Toning a Darkroom Photograph With Spices and Tea

I’ve wanted to experiment with the idea of imbuing a print with more than just standard chemistry, and I especially like the idea of adding layers of experience to what is ordinarily solely a visual medium.

“Special effects” have never really appealed to me on an aesthetic level; while I appreciate what can be achieved via methods like “souping” film it always felt a bit extreme to work on something unseen with unknowable results when my work is less artistic about what the image looks or feels like and more journalistic in terms of what the image actually describes.

However, manipulating a print is late enough in the process that I can play around and not take things too seriously as there’s no risk of permanent damage to something irreplaceable. Prints are mass-producible, my negatives are one-offs.

The physical nature of print offers the potential to really make use of the constituent material, which means different options and processes may make sense for different materials. In this case, I was working with Ilford Fiber paper, with a gloss finish. I used to prefer a satin/matte finish, but something about the gloss effect on fiber really works for base prints, so I had several recent efforts available to try something new with.

The image itself was made using a negative of Ilford Delta 100 that I exposed earlier this year in Varanasi, near the Namo Ghat which is currently under construction. It’s a peaceful scene set under a bridge, with the bank of the river Ganges sloping to the left of the frame, with a hint of encroaching modernity in the mid and background.

In the far distance, three pylons stand on stark concrete pillars and suspend electrical cabling across the two shores. I like the simplicity of the scene, as there is enough going on to keep the eye moving around the frame, but not a lot of action – an effective possible establishing image for one of my projects.

I made a few iterations of this print with standard factory mixtures and timings for the development. It was around a 25-second exposure through the enlarger, and I didn’t perform any dodging or burning, which are emergency-only options for me.

For my “experimental” toning, I selected one that was already slightly defective with a few chemical stains from over-toning in selenium. I use selenium on all of my prints for longevity and subtle color and exposure shift – but this print had been left in slightly too long which meant some small blotches formed in the highlights.

I used a kitchen baking tray which was just the right size for the 9.5×12” paper and soaked it in cold water just to expand the fibers, before adding cumin, chili, ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon. After soaking in this mixture I added black tea and left it to rest overnight.

The effect is quite distinct, with visible streaks where more of the mixture settled. You can see one of the corners appears much lighter, which is from where I held the paper at an angle to rinse the physical remains of the spices from the surface.

The color settled in quite nicely, with an almost sepia effect, and the original selenium blemishes are now imperceptible amongst everything else that is now going on. I am happy with these (now intentional) imperfections.

On the reverse, the non-emulsion side, you can really see how the fibers absorbed the particles of spice.

They really became one with the paper in a way I wasn’t expecting, and the aspect I was mainly interested in, the smell, was exactly what I’d hoped for.

I am sure it will fade over time, but for a first test I think it is a success!

About the author: Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work through his documentary collective, The New Exit Photography Group, and on Instagram.

Image credits: Photographs by Simon King