Mordan├žage

By: Elizabeth Opalenik

I will never forget the day I met Jean Pierre Sudre standing in his darkroom and viewed his works in mordançage. It was the summer of 1983 in Lacoste France and as I stood there waiting to be introduced, I was taken by his sparkling blue eyes and the knowledge that this was someone that had figured out life. The Maine Photographic Workshops were beginning to organize photographic programs in Provence conducted by Kate Carter and Craig Stevens and I was assisting my former teachers. Another friend of the Workshops, Ginette Vachon, had told Craig about this incredible photographer and his wife Claudine. I was mesmerized, but it would take another 8 years of visiting their studio annually before a class in the mordançage process was offered in English, with Craig doing translations when needed. Immediately enrolling, I knew that I had come home photographically. In that week, I learned more than photography. I learned that in mordançage, like life, you have possibilities.

Granted, part of it was the magical Provencal setting in which the class was conducted. I remember the cicadas, with their alluring chants in the midday heat, beckoning us to the landscape of wild herbs and smells. At their mas and studio that Jean Pierre and Claudine called home we worked, processing the images in the mordançage chemistry, while pondering this incredible beauty through the ateliers huge picture window. The view alone stroked the imagination and is one in which Sudre found inspiration. From their fields we would carry in wheat and oats and bits of landscape to include in our photograms as we spent a week in the trial and error process. Under the mulberry tree we would take lunch, discuss our successes, failures and talk about life. Today we want instant gratification. In Provence, it was about the journey not the destination.

Immediately, the silver veils of emulsion lifting off the darkroom print fascinated me. Taught to remove them, I wanted to find a way to save and use them as part of my voice in this process. Trying to save the loosened silver "skin" seemed a natural extension of my draped figure models in the past. To Jean Pierre that day, it seemed strange or appalling, but with my first successful print, he was asking for my notes and the print signed to him with love.

In the world of photography, mordançage is a somewhat obscure process and often misunderstood. The draped veils even more confusing and often mistaken for Polaroid emulsion lifts or currently, Photoshop magic. In a recent exhibition of mordançage work, I included a series of photographs depicting the process of rearranging the silver emulsion. The response has led to this article and the shared knowledge that when you understand the photographs you are viewing in any process, it only enhances the experience.

In the mordançage process, you start with a high contrast silver gelatin print. Agfa and Ilford papers were always my favorites, but all offer possibilities if you are willing to spend time testing to see what works best for you. Sadly, many of the papers that we have all loved are disappearing, but finding one with the most silver will be best for the purpose of saving the veils. Some images have taken an entire afternoon to complete. They are meditations into possibilities.

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