PHOTON April 1995

In the second of his articles on alternatives to traditional photography, Jon Tarrant devises a process for pseudo-solarisation using Polaroid instant pos-neg films - and no darkroom or chemicals


It is tempting to think that all alternative processes are old ones. In fact, this is true only in so far as many processes have come and gone throughout the history of photography and all except the current norm can be viewed as 'alternative'. The bromoil technique that I reviewed last month is an obvious example: others will be covered in future issues. But there are modern alternatives too.

Next month I hope to report on Dr Dunstan Pereira's Heliochrome kit, which can be regarded as a polymer-based version of gum bichromate printing. Before that, I would like to explain a technique of my own devising, through which it is possible to obtain Sabattier-effect negatives without any need for darkroom work.

The Sabattier Effect or pseudo-solarisation is often wrongly just called 'solarisation'. Indeed, it was so by its most famous exponent, Man Ray. But Man Ray did not discover the effect; it was first recorded by Armand Sabattier in the mid-nineteenth century, and was revealed to Man Ray some sixty years later through the actions of his then assistant Lee Miller (who went on to become a highly accomplished photographer in her own right). True solarisation involves the reversal of local areas of a negative that have been grossly over-exposed. Typically, this means the sun itself when included in a picture. The best known example of solarisation is an Ansel Adams image entitled Black Sun, Owens Valley California. In my own tests, I have, to date, been unable to recreate this effect using modern materials.

In contrast, the Sabattier effect does not arise by the action of any part of the exposed scene, but rather from an additional uniform exposure given to the negative part-way through processing. It causes originally dark areas of the scene (light parts of the negative) to acquire a medium density and creates strong lines between these areas and those surrounding them. Adding density to shadow parts of the negative gives a partly reversed look to the image, with the lines separating areas that have reversed from those that have not.

Dish technique

Traditional Sabattier-effect images are created by developing negatives in open trays and flashing with light some time into the process. There are four drawbacks to this technique; it requires sheet film negatives (for ease of handling), it must be done in a darkroom, the solution must be completely still after flashing for the effect to become most obvious, and it is inconvenient to re-shoot.

The last of these is sometimes countered by the suggestion that copy negatives can be used, but this is not a good idea. The range of illumination brightness that can be shone onto a copy negative under an enlarger is much less than that which can be obtained in-camera. The two methods, copy-neg and original, therefore give different results: the original being superior. Polaroid pos/neg film, on the other hand, can be used in-camera, is very convenient and gives excellent, though still slightly different, results.

I have used both Type 665 and Type 55 pos/neg films (medium format and 5 x 4" sizes). The former is cheaper and easier to use, being shot on reflex cameras. The latter is easier to assess because its sheets have no protective backing coat and can therefore be inspected even before clearing. As an aside, it may be worth noting that Type 55 can be used with Mamiya RB67 and RZ67 cameras thanks to an adaptor plate that takes a 545i Polaroid back. Obviously the image produced does not fill the entire film area, but the adaptor, which is available in the UK through Graham Wainwright Associates (01296 728146), does allow the use of otherwise unavailable materials.

In order for the Sabattier effect to work, the scene must contain areas of blackness adjoining areas of mid to light tones. In Man Ray's work, these black areas were dark backgrounds, with the foreground flatly lit and largely without shadows. My own approach has been to combine both aspects, causing ambiguity as to what is due to the background and what to the lighting. In the case of the torso shown here (click the thumbnail for a full-screen JPEG, under 30Kb), the effect between the breasts is due to deep shadow, while the surrounding area is a black background. The two appear much the same in the final print, giving the illusion of a hole in her body.

Instant technique

The technique for producing Sabattier-effect Polaroid negatives is as follows. A suitable scene, with areas of darkness and mid-tone, is set-up as required. The correct exposure to give a fully developed, normal Polaroid negative is determined. The exposure is then increased by about one -stop and the pos/neg sandwich peeled apart within 5-10s of being pulled through the rollers. The print half, which should be almost totally white with just slight signs of dark shadow areas, is discarded. The negative half is re-exposed using a low power flash, then put in a dark box, cupboard, or drawer to finish processing.

After a minute, the negative is cleared and inspected as usual. It should show white lines (which will give black lines on subsequent prints) bounding areas between dark and mid-tone parts of the image.

To make the re-exposure, I use a flashgun with a full power metric guide number of 32. This is reduced to 1/16th power (equivalent to GN8) and fired at the negative from a range of about 15". Printing is best done using relatively low grades of paper or filtration in order to preserve the most subtle tones. Split toning can help to enhance the effect, though Man Ray's images were always presented in b&w.

Once mastered, Sabattier-effect Polaroids become relatively easy to control. Even when things don't go to plan, the fact that Polaroid negatives can be inspected so soon after shooting makes it a simple matter to re-shoot as required. And it is this access to instant images, not the picture quality itself, that makes the Polaroid route so attractive. Amidst all the fuss about image transfers and emulsion lifts, I think people sometimes lose sight of the fact that, above all else, Polaroids are instant materials!

Quarterly newsletter

A quarterly newsletter dedicated to alternative processes has just been launched. It is the brain-child of Keith Dugdale and is intended to be a forum for information exchange. The launch issue has no pictures and comprises just twelve pages, but is packed full of useful hints and tips (including where to get details about the Gelabrome process), with features on reversal processing and techniques for coating plates with liquid emulsions. So, if you would like to help further the cause of alternative processes, either learning about them or passing-on your knowledge to others, take out a subscription to The Alternative Photography Review. It only costs 8 for four issues. Send cheques to Keith Dugdale at 1 Mabbotts Yard, Penzance, Cornwall TR18 2TD, or call him on 01736 330200.