Kühn-style Prints

I am extremely excited about some new techniques on which I have started to work. I have started with this very simple question:

Why do photographs have to start with a white background? Drawings don’t always!

Photography historically has always started with white as a background

Let me explain. Think of any photographic printing process - like silver on gelatin, or even your own inkjet printer. It is extremely rare that any process starts without a white, or light coloured, background. 

Take for instance the first-ever photographic portrait of a woman - generally attributed to two of my namesakes - John Draper (photographer) of his sister, Dorothy Draper taken at the New York University in 1839. The actual print I am showing you here is not the original, which was a daguerreotype. However, this photographic print illustrates my point well. It works like the ink writing on the same page and on the same paper - it is a dark on top of a lighter background.

Although we now add colour, the principle is still the same - start with white and print darker colours on top.

It does not have to be this way. We can learn from hand-drawn art


a photographic copy of the 1839 the first photograph of a woman, by John draper of his sister, Dorothy

Using White in Drawing

To illustrate my point take a drawing from Italy in 1448 - widely attributed to an early renaissance painter known as Fra Angelico, which translates as the "Angelic Friar". You can clearly see that he is pulling the highlights out of picture using white on an ochre background to great effect.

1448. Head of a cleric by Fra Angelico (inset)

White and Black Ink in Drawing

While Fra Angelico was extraordinary, drawing was at best a preparation for his larger paintings and murals. If we now look at master who saw drawing as an end itself - we can see this technique taken to new heights, Albrecht Dürer.

1508. Praying Hands by Albrecht Dürer - with inset showing detail

1521. head of an old man by Albrecht Dürer - with inset showing detail

These two pictures, 1508 Praying Hands and 1521 Head of an Old Man both illustrate well the use of white ink against a darker mid-tone background.

In addition, they both illustrate another two critical points about the use of white in this type of image:

  1. Not a lot of white is needed to give a full impression of the highlights in this image.

  2. The mid-tones of the subject itself need to be portrayed at all. The eye of the viewer fills those regions in for themselves.

Why have I Named These "Kühn-style" Prints?

Heinrich Kühn was a famous and prolific photographer at the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries. He had a fabulous 'eye' and an even greater imagination. He wrote about using white in photography, because he realised that with the gum bichromate process it had become possible to print an image using white pigment - as well as the required additional black or dark layers. He saw it was possible to do photographically what Fra Angelico and Albrecht Dürer had done several centuries earlier in drawings.

While he clearly wrote about this possibility just before the First World War, there is no evidence that he successfully achieved this.

My excitement at my current project is that I have been able to create the negatives for such images (well, strictly speaking the white layer is printed with a 'positive' not a negative). I have almost a decades experience of gum bichromate printing and in the last year I have started to perfect its use in white photography. This turns out to be a complex task because the concentration of white pigment is such that it affects the sensitivity of the photographic layer itself. It is a fine balance between:

  1. Enough pigment to see the image once printed

  2. Not so much pigment that the photograph won't print

At the time of writing this, I am excited by my ability to get this balance right - the banner at the top of this page shows a detail of one such print. I am also excited by what this photographic prints are likely to look like, because I can simulate them in the computer.

To see examples of these pictures look in the gallery I have prepared for you called Kühn-Style (in Preparation)