Van Dyke Brown Prints

Van Dyke prints are made on watercolor paper (or another porous material) sensitized with a solution of light sensitive silver and iron compounds. These compounds are only sensitive to ultra-violet light. Since ultra-violet light is invisible to the eye it cannot be focused and as a result Van Dyke prints must be made by contact printing, with the negative in direct contact with the sensitized paper.

The most efficient but also the most unreliable source of ultra-violet light available is the sun. To expose a print the sensitized paper and the negative are placed in a printing frame that holds them securely together. The frame is then placed in the sun for five to thirty minutes depending on the weather. The print is then developed in water, which rinses the unexposed silver/iron compounds from the paper. Finally, the print is fixed in a solution similar to that used to fix a typical black and white print.

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While living in Brooklyn, I was drawn to the elements of living history present in the old buildings and structures that manage to retain their stamp on a neighborhood, regardless of the shine or fast pace represented by their newcomer neighbors. My photo journaling of this collection of landmarks and architectural oddities inspired me to explore techniques that also held a compelling place in the present, despite their origins in another era.

Creating Van Dyke prints of these Brooklyn images was a way of returning these structures to their heyday. Many of the places photographed were being built or in use when the technique was first developed, in the late 19th century. Its process is deceptively simple, using basic running water and sunlight to develop. It is representative of a time when photography was coming into its own and of a time when a previously unknown pace of city living was taking hold in New York.

All text and images © Patrick Barrett 2002-2012
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