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Gum printing: a short history

 

Gum printing is an old photographic process which experienced its heyday at the turn of the century. The term 'art photography' is inseparable from the technique of gum printing. It was used because, unlike pure photographic printing, it opened up a number of creative possibilities. It allowed one to alter, deliberately emphasise or subdue shades of colour and creates pictures according to one's own specifications.

The fin-de-siécle period bore witness to the struggle to find new forms of artistic expression. Unlike Impressionism which preceded it and was regarded as extremely controversial, art nouveau was the first new art form to be accepted at an international level. The graphic stylistic elements of an nouveau, which rapidly established itself, merged with elements of impressionistic ways of seeing to produce something which could be described as an art nouveau style of photography, a style which was predominantly expressed in gum printing. In this way, photography acquired an entirely new sphere of influence. If one were to regard the first sphere of activity as the ability to observe and take photographs, the second was to be found in the opportunity to alter the positive image using the adaptable if painstaking and extremely complicated process of gum printing.

And so it was that a photographic style evolved at the turn of the century in England, the USA, France and Germany which has not only survived alongside conventional modern photographic image processing, but remains an inseparable part of contemporary art photography today. Although references to Impressionism and the spirit of fm-de-siécle style are no longer popular in fine art today, the surge in creativity that was to become emblematic for that era has endured to the present day.

One only has to look closely at the work of such excellent turn-of-the-century art photographers as Heinrich Kuhn, Hans Watzek, Robert Demachy and Constant Puyo, to name but a few, and one is astonished to discover how familiar and attractive these works still appear today.

Marian Stefanowski's output is part of this still extant tradition of creative photography. Using the traditional techniques of art photography, his achievement is to take contemporary subjects and, refracting them through his own imagination, present them to us for our personal aesthetic delectation.