print your image on as large a sheet of transparency as you like, and contact print it in the darkroom.  The appropriate settings and curves in your preferred software yield a surprisingly successful translation, and most importantly for me, allowed me to continue working in a way that was not in complete discordance with my standard practices as a photographer.  

Although an ICC profile may not be necessary, it's recommended you check with the manufacturer of the media you're using or reference the handling instructions for further details. Click above image to see a larger view.

Francis Bacon notably stated, “The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.” Working in this particular manner allows me to do just this, as the removal of formal information leaves more of the final image to the viewer’s imagination.  Narratives emerge through the acts of obscuring and revealing portions of each image.  

Pneuma, Mordançage on silver-gelatin

My journey with Mordançage has been one of study, experiment, and practice, and as with most artistic processes, the results are vast and the possibilities endless.  Each image is one-of-a-kind, and even if you have an idea how it’s going to come out, there’s still a surprise to every print. I feel the most profound sense of delight with the physical manipulation of the photograph. Every brushstroke, every decision to retain or remove a part of my original image indulges my desire for a hands-on experience.

Mirror/Mask Self-Portrait, Mordançage on silver-gelatin

I am certainly an advocate for inserting the hand-of-the-artist into the images that you make. This can be accomplished in the simplest of ways – like hand coloring on a digital print – to more elaborate methods such as this. Alternative methods of image output push the limits of art making by challenging us to see things not just as they are, but as what they can become. This particular process has enriched my photographic experience tremendously, allowing me as the photographer to find my own way to paint.

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