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Friday, January 22, 2010

Handmade science books

  The New York Public Library has a full set of scans up of its copy of Anna Atkins' masterpiece! NYPL Digital Gallery | Ocean Flowers: Anna Atkins' Cyanotypes of British Algae ( fills the search results you can peform if you search for "cyanotype." The NYPL's summary:
Photographs of British Algae is a landmark in the histories both of photography and of publishing: the first photographic work by a woman, and the first book produced entirely by photographic means. Instantly recognizable today as the blueprint process, the cyanotypes lend themselves beautifully to illustrate objects found in the sea. The Library's copy of British Algae originally belonged to Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), inventor of the blueprint process, among his many other photographic as well as scientific advances.
My favorite single image may be Dictyota dichotoma, but I've been known to change my mind.

I love the idea of producing small editions of hand-bound books of unique prints. In my spare time. While I'm resting.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Monday, June 29, 2009

Large format homemade camera version 1.0

  homemade camera, main body by A.E. Graves
[Image: homemade camera, main body]

If you know me, you know that I am wandering around with huge lists of creative projects I am eager to complete. I try not to carry the actual lists with me, in hopes that I'll forget some of the new project ideas and so can keep the lists closer to realistic (whatever that is), but this strategy generally doesn't work. Right now, my to-do list has additional projects for the Getty Conservation Institute (including a repeat of my first submission on a different paper), THREE photo books to layout, contests to enter, articles to write for, tests to perform on a Polaroid camera I just acquired through eBay, modifications to same involving Fresnel lenses... Until recently, the number one item was building my own large format camera.

But recently, I crossed that one off the list. Because I did it.

I've mentioned in the past that I've got several wet plate collodion projects in the works. I ordinarily rent a specialized package of equipment (including a LF camera), chemistry, and a darkroom to shoot my work. For reasons which I don't completely understand, it hasn't been possible for me to get into the rental studio to get my work done. It hasn't been available; one chemical or another has been lacking; an attendant had a scheduling conflict, and couldn't prepare something for me; the booking went awry.... Obstacle after obstacle. And during this long waiting period, I thought about the ways that the rental program is GREAT... but that it doesn't really give me control over anything, including adjustments to the chemistry I might want to make.

homemade camera with sliding box extension, by A.E. Graves [Image: homemade camera with sliding box extension in use.]

Of course, I would love to have total control. And this led me to think about getting set up to do this sort of work at home. There was one big obstacle, and that is that I am faced with a request for large-format collodion plates, and I did not have a large format camera. The new LF cameras I was looking at looked like they would cost me about $6,000. I searched the couch for change, but didn't come up with enough to spring for one of those.

I have some great books on camera-building, which were quite inspirational. I decided to use my limited understanding of optics to build one by myself.

If you are a gear-head, you may be scoffing right now, laughing at the idea of me building the chunky DSLR that's hanging around your neck right now. Obviously I wouldn't spend my time replicating that. (I don't intend to spend weeks of my life adjusting the white balance of the output. I mean, c'mon.) But semi-permanent photography has been around since the 1840s, and between then and now, there have been many effective, simple cameras.

Cameras are, at their simplest, a box with a lens on one side, and something photosensitive tucked away inside opposite the lens, waiting to be exposed to light focused by the lens. The lens or the box needs to be able to keep light out when not in use, and sometimes the lens needs to squint. For the slow emulsions I use - think ASA 3 - the exposure can be handled by me walking over and removing the lens cap manually for the duration of the exposure, and then putting it back on at the end.

subject and positive print made with homemade camera, by A.E. Graves [Image: sample in-camera positive print beside the subject. The ratio is approximately one to one.]

Without boring you to tears, I'll describe what I did briefly:

-I went onto eBay and bought a "process lens," which is a lens optimized for one-to-one duplication.

-I took the manufacturer's estimated focal length for the lens, and built a box approximately as long as that focal length, and as wide and tall as some 8" x 10" film holders I'd previously bought on eBay, and mounted the lens to one end.

-On the other end, I made a translucent screen using a thick, vellum-like tracing paper. This is a focusing screen, and is also the film plane, where the photo paper or plate will rest. I used this right away to test the design, and immediately got an image on the screen!!!

-I built a long box of slightly smaller diameter that barely fits inside the main box. This box can slide in and out, performing the same functions as bellows on an LF camera. (I got this idea from a clever book called Primitive Photography, which I'll write about elsewhere. I executed it differently from the book.) I can explain what bellows do, but I don't want you to fall asleep.

-I bought some photo paper which (a) makes positive images when developed, and (b) has about the same speed as sensitized collodion, so that I could practice with this paper first, and establish baselines for exposure and focus. (I'll write about this paper at once I've tested it more extensively.)

-I tested the camera, and got great images!!

There are some refinements I need to make to the design to make it operate better, including an improved focusing screen, and better sliding box movement in moist weather. But I think I can manage those improvements, and get this simple camera operable for wet plates. Perhaps even by the holiday weekend!

I'm positively giddy over making this camera. My success is making my project list longer, of course, because now that I know I can build an 8 x 10 camera, I realize I could build all sorts of other special purpose cameras, including panoramic cameras, 4 x 5 cameras, any number of simpler lens cameras, and perhaps some twin lens reflexes...

The next item on my list is getting a collodion studio set up at home, which is something of an ordeal. And after that, plate making at home. I expect to achieve both of these goals in July. I'll report back, and will also post a link here when I write my review of the positive paper.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)12:08 AM

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

New review up at Review of Diffusion Magazine, Volume One is a brief new article discussing a new, alternative photographic process magazine that just published its inaugural issue. The magazine looks great, and I think it fills an interesting niche.

Links elsewhere at will take you to a sample article from the magazine, and provide links for you to buy it if you are interested.

(The link I provided is to the review I wrote: I am not associated with the magazine.)

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posted by Arlene (Beth)9:04 PM

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


New work.

cyanotype print of succulent plantNo, not a new job: new artwork! Specifically, cyanotype prints of succulents, one set of what will probably be a long, happy series. (Oh, don't sound so disappointed: you know how I (mis)manage my life: a sane new job near my place of residence is not on the horizon.)

Go to Succulents (Cyanotpes) on to see seven new prints.

(Yes, I know that the listing of all my work at is getting out of hand, and I'm working on some simplistic solutions even as we speak. Well, okay, not really. But I plan to test out a few new organizational schemes soon.)

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posted by Arlene (Beth)7:00 AM

Thursday, April 24, 2008


My latest article is up at!

cyanotype print of architectural abstract by A.E. GravesVinegar-developed cyanotypes: Non-Toxic Midtone Contrast Control is my latest article at the fabulous site, It provides examples of how ordinary white kitchen vinegar can give you a wider range of cyanotype mid-tones and shorten your exposure times.

I was curious about the effects that vinegar might have after (1) using it in some of my early cyanotype printing experiments when I ran out of sulphuric acid, to good effect and (2) after reading horror stories on one of the alternative process web discussion groups about the terrible things that acidic water can do to your images. The experiments went so well that I'm printing a wider range of images now with vinegar.

I can hear your eyes rolling back into your head and your leg starting to twitch in that nervous way, so I'll just end this entry here, okay? Are you still conscious? Hello?

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:19 PM

Tuesday, April 08, 2008


Photography portfolio updates!

ferrotype of Japanese-style iron teapotI've been a busy girl this evening... And for the past several months, actually.

New galleries up at include:

Extraordinary Light: Lake Merced (Infrared)

Palace of Fine Arts (Cyanotypes)

Pumpkins (Ambrotypes: Wet Collodion on Black Glass)


Tea Set (Ferrotypes: Wet Collodion on Trophy Aluminum).

I had promised a big April update, and I do have additional recent work to post, but these galleries provide enough updates for one evening.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)11:28 PM

Thursday, January 24, 2008


A new article by me is up at Wet plate collodion studio rental in San Francisco profiles the wet collodion program at RayKo Photo Center (, where Michael Shindler is providing fabulous facilities to enable people to take up wet plate work.

RayKo is where I've been experimenting with ferrotypes and ambrotypes. Yes, I have a lot more work that I haven't shown or posted. Yes, I know I should.


posted by Arlene (Beth)9:42 PM

Saturday, January 05, 2008


Rainy day fanaticism

Ginn Wall Hardware cyanotype photographic print by Arlene Elizabeth GravesOur first REAL winter storm in ages started slamming the SF Bay Area late this week, and I am enjoying it. The air smells good; the clouds are lovely and dramatic-looking; we've had thunder and pouring, pouring rain... The only sad thing is that we lost our twenty-foot lavatera, whose trunks twisted and split in the remarkable wind of the storm.

I'm hoping to gather the flowers from the toppled shrub and use them to make photograms tomorrow, if they haven't all wilted.


I've been completely obsessed with photographic printing, and have been using every spare moment to stand in my very cold garage workspace, testing out various combinations of printing times, new chemical washes, and other things that would bore you to tears if I were to write about them in detail.

(What was that? You're heartier than I give you credit for? Okay. How's this: I'm printing vandyke brown prints on Fabriano paper again, but I'm finding that my new technique (citric acid wash, 3% sodium thiosulfate fix, hypo clear wash, water rinse, and extremely weak selenium toning) is bleaching the highlights and overall depth out of my prints, even though the tonal relationships are otherwise... Don't slump over like that. Hey! Wake up! Stay with me! HEY!)

It's like that sort of panic I used to have on Friday nights, when I realized that I had less than 48 hours to myself, and I had to get all of the work I wanted to create out of that limited time period. I have been relentless. Tired, but also relentless. But it feels really satisfying. I feel like a person of substance again, and not just a commuter drone.

Anyway, I'm producing a lot of "new" work, most of which are prints of negatives I shot a long time ago but haven't ever printed, or haven't yet printed to my satisfaction. I am ready to show some of the new prints.

In addition to the two wet plate collodion on aluminum galleries I linked to previously at, I've posted two more: Signs of Chinatown (Cyanotype Prints), which I think I can say are some of the best cyanotypes I've yet printed, and Every-No Where: Mass Housing Part I, which is a combination of medium format color and black and white prints of large-scale, look-alike housing here in San Francisco.

Every-No Where was all shot at one site, but I am working at other locations around the City. San Francisco has a reputation for the variety of its architecture, but one of the odder things about that to me is the sameness of a very large percentage of the City's housing. I live in a house that was built in 1924, which once looked virtually identical to all but a handful of homes on my block. The homes have been modified over the years in various ways, but they were part of a project by a developer that used the same plan over and over... So the variety in my own neighborhood of the City is rather limited. You'll see examples of this in the future from me.


I recently realized how much time I spend cleaning house, and how much more art I could make if I used that time instead to print in my darkroom.

It's a very dangerous revelation to have.


I have a bit of food writing to do, but it will have to wait until I play with my prints a bit more.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)7:20 PM

Monday, December 10, 2007


NyQuil on my pillow makes me happy; NyQuil in my eyes, it makes me cry...

I have been remarkably ill for about ten days. I can't remember the last time I was this ill. Though my lack of a clear memory could just be the medication...

I am so ill, I am at a point where I would happily go in and see a doctor and beg for digestion-destroying antibiotics, if only I had a general practitioner (or even a medical history at my hospital's internal medicine department) that would see me. Alas and alack, while I have a doctor specializing in uniquely female anatomy and a surgeon, I don't have a generalist. And I haven't been willing to beg: I know that first-time appointments are very thorough, nearly impossible to schedule, etc. etc. etc.

Ah, privatized medicine. How glorious it is.


Somehow, I don't look as bad as the fruit they are trying to pass off as tomatoes at my local greengrocer. What odd, pink eggs those are. I don't know what laid them, but I do not believe they were grown within a thousand miles of here.


wet collodion on aluminum print of saxophone detailDuring my medicine induced daze, I wrote a couple of items which didn't belong here, or anywhere else in particular. They now have their own pages. They are a list of things I have in common with my Cousin, Ollie, which is reasonably self-explanatory, and The horsewomen of the apolocalypse wear low-rise jeans, in which I rant about clothes. (I'm going to pretend that the DayQuil is what made me go on a nutritional rant today against a few of my fad-dieter co-workers, but that's a story for another day.) Do not believe that this new segregation of non-food topics to other pages will continue! Though it might, now and then, when the mood strikes.

I also finally got around to scanning some of my ferrotypes. I can't claim that the web really makes them look the way they actually are. There's something about the light of the scanner within the varnish on the surface that changes the way they look significantly, and I spend too much time trying to remove the odd, bluish glow that they get under scanner light. (I'm starting to figure out how to do that: on my monitor here at home, they are beginning to resemble themselves.)

I'm posting two galleries of experiments, and will update the rest of to reflect the new work soon. I've posted a sample of one of the galleries in the past: it is protea, and the latest is blow, which are details from musical instruments, objects which I would like to photograph in many different ways, but am just beginning to examine. The images are made the way tintypes were back in the Civil War. Each print is hand-poured, exposed in camera, and then developed before the sensitizer can dry. Each is one of a kind - there is no negative, it is more like an instant metal positive. (I'll wind up explaining that in more detail on my photography site.) I'm still getting the swing of this: I will make "brighter" images in the future also, but like to wallow in the poppy contrast of these prints.

They are odd-looking images, and when they first dry, they are very obviously 3-D, with the light part of the image raised where the silver reacted. I love these plates. I think of their odd appearance as a benefit: no one mistakes these images for a view of the subject of the photo, they way my friends do when I show them a sunset or a flower, and all of their comments are about the quality of the sunset/flower, rather than the qualities of the picture as an abstracted representation of the sunset/flower. These plates are so obviously something else...

More on this when I am healthy. Which I hope will be very soon.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)8:25 PM

Saturday, August 11, 2007

  Steven has an article up at! : Working with anthotypes explains how Steven made the oh-so-gorgeous, flower-juice prints that are in his gallery here.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)6:12 PM

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

  Steven's gallery of anthotypes is up at!

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posted by Arlene (Beth)7:52 PM

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