52 Weeks of Inspiring Illustrations, Week 30: oil and water don’t mix — The Bromoil Print
A photo-mechanical process based on the principal of oil and water repelling each other, the bromoil print is, loosely speaking, a type of lithography. To start, a gelatin-silver bromide print (explaining the “Brom” in this process’ name) is printed and enlarged from a smaller negative. This print is chemically treated and bleached so that the image actually disappears, and the gelatin emulsion is chemically hardened in direct proportion to the amount of silver that was in the print. As such, the highlight areas which contained less image forming silver will remain soft and able to absorb water. Where the tonal range on the original print had been darkest, the gelatin hardens more, meaning that when moistened with water it can retain more or less water in different areas in direct correspondence to the tonal range of the image.
Once prepared in the above manner and subsequently moistened, the bleached print is subjected to multiple applications of lithographic ink (a greasy oil based ink, and hence the “oil” in the process’ name) which will build up in the more hardened areas of the gelatin based image, whereas the lighter areas which hold more water will repel the ink and remain white. The colour of a final bromoil print is completely dependent on the choice of ink applied by the artist/photographer/printer. Interestingly, there are two ways to complete a bromoil print. Firstly, and most simply, the ink can be left to dry on the bromide print support. Alternatively, a newly inked print can be used as a kind of printing matrix to transfer the image onto another paper support of the printer’s choosing. This is more aptly known as a “bromoil transfer print”. It is examples of this second variant of the process which we hold in our Photographic Collection.
Introduced in England in 1907, the bromoil print was popular among Pictorialists or members of the Photo-Secession and would remain in use until the 1930s. In comparison to other photomechanical processes based on the need to reproduce images on an industrial scale, such as the half-tone, this process was one which alluded to painterly qualities and emphasised the artist’s hand in the production of fine art prints. At a time when questions about the status of photography as an art was in full swing, the stroke of the painters brush through the application of lithographic ink was an attempt to raise the status of photography above that of mere technical execution and the science of photographic chemistry. Soon after though, it was argued that this act was not one which was intrinsically photographic and was actually moving away from the inherent modernist qualities of the medium such as accuracy and clarity of detail as well as reproducibility.
The Department of Special Collections holds a fine body of Pictorialist photographic work (88 prints in total) created by the Scottish photographer Alexander Wilson Hill (1867-1949) who was active from the 1890s to the 1940s. A member of the Edinburgh Photographic Society, Alexander Hill exhibited his work up to 1938 and would lecture on the subject of bromoil printing from 1930 through to 1944. Acquired in 2007 as part of our on-going mission to expand our holdings of Scottish photography, these works are among the finest examples of the bromoil process held by the library’s Department of Special Collections.