Art is cheaper than therapy
by Pamela Buchignani
Don’t get me wrong, I like therapy just as much as any daughter of a social worker. But sometimes, having a creative outlet that is all your own – something that has nothing to do with work or money, or a relationship with another person – goes further in calming the mind and soul than an exploration into our deepest fears and childhood traumas (which can be a trauma in itself). Art can be a reset button and stress reliever for a spinning-out-of-control-mind.
I have no artistic skills of which to speak. Words always made more sense to me than pictures – composition, perspective, line width, and color pallets are all Latin to me. But I always loved the (language-less) wordless aspect of visual art — which is what first drew me to photography. It was during a photography class at Santa Monica Community College on “alternative processes” that I first learned about the lumen print.
Lumen printing involves taking black and white darkroom paper and leaving it out in the sun for hours or days at a time with objects pressed onto its surface. The silver in the paper reacts to the UV rays and the chemicals in the materials it is in contact with (organic materials often work the best), and the paper turns a variety of crazy colors. Finally – I could make things that vaguely resembled paintings! I was instantly obsessed.
What I didn’t expect were the life lessons the process of lumen printing illuminated. The very same skills that are needed to make a successful print are the same skills that would help me live a better life personally and professionally – with no insurance deductibles or co-pays!
One thing at a time. All of us with busy, demanding jobs pride ourselves on our ability to multi-task — but there is no multi-tasking when it comes to lumen printing (or doing anything in the darkroom, really). Mere seconds of time can be the difference between success and failure, so you must focus on the singular task at hand. Once you are able to do it (it took me a few dozen ruined prints), it’s actually quite calming.
You can’t hurry along a chemical reaction or wet paper drying. If you try (of course I have), you will regret it, potentially ruining whatever you are working on — thus actually wasting the time you were trying to save. Much better is to learn a Zen-like breathing exercise.
3. Every failure teaches you something.
Because of the unending combinations of paper types, random experiments, toners and exposure & processing choices, occasional — or even frequent — failure is inevitable. What matters is how you deal with it. Do you let failure make you quit or do you persist until you get it right?
Learning from your mistakes, you’ll be (if just slightly) more in control of the results you get next time around. But in lumen printing, if you don’t risk failure – like in life – you will never know what’s possible.
While lumen printing is mentioned in some of the few remaining darkroom classes, film photography books and websites, there is no ultimate rulebook for guaranteed success. Because of the endless multitude of variables contributing to the results you’ll get – even down to the ph balance of your water, or the strength of the sun — you are constantly flying blind and forging new territory. Even the most expert lumen printers are learning as they go and being surprised by the results.
5. Embrace your mistakes.
One day this past summer, it was over 100 degrees outside. I was using cheap RC paper. I let it sit in a tray of water overnight, then I laid it on the metal roof of our pet’s house, baking for hours in direct sun. The petals of the flowers melted into the emulsion of the paper, that I then squeegee dried post-wash, scraping off parts of the image. Just to put on the horrific finishing touch, I popped the print into the dry mount press, hoping to flatten it out a bit, and cracked the remaining emulsion apart – one corner permanently adhering itself to the press board.
For a few minutes, I silently scolded myself – how could I have made so many mistakes on one thing? What on earth was wrong with me? In terms of screwing up, you can’t get any worse than that! When I finally calmed down, and forgave myself for wasting all that time, I really looked at the picture for the first time and wondered – if I tried really, really hard – could I do it again?
If you would like to see some of my lumen successes and failures, visit my Flickr album Lumen Obsession.
If you’d like to try some lumens of your own, check out artist Jill Enfield’s Guide to Lumen Prints via MasteringPhoto (@focalpress) or grab an Experimental Photography Workbook from Freestyle Photo (@FreestylePhoto1).Tags: Creativity, Experimental Photography Workbook, Hollywood, Importance of art, Jill Enfield's Guide to Lumen Prints, Life lessons, Lumen printing, Pamela Buchignani, Photography