Bromoil was one the favourite and beloved processes of the pictorialists and salon exhibition photographers during the first half of the 20th century. No show of the photographic art of the pictorialists was without lovely, soft and painterly Bromoil prints.
A Scotsman by the name of Mongo Ponton, discovered that the chemical Potassium dichromate was sensitive to light way back in 1850. This discovery lead to many more photographic processes which we call alternative processes today. I wonder when we’ll ever call digital photography an alternative process but that’s another story. I wish to tell my tale of Bromoil in the 21st century.
The possibility to play with inks and a traditional B&W darkroom process to make something which is more definitely one of a kind appeals to me. The Bromoil print is in all tended purposes a mixture of photography and painting. The print is bleach and tanned so that the ink can be applied by brushes. The inking allows you to control the grain and the contrast by the way of brush strokes and techniques of those strokes. The artistry is to know when a print is finished and not to go too far!
Let me explain the three parts and why it’s such a wonderful process.
The first part of the procedure is just print a traditional darkroom print with more detail in the highlights and to fix the print in an non-hardening fixer. While the second part after the print is wash and dried usually overnight is to bleach and tan the print then again fix, wash and dry. Finally the third part of the puzzle the most interesting piece, is to ink.
I’ve being reading quite a lot on the subject indeed, many Bromoilists do the first two steps in one session or over two days. While the third step, when the print is bleached and tanned they called the matrix. Bare in mind this was way way before the science fiction movie came to our screens! We’re talking about the 1900’s. Most Bromoilists like to have many matrices ready at hand to ink up whenever they feel like it. This brings another element to photography.
The advantage also is, you don’t need a darkroom when inking. In fact you just need some brushes, rollers/briar or foam brushes to do the inking. A tray to wash the print, a suitable Lithograph ink, a palette knife, something to dry the print, a glass or plastic plate to work on. You can actually do this whole part away from the darkroom in under normal light conditions. As I said another element to photography.
The bleach and tanning solution that is required for the Bromoil process uses Potassium dichromate. The amount is 2 grams however extreme caution and protection is required when handling Potassium dichromate. Gloves, eye protection and respiratory are essential.
Please note: Potassium dichromate is banned in the EU as it’s known as mutagen and carcinogen.
On May 25th, 1839, members of the Society of Arts of Scotland gathered to hear their fellow member, Mungo Ponton present a report on “A cheap and simple method of preparing paper for photographic purpose”. The air was full of the new miracle of photography that spring. On January 7th Daguerre’s process was announced, but the secret was not to be published for eight months. In February, Fox Talbot published full technical details of his “photogenic drawing” process. Almost every succeeding week brought the announcement of some new way of making pictures by the action of light. Most of these claims, when analysed, proved to be modifications of Talbot’s invention. Mungo Ponton was one of the few pioneers, however, who could claim that he had something new.
He used potassium bichromate instead of silver salts to make paper light sensitive. His technique was utterly simple: he merely soaked a piece of ordinary paper in a saturated solution of the chemical and dried it quickly at the fire. In this state, the paper was yellow. When it was exposed to light, it turned deep orange. Leaves, lace, or other objects laid on the paper during exposure left their silhouettes upon it.
But exposure to light did more than change the colour of the potassium bichromate spread upon the paper. It made it insoluble in water. To fix his contact prints from further light action, Mungo Ponton simply washed away the unexposed, yellow chemical.
Compared to Talbot’s silver chloride paper, Ponton’s bi-chromate process was much inferior. The paper was not sensitive enough to record a camera image, and he limited its use to “taking drawings from dried plants, or for copying prints, etc.” Left at this stage, Ponton’s discovery would be considered today merely a curiosity.
But as so often happens with inventions, Ponton, in his desire to find a cheap and simple photographic technique, discovered a principle which others developed. Potassium bichromate not only changes its own solubility on exposure to light, but imparts this property to gelatin, gum or glue. Mixed with a pigment, bichromated colloids are used in making carbon, carbro and gum prints. The relief image, formed by clear bichromated gelatin, will absorb dye in proportion to the highlights and shadows of a photographic negative; paper pressed against the matrix will absorb the dye. The gelatin may be spread on metal plates. After exposure beneath a negative, the unhardened gelatin can be dissolved in water to lay bare the metal, which can then be etched. The result is an intaglio plate which can be inked and printed. Indeed, the extensive use of potassium bi-chromate in the graphic arts made true Mungo Ponton’s hope, expressed in his 1839 publication, that his method might “befound of considerable practical utility in aiding the operation of the lithographer.”
Gustav Presser (Vienna 1900-1939) was an Austrian photographer who was born in 1900. Gustav Presser’s work has been offered at auction multiple times, with realized prices ranging from $413 USD to $1,605 USD, depending on the size and medium of the artwork.
Rudolf Koppitz, Emil Mayer, Adolf Fritz & Max Schiel Vienna Photo-Club (Wiener Lichtbildner-Klub)
- History of Bromoil
- Bromoils from the National Galleries Scotland
Derek Ashman demonstrates Bromoil
Demostration using roller/briar
The video is in French but it’s clear how the process also works with a roller or briar. If you don’t wish to use brushes.