For some time I’ve been reading about the earliest type of photographic printing, made using paper soaked in salt, which was then painted with silver nitrate and exposed to the sun (with a negative, making a contact print). While I was in Lisbon, I wanted to try and make salted paper prints using images I’d taken of salinas in Figueria, Aveiro and Rio Maior. The images felt out-of-time, and I felt that using this process would echo that sense of the past and present layered within them. In fact, the process of making the images became about many things, including obsolescence, communication, language, regulation, and travel.
After discussing the idea with Fabrice at Fabrica Braco de Prata he took me to kameraphoto, which turned out to be a digital printing laboratory. Having explained the process I wanted to use they said they only used digital now, and sent me to Lisbon Photographic Archives. Meanwhile, I found my own way to Colorfoto, lisbon’s only source of photographic chemicals (that I could find, anyway) and asked about the chemicals I needed. They couldn’t help with the silver nitrate but a guy in the queue sent me to Camilla Watson and her magical darkroom and studio in Mouraria.
On my third visit to the archives I got hold of Luis Pavao, who was a wonderful source of information about the salted paper process, having tried it himself, but also full of warnings of its problematic nature. From a website, I found that you could buy silver nitrate pens in chemists so I had bought a couple of these – apparently used to cauterise wounds and baby’s bellybuttons – but Luis looked at them kind of fascinatedly and then told me where to purchase proper silver nitrate, from a nondescript chemical company in Av. Dom Carlos. I went there and had to sign various forms, in an old office complete with old chemical jars, and I finally received the precious brown bottle. I won’t even go into my multiple walking tours of lisbon, in search of the right kind of paper.
Trying to source things, I feel I am in the shoes of my great-grandparents again, arriving in strange places, not understanding the language, the way things work like the times of day things are open or closed, the procedures, the rules, the expected behaviours. Going into the Nigerian-run photocopy shop, they give me directions in French purely by landmarks – which I don’t know. I am constantly getting lost, negotiating public transport, using paper maps, as my location services uses up the battery on my phone. This obsolete process I am trying to recreate makes me more aware of the technologies of travel, of journeying, of translation, that we take for granted; how quickly we become helpless without it. Reading Camilla’s copy of The Silver Sunbeam, a book published in the 1860s about the then new technologies of photography, I am drawn backwards in time, and amazed by the careful and thorough detail of the explanations.
Camilla Watson is an unusual figure in Lisbon – an Englishwoman, she has lived and worked in the Mouraria area for years, her studio producing images of Lisbon that are hand-printed on walls, boards, anything she finds. The walls of the district have become a record and celebration of its inhabitants. Using the studio, I love the way people come in and out, and sit and chat in the square outside. I meanwhile have gloves, eyemask, surgical gown and am soaking pieces of paper with salt, drying them, then painting them with the highly dangerous silver nitrate, all in darkness.
Chemical processes, fabrication processes, changing states, is the work in the making or the connections that happen through the making? And is it in part the journeys in space/time to make the making, that develop an understanding of place? So the ‘artwork’ is in part a vehicle for the other/research? The artwork contains these journeys and connections. The process is represented by an ongoing and changing artwork.
The first test works – I expose the paper in the sunny square outside the darkroom with kids playing and a man washing in the fountain. Images appear, faded brown, indistinct, an index of memory. I repeat the process with large sheets and huge, ghostly salt-piles take shape. There are splashes and discolourations. To me the imperfections serve to tell the story of the making of the work, and seem appropriate to the salt-making processes I documented, which sits between now and then, here and there.