Green Light: Photographic Nostalgia from the Garden

Nostalgia and photography intertwine by light, time and space. Captured photons freeze the present and bind us to the past, triggering memories and kinship. Long before the ubiquitous digital revolution, analogue photography maintained a subtle sense of nostalgia; chemically produced photographs had a tone, graininess and aesthetic now often mimicked with a push of a smart phone filter.

Trawling though the past we find that plants played a role in the technological advancement of photography. From those faded Polaroids in your family albums to the ‘Throwback Thursday’ shots on Instagram – all the images that provoke belonging, joy, loss and hilarious laughter at your Dad in flares – we can thank the help from the botanical kingdom and the alchemy of nature.

The history of photography is a dynamic mix of science, art and sheer pot-luck.”

Early inventors sought to permanently fix the images projected by their camera obscuras – basic cameras used as drawing aids. Techniques toyed with photosensitive substances coated onto wood, leather or paper then laid with objects such as leaves or flowers, which exposed in sunlight created contact prints. More often than not a pretty image would linger before it frustratingly vanished and so over time the search continued to find a more durable process.

Luminous Lavender
In 1826 Joseph Niépce was one such inventor. Alongside various chemicals he also tinkered with botanical ingredients, perhaps inspired by conversations with Franz Andreas Bauer, a botanist and artist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Through trial and error, Niépce coated etched pewter plates with photosensitive resin extracted from the wood of Guaiacum officiale, a tropical hard wood tree from South America, to no avail. Then he tried Bitumen of Judea (a natural tar like substance) and this time reached for lavender oil – not to calm down or get good night’s rest – but to dissolve the tar. Exposed in sunlight and washed in more lavender oil he gained his eureka moment with a fixed image. This was a defining point in the history of photography and for a lengthy eight hour exposure time, it is astonishing to think this image still exists 200 years later.

'View from the Window at Le Gras’ (1826) is credited as the world’s oldest camera photograph, created by Niépce with the help of lavender oil. The scene taken from his window depicts a rooftop and peach tree in the distance. Due to the long exposure, the buildings are illuminated by the sun from both right and left. Source: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre, University of Texas, Austin

Petal Prints
Colour experiments in the 1840’s used tinctures of light sensitive plant ingredients. Emulsions were concocted from crushed flower petals, leaves, peels, vegetable juices or chlorophyll. Sir John Herschel, infamous for coining terms ‘Photography’ and ‘Snapshot’ (but not ‘Snapchat’, – this came years later!) combined his knowledge of optics, colour theory and botany to create ‘anthotype’ prints; anthos derived from the Greek word for flower. He dabbled with stock (Matthiola incana), dahlias, Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale), crimson poppy (Papaver rhoeas) and wallflower (Erysimum cheiri). The extracts stained the paper and sunlight bleached a positive into a print. Although whimsical, the effort to smash beetroot or poppies and then wait days for a result was not commercially viable so interest remained mostly at hobby level.

Terrific Tannins
Around the same time William Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre were racing head-to-head to perfect the printing process. Daguerre advanced with his popular dauguerretypes. Not to be outdone, Fox Talbot recalled advice from his friend Herschel to experiment with gallic acid, a type of phenolic (or tannic) acid found in gallnuts, witch hazel, tea leaves, sumac and other plants. The word tannin is derived from ‘tanna’, old German for ‘oak’ and with a touch of serendipity, oak galls (Quercus spp.) were reputedly Talbot’s favoured tannic source, being locally abundant at the time in England. The addition of tannins as a developing agent, combined with a table salt wash resulted in a technique he called ‘calotypes’. These could print onto paper and more importantly, exposure time reduced from hours to minutes, bringing him scientific recognition and a fancy medal. He was an outdoor enthusiast and trees were a favourite photographic subject that he felt could: “exhibit the touch of the great artist, Nature’

An Oak Tree in Winter, probably 1842–1843, Salted paper print from a paper negative. William Henry Fox Talbot (English, 1800 - 1877) 19.4 × 16.6 cm (7 5/8 × 6 9/16 in.). Source: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Stained Starch
The next time you scoff down your hot chips, take a moment to praise the humble spud for colour photographs. In 1907 the Lumière brothers used potatoes to create the game-changing Autochrome Lumière’ – the first commercial colour photographic process, which took the world by storm. In a lengthy search for the perfect ingredient they tested around thirty plant species including rice, sweet potato, tapioca, arrowroot and taro before they settled on potatoes. When pulverized, the starch granules (each about 15 micrometers) became transparent, uniform and retained dye. Divided into three batches and stained red, green and blue to mimic the three primary colours of light, the micro-mosaic was placed over a glass disk to create a simple filter. With emulsion and light exposure an image with ‘real life’ colours was created. The graininess from the starch gave autochromes a dream-like, nostalgic air; looking at them now they transport you to bygone times that seem unhurried, distant and long ago.

Roses in Gullick family garden, Killara, NSW, c. 1909. Source: State Library of NSW, via Wikipedia Commons

Flashy Fern-Allies
Before flash technology improved, photographers relied on candles, limelight or even Mexican fire-flies in jars. None had the intensity required for exposure in low light conditions. Around the turn of the century another unusual source was touted; an explosive powder made with the spores of the plant Lycopodium. A genus of clubmoss, not actually a moss but a fern-ally, dry Lycopodium spores have a high fat content and large surface area to volume ratio, so when mixed with oxygen in the air…kapow! The spores were often combined with magnesium for extra bang. Once ignited, this ‘flash powder’ gave a quick burst of light to illuminate the subject for a faster exposure. It was effective yet highly dangerous for both photographer and subject. A Victorian era ‘selfie’ may have potentially cost you an eyebrow or much worse. Fortunately, the invention of safer flashbulbs was just around the historical corner.

Soapy Cellulose
Cumbersome plates graduated to flexible film. Early cellulose bases were derived from pulp of soft and hardwood trees or cottonseed fibres and then mixed with chemicals to form cellulose acetate. The emulsion housed tiny light sensitive silver-halide crystals suspended in gelatine, sourced from animal cartilage. Interestingly, if the livestock had grazed on mustard plants, from the Brassicaceae family, small traces of sulphuric compounds from the mustard oil leached into the animals system. Once converted into gelatine these compounds had a knock-on effect on the film’s sensitivity, making it faster. The gelatine layer was sometimes mixed with another plant-derived ingredient; foamy saponin extracts from the Chilean Soap Bark tree (Quillaja saponaria), to aid consistent dispersal of the silver halide as the emulsion was poured over the film base.

By 1935 the mass-marketing wonder, Kodak’s Kodachrome was introduced and remained the oldest surviving brand of colour film until its 2009 discontinuation. Paul Simon sang about this film in his 1973 hit ‘Kodachrome’. In modern times, we are saturated in digital technology and surrounded by vivid colour, so it can be hard to imagine the revelation and magic these past experiments would have seemed in their day. Perhaps for now, we can simply put down the iphones for a few minutes, listen to lyrics of this song and feel a fleeting touch of nostalgia:

They give us those nice bright colours
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So mama don’t take my Kodachrome away’

Image by Nimal Kurunajeewa, Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, State Botanical Collection
Kodak film products. Image by Angharad Johnson, courtesy of Michael's Camera Museum, Melbourne

How to make your own photographs using plants:
1. Use crushed berries, petals or other plants (take care with poisonous species and use gloves)

2. Pulverise with blender or mortar and pestle

3. Strain the emulsion with a sieve and coffee filter paper

4. Dilute with a few drops of distilled water or clear alcohol

5. Paint onto paper or cloth, let dry

6. Add a positive image on top and secure with a clear frame

7. Expose in sunlight for at least one day – when you see the colour bleach your print is done.

Use crushed berries, petals or other plants (take care with poisonous species and use gloves). Image by Angharad Johnson.
Pulverise with blender or mortar and pestle. Image by Angharad Johnson.
Strain the emulsion with a sieve and coffee filter paper, dilute with distilled water or alcohol and paint onto paper or cloth. Let dry. Image by Angharad Johnson.
Image by Angharad Johnson.
Add a positive image on top and secure with a clear frame. Image by Angharad Johnson.
Image by Angharad Johnson.
Expose in sunlight for at least one day – when you see the colour bleach your print is done. Image by Angharad Johnson.