I love shooting film because, even though the range of films available today is small compared to what it used to be, there is still enough variety to lend a sense of freshness to the task of shooting. If I get tired of how Tri-X looks, I can switch to another black and white emulsion…I’ve been shooting a lot of FP4 recently, for example. If I get tired of how color negative film looks, I can shoot some slide film. And there is always the option to shoot digitally.
But one way to be sure to add some excitement to your photography is to use alternative materials and processes. Collodion and daguerreotype are popular historical methods, but others have made images on wood or green plant material, discarded film containers, and more. There are many things in our world that are light sensitive, and anything that is light sensitive can be used to capture an image, so long as you get the process just right.
The other day, I was making lunch, and wanted some cheese. I rummaged around through the fridge, and found a slice of Kraft Singles cheese. The wrapper had been torn a bit, and where it was exposed, it had darkened considerable. Then it o-“curd” to me: If this cheese changes color and texture over time, I could maybe make a photographic image on cheese by figuring a way to accelerate the process.
The first thing to consider was whether I wanted to shoot on fresh cheese or expired cheese. Fresh would be better and more predictable, and expired cheese can lend a yellowish appearance to the images. So I got a fresh pack of cheese and set to work modifying a 4×5 film holder to accommodate processed dairy products.
It turns out that you have to dry the cheese first, or it is difficult to handle. Still, fresh cheese offers better exposure latitude, and old cheese can be fragile if mishandled.
My first exposure was not much of a success. As you can imagine, the ISO sensitivity of processed cheese is pretty low. I didn’t calculate it, but it’s low. The exposure time of 90 minutes just wasn’t practical. I needed something else.
Why didn’t I think of it before? Silver is the light-sensitive material in photographic film, so what if I could infuse some silver into the cheese? I know a little bit about making collodion, so I decided to play around. I had no silver on hand, but my parents had left some Centrum Silver at my house a while ago, and it turns out that it contains enough minerals that can be photosensitized to be useful as an emulsion. I crushed that up into powder with my mortar and pestle, and used some grain alcohol as a solvent. I gave the cheese a bath in the silver solution, loaded it into my film holder, and took another shot.
I don’t want to sound cheesy, but it was magic watching the image appear in the developer. There was a unique, one-of-a-kind image, forever etched onto a piece of cheese. I set it in my oven, again at a warming temperature (not so hot to melt it), and carefully dried the exposed cheese out. Only time will tell if it is archival, if it will stand the test of time and my occasional lapse in grocery shopping.
The possibilities are as endless as the variety of cheese out there. If you like your images sharp, a good New York Cheddar might be best. Do you love creamy bokeh? Try a full-cream brie or Camembert. Going for a funkier look? Stilton will help you break the mold by adding texture and dimension.
The technique isn’t perfect yet, but it was a fun experiment, and I’m milking everything I can from this technique. The trial and error is part of the fun of it; you have to figure out on your own what will work and what is just a silly, nonsensical idea.
Say “cheese” indeed!