#1040. Photography Transformed Part I: Handmade Image Capture and Printing Techniques

By Jean-Claude Louis | How-To

Sep 14

During the initial phase of a project about the situation of Berlin at the dawn of the 21st century, I had in mind to create images that would form a body of work with a unique visual language, one that could communicate the emotions that overwhelmed me during an exploratory first visit – a feeling of melancholy, a sense of displacement and estrangement, caused by the frenetic new constructions of the reunified metropolis and the blurring of its troubled history.

My initial attempts to translate my vision into images with traditional cameras and lenses were largely unsuccessful. With frustration mounting and discouragement starting to set in, I decided to switch gears by building my own capture device by jury-rigging a loupe to a clunky 6×6 SLR from the Soviet era. While the photographs were relatively sharp in the center, their outer edges were wildly out of focus and subject to uncontrollable and unpredictable aberrations.

A finished work is often a stranger to what the photographer felt or wished to express when he/she began. As the work started to take shape, I realized that the images looked different from what I expected, and that caused discomfort and questioning. But I doggedly forged ahead with my Rube Goldberg contraption. After the battle was over and the damage faced up to, the results were, however, surprisingly interesting. I came in with an idée fixe and, in the course of the project negotiated a satisfying compromise.

After Berlin, I used this camera for two more projects: a series about the trees and seashore of Big Sur, in California, where I was living at the time, and a journey to Andalucia in the search of the sites celebrated in Federico Garcia Lorca’s poems. And then I retired it as, literally, a paperweight in my studio. The images shown in this post are excerpts from these three bodies of work.

The contraption

The camera consisted of a 6×6 medium format SLR body made in Ukraine during the Soviet era. I first used two Kiev6 bodies, but they quickly failed. I then switched to a more recent model, the ARAX, which turned out to be very reliable. The ARAX has a Pentacon Six breech-lock mount to which I attached an antique bellows of unknown origin. I then jury-rigged the front element of a 3x Rodenstock loupe to the bellows with felt tape, duct tape and a lot of glue. I also glued a Cokin P filter holder to the front of the bellows.

The loupe/bellows combo turned out to have an f/2 aperture and a focal length just short of 80mm. I used the camera handheld, all 4kg of it. Focus was achieved by moving the bellows back and forth. For the Berlin and California projects I used B&W film, primarily Berggen 200 and sometimes Kodak Tri-X 320. In Andalucia I used the Agfa RSX200 color reversal film. Exposure was determined by TTL metering, using the rudimentary light meter of the ARAX after having it calibrated with a Gossen Lunasix. In bright daylight, because of the fixed f/2 aperture, I had to use either a 8x (3 stops) neutral density filter to reduce the amount of light passing through the loupe or a #25 deep red filter that also reduced the amount of light (3 stops), while increasing contrast.

Handmade photographic imagemaking

Imagine a world of photography unconstrained by the limits imposed by the camera and the traditional printing process, expanded by the introduction of new materials, and made possible by new technologies. “Making” images as opposed to “taking” them. Removing boundaries between media in the pursuit of creating something unique. Embracing quaint words, such as beauty, magic, mystery, craft, to describe the creative driving forces behind the practice. Manipulating an extended range of materials unusual to photography, such as handmade papers, plastic, glass, metal, wood, fabric, as well as innovative technologies in digital printing, 3D printing, xerography. Let’s add to the list of misdeeds…:)

New digital transfer techniques were spearheaded by Bonny Pierce Lhotka, Dorothy Simpson Krause and Karin Schminke (the co-founders of the digital artist collaborative, Digital Atelier) who researched and developed new techniques to leverage and enrich photographic imagery, both traditional and digital. The processes use release films and gels, to allow the transfer of inks to the substrates. The image is printed on a transfer film, which has an inkjet coating on it that not only receives the inks, but also releases them when in contact with transfer media. The transfer gel is first applied as a primer to the receiving substrate and then reactivated with an activator solution. The activator contains alcohol to dissolve and encapsulate the inks as they move from the transfer film to the substrate. The workflow to transfer an image to a metal plate is illustrated below:

There is an unpredictable nature to the media; the transfer visibly alters the imagery, style, form and meaning, creating nuances between one piece and another. No two results are ever exactly alike, assuring the production of unique works of art, in editions of one.

The techniques and reagents are described in great detail in Bonny Lhotka’s three books (“Digital Alchemy”, Hacking the Digital Print” and “The Last Layer”) and on her website (https://bonnylhotka.com/).

Of Angels and Demons

The original Berlin prints were silver gelatin prints on Bergger Prestige paper. When the digital transfer processes became available, I reedited the series; the images were transferred onto acrylic plates, the backs of which were covered with iridescent pearl oil paint, conferring a sense of depth and a shimmering luminosity to the pieces.

I wrote a short essay to accompany the publication of this work. For those interested, it’s in the link below.

Victory Column

On the roof of the Reichstag

The last remnants of the wall, Bernauer Strasse

Construction, Potsdamer Platz

Autodafe memorial, Bebelplatz
Bernauer Strasse


Alexanderplatz Angst

Memorial to the Victims of Fascism

Under the Reichstag Cupola

Garden of Exile, Jewish Museum

El Pais Grande del Sur

Big Sur, in California, is a land of raw beauty shoehorned between the Santa Lucia Range and the Pacific Ocean, one of the world’s most magnificent stretch of coastline. The Pacific crashes against ragged rocks, waves shimmering from deep blue to slate to jade; the Santa Lucias’ knotted peaks and deep canyons are harboring exuberant groves of redwoods, live oaks, Douglas firs and Ponderosa pines. The spirit of Miller, Kerouac and Ferlinghetti is pervading the air. Pure magic.

The California prints were created by transferring the images onto Dibond aluminum plates covered with iridescent gold oil paint. For some tree images, I used duotone paints, with iridescent gold for the background and iridescent moonstone oil paint for the details of the trunks.

In Search of Federico Garcia Lorca

Andalucia. The scent of orange blossom; the swirl of the dress of a Roma dancer; the lament of a flamenco guitar; the glimpse of a white village perched atop a crag; the encounter with the elusive duende, this mysterious dark power that one senses in response to art, but that no philosopher can explain.

The prints were made by transferring the images onto Dibond aluminum plates covered with various substrates: Iridescent pearl oil paint, interference gold paint, gold leaf, mixed gold and bronze leaf distressed with a metal brush.

Arcos de la Frontera
Pueblo Blanco de Grazalema
Alhambra, Granada
Azulejos, Granada
Parque Federico Garcia Lorca, Alfacar
Estatua de Maimonides, Cordoba
Zahara de la Sierra
Cayetano Ordóñez, Ronda

Digital Atelier Artists:


  • Digital Art Studio – Simpson, Krause, Lhotka – ISBN: 0823013421
  • Digital Alchemy – Bonny Pierce Lhotka – ISBN: 9780321732996
  • Hacking the Digital Print – Bonny Pierce Lhotka – ISBN: 9780134036496
  • The Last Layer – Bonny Pierce Lhotka – ISBN: 9789321905406



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  • Michelle says:

    wow – this work is fantastic. i’m amazed by both the dedication to craft and the results.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I think my favourite is the final Big Sur photo – under the boat.

    Gobsmacked by it all.

    • Jean-Claude Louis says:

      Thanks much, Pete! Gobsmacked does not belong to my vernacular; sounds like it has some gaelic parentage. The only word I can think of that can offer some competition is flabbergasted.
      I hope you have recovered the power of speech by now. 🙂

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        LOL – British – and it means:

        thunderstruck, amazed, astonished, astounded, dumbfounded, flabbergasted,
        stunned or dumbstruck

        Pascal & I both have photos of a statue of a bullfighter like Cayetano, in Nîmes. But none of my images are as compelling as that one.

  • Sean says:

    Hi Jean-Claud,
    I like what you’ve said, and I quote “… Imagine a world of photography unconstrained by the limits imposed by the camera and the traditional printing process, expanded by the introduction of new materials, and made possible by new technologies. “Making” images as opposed to “taking” them…” Your images are testament to that and I certainly am impressed by just how inviting the images are that you’ve crafted. Your images both invite and implore you to enter their world. Once done, you are taken on a journey of palpable experiences you didn’t know existed, until you accept their story lines.

    • Jean-Claude Louis says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Sean. I’m deeply moved by them.

      In my view, “good” photography does not come out of what we want to see; instead, it comes out of what we are made to experience, to engage with – whether we like what it tells us or makes us feel, or not.

  • Wow! amazing ..true works of art .

  • John W says:

    So, this is how you created those enchanting images for the “Blur” challenge! One word … AWESOME!

    Do I have a favourite? Yes! ALL OF THEM!!! These are worth building a home for so I can prowl them at will and listen to the stories they whisper today … and the ones they whisper tomorrow … and the days after.

    Namaste. I Bow to you Sir.

    • Jean-Claude Louis says:

      I’m speechless and honored – or should I say gobsmacked, the word I just learned from Pete – by your compliments.

      Thank you, John!

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    You’re a genius, Jean-Claude! What an interesting and evocative way to make images which truly express the deeper qualities of the subject at hand.
    The “Of Angels & Demons” series Images are moody and dark – just perfect for subject. The “Big Sur” series turns any iconic image on its ear by giving it more depth, texture and a golden aura. Simply wow! And the Andalusia images give intriguing hints to the history of the area, while highlighting the colors and palatable “flavors” of Spain.
    I don’t begin to understand the technical aspects of your camera adjustments, but I totally appreciate your talent and skills as a photographer.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Jean-Claude Louis says:

      But hopefully not a “stable genius” 🙂

      There is nothing complex or sophisticated about the technical aspects of my photography. I like to keep this aspect as simple as possible. I actually don’t have much interest in cameras, but what I do is to choose the equipment that fits best the intent of my project. And sometimes, like described in this post, it entails building the tool; Other times, I have used view cameras, vintage lenses, polaroid cameras, toy cameras, pinhole lens caps, and so on…

      I like to play, to explore, to take the road less traveled. I like to make images with my hands, to see the piece take shape, using many crafts, from traditional to contemporary. And I’m pleased when the final product comes close to my intent, to the mental image I created of it.

      Thank you, Nancee, for your kind words 🙂

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Exploring the unknown, instead of playing “follow the leader” – LOL

        BTW – “stable genius” is an oxymoron. Those terms are antithetical – or, maybe, incompatible.

        • Jean-Claude Louis says:

          Was tongue-in-cheek, with a touch of sarcasm 🙂 The president of this country likes to refer to himself as such – don’t tell him…

  • Pascal Ravach says:


    (“writing” that we are “speechless” is quite a double distorsion, isn’t it?) 😀

    Haunting, Jean-Louis!

    The most stunning work I have seen on DS, and some DS contributors are not lacking in talent either!
    This very early and very cold Sunday here in the Canadian Laurentian, I copied them to an USB key and went straight away in my home theater room to watch them on my old beloved plasma screen, undistracted by all the “computer” stuff…

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