Meet Jill Enfield, Her Portable Darkroom, and Photographic Alternative Processes

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My father was indirectly responsible for my introduction to non-traditional photo techniques around 35 years ago. When I told him of my intentions to become a professional photographer, he convinced me that one practical option would be to earn a certificate in medical photography. However, taking pictures of impaled eyes, severed heads and bloody surgical procedures was of less interest to me than shooting with infrared film.

Editor's Note: This is a guest blog post by Jill Enfield.

Originally, the military photographed with infrared film from airplanes, using it to detect the difference between living plant life and dead plants which had no chlorophyll, but was being used as a decoy to cover ammunition stockpiles. In hospitals, medical experts found infrared film useful for observing vein activity in their patients. Before long, I was out and about using infrared film as a form of creative expression in my personal work.

Soon after, I began applying paints, colored pencils and chalks to the images, and I was hooked on alternative processes.

When I came to New York City, I met Ben Fernandez, who was head of the photography department at The New School, and I was thrilled when he hired me to instruct an alternative process class. I’ve continued on at The New School ever since, not only teaching digital photography, but also learning dozens of other historical techniques, which I’ve taught here in New York City, as well as in workshops around the country, Europe, South America and Africa.

A natural progression was then to publish a guide showing examples of all of those techniques, and the step-by-step process to achieve successful results. The book, Jill Enfield’s Guide to Photographic Alternative Processes, includes chapters on digital negatives, cyanotypes, palladium, gum bichromate, liquid emulsion and wet plate collodion among others, accompanied by photos illustrating each process.

Wayne Pierce built a wonderful portable darkroom for me, and I wheel it around Manhattan to make portraits, which to me enhances the narrative factor, as opposed to the more common digital approaches to making a portrait. Here are two short movies showing me using my portable darkroom:

Later this year, a series of portraits will be on exhibit at Ellis Island to open their new wing, entitled “The New Americans.” Coincidentally, I have been using the wet plate collodion process to depict new immigrants, to metaphorically compare their courage in leaving their ancestral homes to those who had done so many years ago, when glass plate photography was as ubiquitous as digital photography is today.

The chapter on wet plate collodion goes into detail on how to make a tintype, a glass plate ambrotype, and how to take a positive image and repeat it on glass or aluminum in the darkroom. Collodion is a lot of fun, as you have to pour the plate, shoot your image, and develop it before anything dries (hence the name “wet plate”). It is an incredible feeling to make these images just as they did in the 1800’s. Since the process of image making is so much slower than digital, of course you take far fewer photographs, but much more thought and selectivity goes into setting up each image.

This in no way means that I am against digital capture. I love my digital camera and my iPhone! In fact, I use images from both my phone and my camera often in my alt process work. There are several areas in the book that explain how.

Since most of the processes in my book need to be contact printed, one of the easiest ways to use your digital captures is by turning them into digital negatives. Of course, you can also make smaller positives or negatives and enlarge them for normal silver darkroom printing and other techniques. And still another way to use digital images is by printing them onto watercolor paper, and adding an alt process technique on top. Transfers are yet another way. In other words, your choices are endless for combining your images.

Use your imagination, and mix and match all the options. You will create uniquely powerful images, and you’ll never get bored!

The author of this post, Jill Enfield, will be giving a free presentation on Photographic Alternative Processes at the B&H Event Space on July 30, 2013.

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great work,,,great picture...great art.