You don’t need a darkroom to make phytograms as this technique relies on the chemical reaction between plants and photographic emulsion and the exposure of your composition to the light of the sun. You will fully develop your film or paper locally, only there were the plant and/or the liquid is in contact with the emulsion. The rest of the silver-halides will be washed out during the fixing process. This means that you can use this process outdoors or in a garden shed or well lit room. You need only simple materials and tools that you can find listed underneath. The basic procedure is as follows: select a plant and carefully pick the leaves or select flowers and take apart the petals. The leaves or petals should be relatively flexible and flat in order to make good contact with the emulsion.

Soak the leaves or petals in a solution of water, soda and vitamin C, following the recipe. The plants are ready to use almost instantly but prolonged soaking can help to make the organic material softer and more reactive. Fragile flowers can be dipped in the solution before applying. Place the paper, or roll out a strip of film, on a table or other flat surface (the film strip can be as long or short as desired). Apply the soaked plants to the photographic material and secure maximum contact between the plants and the emulsion. You can use glass or plexiglass to press down the plants but you can get good results without this as well, depending on the shape of the plant and your ability to negotiate with living matter. Any spilled solution will also result in marks on your paper or film. You can either try to avoid this by using a rag to catch excess moisture or you can embrace this and ‘paint’ with the liquid around the plants.

Leave the filmstrip or sheet of paper with the applied organic material in full sunlight for quick and high contrast results and in the shadow for slower and more refined results. Exposure times can vary between a few seconds up to several hours depending on the available light. Follow the darkening of the films’ emulsion by looking at the edges of the applied leaves or petals. When sufficient staining occurs around the edges, carefully remove the leaves, petals or flowers on a shadowy spot and submerge the filmstrip in normal photographic fixer. Alternatively, use a strong salt solution (or seawater) as fixer. Wash the paper or filmstrip well and use some eco-friendly soap as wetting agent. Gently brush off any remaining organic residue with your hands and let your results dry before handling further for projection, exhibition or scanning.

– 1 litre water
– 2 tablespoons washing soda
– 1 tablespoon vitamin C
– a handful of plants (herbs and weeds work especially well)

Materials and tools:

– b&w still film, motion picture film or photographic paper (expired film or paper is fine)
– soda crystals (also known as washing soda or sodium carbonate)
– vitamin C powder (you can also crush tablets but powder is the best)
– standard fix (any type will do)
– two darkroom trays
– some measuring, mixing and handling tools (a jug, a spoon, tongs, a brush)
– a flat surface big enough to lay out your photographic paper or roll out film
– running water
– plants!

Karel Doing, Bindweed (Phytogram) 2021