Digital Carbon Tintypes with Bonny Lhotka
3 March, 2012 by
Digital Carbon Tintypes with Bonny Lhotka
Jon Cone

Way back in 1992 I gave a workshop at the Massachusettes College of Art called “Beyond the Digital Print”. I paired an IRIS 3047 printer with an etching press inside of a traditional printmaking studio. About a dozen people attended and Bonny Lhotka was one of the most memorable to me. She had this unbridled enthusiasm for the transfer techniques I demonstrated. Twenty years later, I took an inkjet transfer workshop from her. My visit there a few weeks ago made me realize that she owns the concept of inkjet transfer, and has made it so totally her own. She took it to extremes I never thought possible, and continues to experiment with it in a way that is just simply amazing to me. I can’t think of anyone else in the world who knows more about digital inkjet transfer than Bonny, or who wants to continue to know more about this method. She is in a state of constant exploration.

I’ve been on her mailing list and I often get workshop announcements. In November I got an announcement that instantly caught my attention: new Vintage Tintypes Workshop with Bonny Pierce Lhotka and Carrie Neher Lhotka. I signed up for it right away. This would be the first workshop that I have attended ever! I have been giving digital printmaking workshops since 1992. Before that, I taught aquatint gravure workshops, etching workshops, screenprint workshops, and experimental printmaking workshops. I’ve been teaching since 1987, and yet never once took a recharge for my own self.

The Digital Tintype blew me away as a concept. I’ve been shooting dark and moody lately…printing dark and moody lately and I had this vision of some type of distortion of context that I might be able to produce if I could make digital tintypes. I didn’t have much of an idea of what to expect – but I did have a concept of what I had hoped for in my own work. I wanted to move into a realm that confused technology with historical tradition with the hope that I might be able to make transcendent photographs on metal.

Lhotka’s studio is called DASS (digital art studio seminars) and she is all about sharing information and knowledge. Her studio is located in Boulder, Colorado in an enormous purpose-built facility that features loads of natural light, super high ceilings and tons and tons of available workspace for workshop attendees.

I arrived just early enough to grab a little private Bonny time, but not early enough to interfere (I hope) with the setup time. I wanted mostly to walk around and get a feeling for Bonny’s studio. That tells me a lot about someone and what to expect and how I can either plop into or skirt around. Bonny’s studio is one in which you can just plop right into and do your thing. It’s totally comforting and it feels totally like it’s there for everyone to do their own thing. It’s roomy although completely filled with the stuff that one uses to make art by hand.

Bonny Lhotka’s Studio

In a way it doesn’t actually feel like a digital studio. It’s not filled with computers. It doesn’t have special displays and arrays of hard drives spinning. The lighting is not controlled and the printers, while there, are often hidden under art materials. In this studio, it is the art material that is front stage and center and the printers take a back seat. It’s not about output nor inkjet printing here. It’s about what can you do with the output and this output is almost exclusively on film that is transferred to other media and other objects. The printers are there to put ink onto transfer materials. It’s about what happens to that ink that is magical. That magical process is many times removed from the printer once it begins to manifest.

Beam me up Scottie! A self contained digitally driven laser!

Yet – there in the middle of the main studio room sits the object of envy for any digital printmaker. Bonny has a laser. There was a time that I would have tattooed beam me up scotty on my forehead to own a laser. I had so many plans I wanted to do. It’s wonderful to see that Bonny uses it to make work that one can only dream about doing without one. But, that hopefully will be a whole other workshop.

Bonny makes her super secret “Super Sauce” recipe while Carrie looks on.

My workshop experience was wonderful. I didn’t touch a computer or a printer (well maybe a touch). I got to use my hands and my body. It was a blast – and it was physical. Bonny and daughter-in-law (custodian of Bonny’s son) are a great teaching team. Bonny is an absolute wealth of knowledge that is still expanding. Carrie keeps her on track. I don’t mind when Bonny goes off-track because she conceives possibilities on the fly that are so absolutely appropriate. Still Carrie makes sure that no one overloads or over-doses.

Making Digital Tinypes is a hybrid transfer process. The basics are that the aluminum plates need to be “cooked” to distress and age them. There is some resemblance of control in the techniques shown. We actually cooked in four different ways – all of which can be done at home with fairly simple gear. Bonny actually developed her initial cooking methods in a Bosche washing machine (which we happen to share a love of). But, it can also easily be done in an electric table roaster or in homemade designs using readily available materials. The agents for change are cleaning agents that one may actually have around the house.

Before cooking. the aluminum plates are sanded by hand and the variations of such affect how the cooking affects the plate. After cooking, the plates can be further worked with a wide variety of materials such as SOS pads, sand paper, and power tools!  But, the magic is done via Bonny’s “Super Sauce” recipe which is an extremely good transfer gel. The plates are painted with this material and before they dry, the inkjet printed film is aligned and the artwork carefully transfered. The technique seems tricky, but under Bonny and Carrie’s careful guidance it’s quite easy.

My first tintype was an old family portrait made from a photograph taken from my mother’s Zeiss Ikon when she was a young girl at Shoreham Beach in England. My second was a portrait taken of my mother when she was three years old. Instant family treasures can be made quite easily with this process. But, my real challenge was to make a tintype that I felt had some potential as a form of photographic expression. To that I began working with very dark images. I quickly realized that pre-printing all the film was a bit of a disadvantage because the process has a definite gain of about 1 or 2 stops in the mid-tones. I used my digital negative ink set and the Pictorico OHP curve.

Ellie, by Cathy Cone. Digital tintype.

If I wish to use this process in a calibrated manner I will probably produce a Piezography curve for it. But, a simple Photoshop lightening curve for the mid-tones will suffice. I made an image that I truly liked. As I show it around, many people can not decipher what it is. I see it. Others don’t quite. I’m not sure, but I think that may be a sign of success in this particular work. I wanted it to look like something aged and mysterious. It’s a portrait of a horse from a photograph by Cathy Cone. There is an outline that looks like it’s from an overlay oval cutout that frames the head…but it all melds into dark carbon. A strong light in a dim room however, reveals such a beautiful and subtle photograph.

I worked with a great group of attendees who all made such interesting work with this process. We all worked harmoniously and yet so differently from one another. It allowed me to see the range of possibilities that were possible. Aida Tejada from my home town of Miami, Florida came with a year of digital tintype experience under her belt. Still she came for more Bonny knowledge – this being her third or forth workshop at the Boulder location. Aida makes plates of mystery and then mysteriously inlays mysterious images into the distressed tin. And the photographs are totally successful. While I was literally trying to capture the historical essence of older found objects, Aida managed to turn this process into her own.

I highly recommend Bonny Lhotka’s DASS workshops. You can contact here here.

Digital Carbon Tintypes with Bonny Lhotka
Jon Cone
3 March, 2012
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