Lumen Prints and their Delicate Beauty

Lumen prints hold a delicate magic you don’t find with many forms of photography. They’re slow to create using chemistry, require absolutely nothing virtual or digital and can trace their ancestry right back to the earliest days of photography in the 1830s.

We are all familiar with the idea of a quick exposure in a traditional photographic darkroom. A scene involving dim red light, short bursts of white light and then multiple trays with mysterious chemicals which the print is submerged into for very precisely measured lengths of time. At the end of which a black and white image is hung up to dry. Lumen prints are much more gentle to my mind, taking longer to produce and frequently drawing the photographer outside into the sunlight.

The ones you can see here were all produced on black and white paper by placing items from nature (usually being found by a walk in the back garden or around the local area while walking with the dog) directly onto the photographic paper before exposing to the sun. Unlike a ‘traditional’ black and white print in a darkroom, these exposures take quite some time. Dependant upon the exact conditions you’re exposing in and the effect you’re going for this could be anything from minutes to days. Honestly my favourites tend to be on the ‘days’ end of the spectrum and I rarely create any with a exposure time under 6 hours.

At this point the prints are anything but black and white, various colours can often be found dependant upon the exact chemistry of the paper used and the moisture content on the surface of the paper. A chemical ‘fix’ bath is used to stop any further exposure although this tends to tone down the colours it will prevent the image from disappearing, making it permanent.

Personally, I find the delicate impressions and muted tones stunningly beautiful and fascinating. They seem to capture the essence of whatever leaves its impression on the paper in a way nothing else does.

Lumen prints are closely related to Photograms and the names have often been used interchangeably. The current distinction commonly accepted is that a Photogram is produced using a short burst of light or a strobe and often ‘developed’ using chemicals (think of that bright short burst of light in a traditional darkroom) whereas the Lumen print uses a long exposure to create the image and then simply fixes it.

I’ve been asked why with access to amazing modern digital technology I love this old process. Well, it’s precisely because it isn’t digital, it’s slow, visceral and most importantly gives me a feeling of connection to the image I just don’t get with something that comes out of an inkjet printer. In short, they put a smile on my face and make me happy, quite an accomplishment for a small piece of paper.