Gum and More

Unless you are a gum printer or thinking of taking up gum printing, Christina Z Anderson‘s Gum Printing – A Step-by-Step Manual, Highlighting Artists and Their Creative Practice, recently published – here in the UK by Routledge (ISBN 9781138101500) – might be a rather expensive purchase at £34.99 in paperback or a ridiculous £120 Hardback, but for many of us the more interesting section may be the first chapter ‘The History of Gum Printing‘ which you can ‘Look Inside‘ to read, all except some of the notes.  Perhaps the other part of the book of great interest would be the second section which looks at the work of around 50 contemporary artists.

Anderson’s own work in gum and other alternative processes can be seen in depth on her own web site (and probably most of the others among that 50 – and there is a list in the preview – have work on the web.) The short history chapter has some good illustrations too, and covers the early years of the process well, though there are perhaps some omissions from more recent years, and perhaps just a little American bias.

Although gum – or gum bichromate – was in its heyday in the pictorialism of the years before the ‘Great War’ with the work of Demachy and others, it never entirely died out in the UK and I suspect in other countries around the world. The photographer from whom I learnt of the process and who inspired me to try it was a man called Steinbock, an advertising photographer from Maidenhead who regularly contributed a small gum bichromate print each year for many years to the Royal Photographic Society annual exhibition.  His prints weren’t exciting, but the process he briefly described was intriguing, and he told us it was all very simple, and a few minutes of his talk was enough to send me and two colleagues, Randall Webb and Terry King away seperately to make prints.


My very first attempt, seen above, a roughly 10×7 inch print of an agave, wasn’t too bad, though many years later it has developed some nasty brown spots. Theoretically gum prints are archival, but in practice this isn’t always so, particularly if stored carelessly. Though I think in this case the problem is with the kallitype I later coated on top of the blue gum.

I made a few more, largely to see how to do it and to have an example or two, including several rather bad versions of a tri-colour print, for use in my teaching, but soon decided gum wasn’t for me.  Terry King, who sadly died last year, went on to work commercially in the medium and to teach a whole generation of printers in this and other alternative processes, running courses both at his own Hands-On Pictures workshops and at colleges and other venues around the UK and internationally. He was for several years the Chair of the RPS Historical Group, organising a number of conferences and in 1997 he founded APIS, the Alternative Processes International Symposium in which has since taken place in alternate years since in either the UK or US.

I suspect that elsewhere in the book there may also be a mention of the Alt-photo-process-list to which Anderson has for some years been an important contributor, as in its early days (it began in 1994) were both Terry King and the late Judy Seigel, who founded the The World Journal of Post-Factory Photography –  you can still download the first issue. Both were opinionated in a medium where there is no right way to do things, and sparks often flew between them – and I got caught rather in the cross-fire.

If you are thinking of printing using alternative processes, I’m sure this book would be a worthwhile investment, as Anderson has made herself a master of these techniques, and has always been ready to share her expertise generiously on the list (and many of those 50 names I also recognise as list contributors.) I’m sure this book will be the best manual available and will probably save you much trial and error and swearing. But you can do what I did, and just play around a little, really almost anything works, and, who knows, you might just find something worth doing that even this volume doesn’t cover.

There are of course different styles of gum print, and if you want to print like King you will find fairly full instructions on his site, though I think several of the suppliers he lists are no longer in business. Elsewhere on the web you will find others who have shared their methods. Most – but not all – those involved in alt-processes are happy to share.  King decided to make a small charge for the details of some of his ‘improved’ processes – though you can find some comments in Mike Ware’s Cyanomicon of how these had been anticipated in the early days and the ‘Rex’ processes seem similar to some I also experimented on with Terry for kallitype and platinum, using a common ferric oxalate sensitizer with a development bath. Though his chrysotypes were considerably better than my rather poor attempt.

There were several reasons I gave up printing using alternative processes. One was simply time –  and I was far more interested in taking photographs than in making prints. More important was that I decided that processes like gum bichromate did not give the kind of results that suited my work, though platinum and carbon printing were far more to my taste.

But then I found I could make better prints using an inkjet printer, as first using John Cone’s remarkable Piezography inks, and later, because I wanted to print colour as well as monochrome, with Epson’s own K3 Ultrachrome. And, if I wanted, I could print on papers very similar to those I had been using for alternative processes.

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