The importance of water


untitled cyanotype, from the series "Doors of the dead"

I miss the days of growing up with well water.  It tasted better, and once you filtered out a bit of sediment, you could be certain it was clear of practically everything from pharmaceuticals to chlorine.  Not only does this city water we have taste bad, it’s messing up my alternative processes.

The quality of your water makes a huge difference in photography.  Extra chemicals can produce odd results, or kill the entire process.  We were warned in college not to use the hot water to develop film because it would add extra chemicals, and told to mix all solutions with distilled water.  I still follow that practice when I can.  It’s feasible to mix up cyanotype solutions with distilled water, but what do you do when the final rinse water is ruining your prints?

I don’t know.  If anyone has some bright ideas that don’t involve a water filtration system for the house, I’m all ears. 

It seems just when I get a decent workflow going that allows for the water pollution, the city changes it again.  Prior to this last change, I could bleach out a cyanotype print in tap water in about 30 minutes.  What the chlorine didn’t deal with, the alkalinity did.  When I say bleach out, I mean no blue left at all.

This made toning both easier and more difficult.  The bleaching out stage didn’t take very long at all.  I could pop the print into the solution for 30 seconds or less with lovely dark shadows in about 1.5 hours of toning.  The difficult part was the final rinse, especially if I was using straight tannic acid.  Something in the water of the final rinse interacted with the tannic acid and darkened the entire paper.  If by chance a print drifted over the top of another and stuck there, the print underneath would show a lighter area where the water didn’t reach it.  I’m not exactly happy with the paper white highlights becoming a shade of cardboard.

After this most recent change, the chlorine content in the water seems to have gone down.  That’s good news for our health, but it means I have to tweak the toning process all over again to get the results I want.  Even after 3 hours in the toning solution, my prints are still retaining some blue in the shadows.  The obvious solution is to bleach them down more, but that backfires and produces a washed out print.   

I’m frustrated and annoyed.  Alternative processes are full of “happy accidents” that produce interesting photographs, but this is not good.  The water pollution is worrisome – what is this doing to the archival aspect of my prints?

Image details: 8×10 tea toned cyanotype, made on Canson Montval watercolor paper with a digital negative, double coated and sized with arrowroot sizing.


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