Why using Ilford Direct positive paper processed in caffenol ?

Erkki, March 2016. 8x10 Ilford FB direct positive paper print brush-processed in caffenol / ©Cahute

“What analog photographic process would be at the same time the most technically straightforward, the most portable, the less harmful for the environment and for ourselves, and the most economically viable?” was the question we asked ourselves prior to set up Cahute.

That was not an easy one…

As a starting point: the only thing that was sure is that we knew we wanted to use large format, at least 8x10 inches.

We ditched away quite fast the idea of using colour materials, as it costs too much to process them here in Finland. Self-processing was also out of question because too much handling of “dirty chemicals”, even if these chemicals can be partially recycled and treated in appropriate recycling centers. Then we ditched the idea of using white and black film as we realised we were more keen on using in-camera process and not film-to-paper process. So we looked towards a direct, positive photographic process. We fist had a glance at the wet plate world, but the amount of chemical manipulation, the volatility of the products used, the lack of eco-friendliness and portability (to our eyes) didn’t really match our what we were looking for.

We then started to drift towards alternatives. For a while we contemplated the possibility to do in-camera anthotypes but we soon realised that there would be a load of R&D before we could achieve a result… if we could eventually achieve a result!

We eventually decided to give a try to the Harman direct positive paper, in its fibre-based version. And… it was love at first sight: the feeling of the paper, the richness of the darks, the way the paper reacted to the caffenol… This paper was what exactly we were looking for. It was matching all of our criteria :

  • the fibre base is FSC certified and the light sensitive coating process meets the ISO9001:2008 standards

Before using the Harman DPP, we had tried another direct positive paper, in its resin coated version: the ARS-IMAGO RC. Although the two papers are both direct positive, they behave differently when processed in caffenol, and yet they deliver different results (we will write more about this later).

But for now, let’s go back to using the Harman DPP processed in caffenol. Like some other alternative processes, the main difficulty with the combo Harman DPP and caffenol is to get consistent results. By “consistent”, we mean understanding how the paper reacts to the caffenol in order to master, reproduce and redo the “accidents” that happened in the darkroom.

Jaana, November 2015. 8x10 Ars-Imago RC direct positive paper print processed in caffenol / ©Cahute

We tried, and tried, and tried. It didn’t work as we expected. Pictures were too dark and had way too much unwanted/unexpected/unexplained artefacts on them. Some images would be ok-ish, few were really good. We kept experimenting more, practicing, trying, retrying, tearing off A LOT of photos, keeping very few. Even if we sticked to one caffenol recipe from the very beginning, there were many factors affecting the final result.

We tried to reduce the randomness of our attempts by systematically measuring and noting down what we were doing, so we could, little by little, understand and anticipate how the paper would take our studio lights and how it would behave in caffenol. Little by little reach the kind of results we wanted. Finally.

We were aware that using Harman direct positive paper and caffenol would bind us, technically speaking. When you photograph with film, you can easily post-process the image, either in the darkroom or on computer. By nature, the film is “just an intermediary” before achieving the final result in the form of a print. Direct positive is different : it is mostly an in-camera process and there is no intermediary: what you do when taking the picture is what you get after you’re done with your last bath. Any mistake and you have to retake your picture. With direct positive paper, there is no ctrl+z nor the possibility of just doing another print in the enlarger and trying again. And until your print is stretched flat and dry ready, you can screw up. Yup, it’s a long process.

Saying that you cannot “pre/post-process” direct positive paper is not true, though. You can pre-flash your sheets or post-flash your photos. Direct positive paper also allows you to use different creative techniques during the darkroom process : you can paint-process the print or you can zone-process it. But when doing so, you actually act on the final print itself. Any mistakes during these additional steps could lead to simply and purely ruining the print.

This drawback also makes the direct positive paper technique so exciting. Because when you achieve the desired result, when you have the exact print you were looking for in your hands, the feeling of pride and happiness you can have is incredible.

Now please excuse us, we have to go back to our darkroom.

- Cahute

Jaana, December 2015. 8x10 Ilford FB direct positive paper print brush-processed in caffenol / ©Cahute