When’s the last time you played in the dirt? Photographer Calvin Grier took it to a whole new level and he uses dirt to create photographic prints. Yup, you read that right: his prints are made with dirt, and they are absolutely stunning and incredibly detailed.
In the process called carbon transfer, Calvin uses pigmented gelatin and five pigments: red, green, yellow, black, and blue. He uses red ochre from Morocco, yellow ochre from France, and green earth from France. As for the carbon black, he gets it from soot. The blue pigment is very difficult to find in nature, so Calvin uses semi-precious stone lapis lazuli.
The first step is to grind all the dirt into a super-fine powder. Calvin then combines each pigment with, gelatin, sugar, light-sensitive salt, and water to create the emulsion that will be used to coat the paper. This has to be done with each of the five pigments he uses. Since he needs some negatives first, Calvin takes an RGB file, converts it to a multi-channel profile, and adds tonal separations if needed. He creates ten negatives representing the different channels and uses a precise laser to print them onto silver-based photographic film.
Using a high-powered UV exposure unit, Calvin exposes the emulsion he created with its corresponding negative. The exposed film is soaked in water, squeegeed, and then joined with temporary support. The sandwich is then slid into the water and peeled apart – and the process is repeated with the remaining layers. Since it takes a little more than 1.5 hours to create each of the layers, the printing process lasts a full workday. And it’s not even done yet.
After all the layers are done, it’s time to transfer the image from its plastic temporary support onto paper. Calvin cleans up the edges and transfers all five layers at once onto a sheet of paper coated with gelatin. The process is done underwater, and the paper is then hung to dry. Once it’s fully dry, he can peel off the plastic leaving the image on the paper. It looks great as is, but Calvin takes two more steps before he calls the process done.
He joins the paper print with watercolor paper underwater. He presses them together, and after a while, the sandwich is placed in hot water and peeled apart. This part of the process leaves Calvin with a matte print, and it’s now on its final support. He then soaks it in a bath of potassium permanganate, then sodium bisulfate, which remove the yellow stain from the sensitizer.
And voila! Now we have a finished dirt print. The process is quite complicated and time-consuming, but oh boy how great this print looks! It has more detail than even the highest-quality inkjet print. Also, it will never fade or decompose, and it’s probably the most permanent color photo in existence. Finally, it looks good in all lighting situations thanks to natural pigments.
Make sure to watch the video above, no matter if you’ll ever try this or not. It’s super-fun to watch a color print get born from a handful of dirt. And if you’d like to learn more and possibly try carbon transfer yourself, check out Calvin’s website The Wet Print.