The abandoned croft house of Roddy Stewart

Memories rekindled of exploration with a camera on discovering a 40+ year old contact strip at the back of an old photo album.

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In a few weeks time my wife and I anticipate celebrating one of the big milestones in married life. We’ve been looking through old photo albums and as we opened one from our student days a contact strip of black and white images fell out the back.

During most of the 1970s I took photographs with a Zenit E, a solid Russian brick of a camera with a 58mm Helios lens. My media of choice was slide film although on rare occasions I would use colour negative. I hardly ever shot on black and white film. Yet here was a black and white contact strip that I immediately recognised.

The original negatives are long gone and I never had any prints made but for whatever reason I had kept the contact strip made by the lab when they had developed my film. As I looked over the tiny pictures I began to remember what they were and why I had taken them, no doubt the reason I had kept the strip as a record.

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The pictures are of the abandoned croft house of Roddy Stewart, the neighbour and cousin of who in due course would become my father-in-law.

Roddy had given up his croft some time before and now lived out his remaining years up the hill and nearer the road in a house overlooking his old croft and Badenscallie Bay beyond. On my first visit to Badenscallie in 1973 the house still had a roof. A year later the roof had partly blown in. Seeing the photographs reminded me of the strong sense I had at the time that the house’s deterioration should be recorded, that by the following year there would be less of it to see. Nature was taking it’s course.

And so I walked across the hill with just my camera and a solitary 24-exposure roll of black and white film for company. The photographs record the sequence of my exploratory footsteps around and through the ruin. Looking back I remember the erie silence, the sense of being in a place where life had been lived, struggling with the challenges of daily living against the elemental forces of nature. A sense of life lived at the pace of the seasons and with the rising and setting of the sun. A hard yet peaceful life. Viewed now, the images recorded then have a beauty and a sense of being about them, reminders of what once was, thas I couldn’t just return them to the back of the album.

Why I didn’t have prints made was probably because at the time prints just weren’t my ‘thing’. It is likely that I had the film in my bag just for something to try on a dull day: most slide film of the time was a mere 64 or 25 ASA and I’m quite sure this black and white film would have been a ‘fast’ 400 ASA. The contact strip was clean so I scanned it and then as it pulled me in I decided to scan each individual frame and look at the story they told in more detail.

Here are all 24 frames, in order, telling the story of my journey some forty years or so ago. Hopefully I’ll return again soon and find out what has become of this place.

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Work in progress

The ongoing saga of my salt print experiments.

To date I’ve made a couple of attempts at salt printing: at a workshop back in April which I followed up last month with my first attempt at home. Feedback from a group of friends convinced me that I was on the right track and with a group exhibition planned for later this year, that I had a project worth pursuing.

My quest for exhibition quality salt prints took a step futher at the weekend with a marathon two-day darkroom session and a reworked process involving carefully selected art paper, gold toner and the usual large measure of luck.

Paper preparation and exposure

  • Image: Digital negatives prepared from Ilford FP4+ 4×5 sheet film.
  • Paper: Daler Rowney, The Langton Prestige 300gsm HP.
  • Salt solution: 2% sodium chloride applied by foam applicator.
  • Sensitiser solution: 1ml of 12% silver nitrate applied by pipette and hake brush.
  • Exposure: UV face tanner, time determined by test strip.

Print processing

  • Pre wash: tap water, 10 minutes with frequent agitation.
  • Salt bath: 1% sodium chloride, 30 seconds with agitation.
  • Wash: tap water, 10 minutes with frequent agitation.
  • Toning bath: Tetenal Goldtoner diluted 1:4, 5 minutes.
  • Wash: tap water, 5 minutes, frequent agitation
  • 2-bath Fix: 15% hypo with 0.25% sodium carbonate, 5 minutes each bath with agitation.
  • Wash: tap water, 5 minutes with agitation.
  • Hypo clear bath: 1% sodium sulphite, 5 minutes with agitation.
  • Final wash: tap water, 60 minutes.
  • Dry.

The above process was adapted from that detailed in the book The Salt Print Manual by Ellie Young. Limitations to space, resources and availability of materials necessitated some compromises:

  • For each wash I used single 40-litre plastic storage boxes rather than a two-tray set up with running water,
  • I used a ready made product, Tetenal Goldtoner, which I diluted to strength, rather than preparing toner with gold chloride solution which I simply couldn’t source in the UK,
  • My local craft supplies store does not stock any of the tested art papers recommended in the book but did stock The Langton Prestige 300gsm HP paper which met the specifications for being 100% cotton, acid free, gelatin sized and of sufficient weight to withstand all the washing.

I wanted to have a defined coated area which the negatives would overlap slightly, thus avoiding the sharp, straight edges of the negatives showing on the print. To achieve this I formed three masks from mountboard, one for the salt solution, one for the sensitiser and one to position the negative. By using separate masks I avoided contamination between the coatings. Once sensitised, the paper has to be exposed within two hours so I split my workflow into two batches, preparing four sheets at a time.

The first print was not much success, showing staining where the drops of silver nitrate from the pipette had fallen on the paper and then been poorly spread with very obvious brush marks. The second print was better and from the third print onwards results were very acceptable although by the final three, shadows were blocking up and the prints were becoming quite dark, a sign of too much silver.

I concluded that I had not sufficiently wetted the hake brush before starting and so for the first sheet it had absorbed rather than spread the silver nitrate sensitiser. As the session progressed the brush was carrying over a combination of salt and sensitiser from one sheet to the next leading to too great a concentration on the later sheets. I also noticed that the bristles on the hake brush became clumped together and because the brush strokes were constrained to the image area by the mask, this led to a grid-like pattern of sensitiser application, most noticeably around the edges and corners of the prints.

First negative printed: On left, sensitised with foam applicator. On right, sensitised with hake brush.

There was just enough silver nitrate solution left over to make a second print from the first negative. This time I spread it with a well wetted clean foam applicator. Unfortunately the paper was rather hurredly coated and each coat was not properly dried before exposing the paper which led to some dark banding in the finished print. However it did show me the difference that using slightly less sensitiser and a different applicator could make.

A couple of days later I had the opportunity to show the set of dried prints to my group of friends. It was interesting to observe their reactions and useful to hear their feedback. Perhaps I should not be surprised to find that prints I would have discarded are aesthetically pleasing to others!

I am greatly encouraged that my marathon darkroom session was not in vain. I’ll need to plan soon for the next one!

 

Getting the Blues

A cyanotype diversion

I’ve reached a hiatus in my salt print experiments while awaiting delivery of gold toner for a process I want to try. Meantime, I’ve had a cyanotype kit sitting in the corner unused since it arrived wrapped in Christmas paper, a gift from my younger daughter.

Today the sun shone and with nothing particular planned I decided it was time to try out the cyanotype kit. There are a variety of kits available to buy from several suppliers, this one was put together and sold by Stills Gallery in Edinburgh and is self-contained and comprehensive.

Two opaque plastic 50ml bottles containing the chemicals, Ferric Ammonium Citrate and Potassium Ferrocyanide needing only the addition of water, a foam brush, 3ml pipette, nitrile gloves and Fabriano art paper all contained in a plastic case which doubles as a tray in which to wash the prints. I needed only a plastic cup in which to combine the chemistry and a dimly lit room in which to coat the paper and let it dry.

I chose two of the digital negatives I’d prepared a few weeks ago for my salt print experiments, prepared a couple of pieces of paper and set them in the sun using my quarter-plate contact print frame. The first exposure was about 12 minutes and came out a bit dark so I reduced exposure for the second to 7 minutes.

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Kit box and drying prints
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First print, 12 minutes exposure
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Second print, 7 minutes exposure

Fun times. Going for gold next!