We love making this magazine, but we can't do it without your support.
Every subscription we sell helps us pay for more photos, writing, editing, and better printing. JHSM is like public radio: the product is free but the folks who choose to pay for it are making a real difference in the community.
Reflecting on COVID-19 through the volatile lense of Mordançage processing
When the pandemic set in nearly two years ago and the world was tossed into diseased chaos, Scott Davidson started to document the meltdown. Davidson is drawn to the mechanical processes involved with creating art and began shooting exclusively on film. He picked up his old 120mm camera and captured snowboarding and the environments around him with a specific photographic process in mind called the Mordançage exposure method.
Based on the 19th-century process of etch-bleach, Mordançage processing is very involved and very dangerous. It requires gloves, a respirator, and working outdoors for proper ventilation to prevent accidental poisoning. “The process creates the equivalent of mustard gas when I mix all the chemicals together,” admits Davidson.
This obscure technique is one Davidson has long been fascinated with. He first learned about it in college––though the process and chemicals were too dangerous to be allowed on campus. He had to go to his professor’s private studio to develop images this way.
Inherently, Mordançage is volatile and unpredictable, much like the pandemic itself. To begin this photo project, Davidson first shot endless rolls of black and white film. Then he dove deep into the development phase. The negatives were dropped into a chemical bath made up of copper chloride, lactic acid, and hydrogen peroxide. The chemical mixture eats away at the highlights in the photos, creating haunting imagery and veil-like tendrils on the images.
“The process is extremely unpredictable. I don’t really have a lot of control over it. It kind of does what it wants.”
In an effort to give the photo a sense of movement, Davidson tweaks the highlights with small tongs or paper clips. This process creates dramatic color variances throughout the densest area of a negative. Mordançage gives Davidson the ability to create a visual metaphor for what all of us experience day-to-day while navigating our new ‘normal’.
“The way the chemistry eats away at the negatives is very similar to what happened with COVID,” Davidson remarks. “It separated people, just how the chemicals cause separation from the negative. The process is so volatile, just how COVID is so unpredictable and volatile.”
“The process is so volatile, just how COVID is so unpredictable and volatile.”
While the subject of his photos may be familiar, Davidson believes they take on a provocativeness when viewed together with an understanding of their volatility. “A lot of these images are not great stand-alone images,” he states. “I took a photo of the Tram. There are literally a million people with iPhones taking that photo too. I’m looking at it in a different way,” asserts Davidson.
Shooting images with Mordançage in mind means the main focus is on the composition. Davidson focuses on extreme highlights and lowlights, so there are large areas to work with and manipulate. Even the drying process of this project can be unpredictable. Davidson left one photo out in the sun longer than the others. The sun cast its rays on the development and turned the photo yellow. When scanned for digital use, the yellow appeared blue. “It evolved into something completely different,” notes Davidson.
Contamination of other work is also a concern with the drying process and harshness of the chemicals. Prints get imbued with the toxic matter and when they touch other prints, those often become infected and damaged.
“I’ve done a few other projects with Mordançage,” explains Davidson. “I feel like the imagery that comes from it is very powerful and experimental.” His ever-evolving project continues to be unpredictable, a feeling we’ve all become familiar with over the past two years. “My process elevates my message,” Davidson says.
Lindsay Vallen is a local journalist on the beat with a big heart for snowboarding, hiking, cooking, and amplifying community voices. @itsme_linds
Scott Davidson is better at phone calls than email, and his current creative mindset is “Fuck digital.”