Jon Lybrook - Art & Intaglio Prints
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Jon Lybrook Q & A

A young photography student from England sent some questions I get pretty regularly about the process of creating chemigrams on paper and film (luminograms). I've reprinted the correspondence here to address common queries I get about my work and the process of this art form in general:

Subject: Concerning chemigrams
Date: Thu, 31 Mar 2011 22:44:09 +0100

Dear Mr. Lybrook,

I am a photography student currently experimenting with chemicals and photographic paper. I was hoping you would be able to answer some questions for me so that I could expand my work further.

1) Do you use an enlarger in your process or do you use natural light?

Jon Lybrook: "I use normal room lighting but with an auxiliary incandescent light bulb to help the diluted film developer turn the film dark more quickly and completely in certain areas by holding it closer to the light. While the term "Photography" translated from Greek means "writing with light" with chemicals as the developing agent, chemigrams are literally "writing with chemicals" using light as the developing agent. One could use an enlarger to put an image on the media and then partially develop it before applying photochemistry to create a chemigram effect, certainly, but it would be difficult to control, and would require a darkroom, which I don't have. Part of what I like about working with this medium is the fact that it has the capacity to explore non-figurative forms in a free-form style akin to contour drawings and, unlike painting there is a limited number of actions you can take before the film is fully developed in creating the initial image. These constraints in time and actions provide boundaries from which the artwork appears. In this sense chemigrams are like little lives in and of themselves with very little technical focus required by the practitioner".

2) Are you constantly experimenting or do you prefer working with the chemicals you have already had success with?

Jon Lybrook: "Now that I have a handful of techniques that seem to work well for what I'm doing, I tend to stick with them but I may make small changes here and there to process as they occur to me. For example, I might try using wax as a resist instead of rubber cement (this thought just occurred to me) to create shapes in a composition, or use mineral oil instead of olive oil to slow the delivery of the photochemicals to the film to see how the effect differs. I tend to avoid chemicals I know to be toxic at this stage, such as heavy metals and certain toners. A basic level of knowledge about chemistry is important for personal safety, such as knowing how to properly dilute concentrated acetic acid (stop bath) and never to mix bleach and ammonia (it creates a deadly poison gas). I never found a need to use ammonia, but bleach, on the other hand, dissolves developed silver which can come in handy for creating pure white within a developed area. I always where gloves and an apron, and sometimes goggles (though now I have reading glasses). The process of creating the images is pretty simple, but allows for a great deal of freedom in how it's executed, unlike some photo processes where consistency is vital to success".

3) Where do you gain inspiration from for your work?

Jon Lybrook: "I can get inspired to do chemigrams by looking at other work, such as the paintings of abstract expressionists or other non-figurative art, either online or in museums. Going for a long walk in the woods, away from the angular geometry of human society: street signs, sidewalks, and buildings. I might also gather inspiration by looking at natural processes like the convection pattern when adding cream to coffee, or seeing the latest photos taken from the Hubble Space Telescope (a project my wife has worked on for Ball Aerospace). Other natural patterns such as wood grain, eroding rock formations, wave patterns in the ocean and refracted sunlight against a wall show me things I like to look for and try to capture in this process. These are also things I like to photograph".

4) Was coming across this process of chemigrams an accident for you or did you study it at a school or university?

Jon Lybrook: "I was first introduced to the idea of chemigrams while studying photography in high school under teacher Fred Schuchard in Vineland NJ. I was learning alot at the time and this was just one of many ideas Mr. Schuchard encouraged us to explore. The reason I went back to it later was inspired by looking at 16mm movie films by Professor Stan Brakahge. In college I studied experimental film and produced a few films of my own incorporating some of his methods using hand-held work and scratching and painting on film. After I moved to Boulder, Colorado in the early 1990s, I sat in on many of his classes and his work inspired me to continue my work with motion picture film on a physical level. I'd soak 16mm film in bleach in my bathtub, would stretch it out on the driveway and drip chemicals on it from a syringe or eyedropper. This is how I eventually started using photochemicals to paint on the film. That 16mm film work was more interesting to me as a static image held up to the light, than what I saw when running it through a film projector at 24 frames per second, so I started doing the same thing using some 4x5" medium format film I found in the garbage and had been keeping for several years. The results were remarkable to me because film has so much finer grain than paper, and the luminence of the film when backlit had a three dimensional quality to it I had never seen before -- much like an ambrotype, but non-figurative. I started mounting the film pieces between pieces of glass and in light boxes. While he was still alive, Stan Brakhage kindly granted me an audience to look at my work in his studio one day and was quite insightful and provided suggestions about how he might approach certain pieces. We talked alot about what I was doing and his ideas. At one point he exclaimed "That's Nature!" at one of my pieces mounted in glass under backlighting. I decided to take that as a compliment. Stan had a fierce intellect but a gentle spirit and is part of what made him such an accomplished artists and scholar".

5) Do you prefer working with black and white or colour?

Jon Lybrook: "I've been using orthochromatic film for the last decade or so, which is a black and white graphic arts film -- very high contrast with low ISO sensitivity, providing more time to work with it under room light. It is what I understand and the chemicals are less toxic and more readily available than color photo chemicals. I tried at one point to work with color film and paper, but the results were poor and I was happier sticking to what I knew best. Certain colors are inherent in chemigrams made with Black and White film. Around 2003 I did a series of inkjet prints from the original film without modifying the original colors very much in an attempt to stay true to the original works on film. My newest work I take the finished film and scan it and desaturate it of all color but adjust the grayscale tones in Photoshop. I'll then mock up an image with colors on my computer as kind of a proof. I then output the image onto a larger piece of film, expose it to a polymer plate, then use that to make locally apply inks to the plate, and create hand-wiped intaglio prints on a traditional printing press. This allows me greater freedom to choose colors I want to use and still have the high resolution tones that the original film provides".

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