Cliché Verre

This week, our class is focusing on making enlarged negatives for contact printing. Almost always, this is done digitally, using transparent film and an inkjet printer, but I wanted to suggest some other ways to make negatives and images for all of our contact processes. My favorite alternate method may just be the cliché verre.

Simply put, cliché verre is the term used for a transparent surface (usually glass) prepared for photographic printing. This surface is darkened with paint, printer’s ink, soot, or varnish, and then marked or scratched into to create an image. When the print is made, this transparent design transmits light to the photographic emulsion, reversing the tones. Although this process has been traditionally used for line drawings, it is capable of a wealth of subtle tones and other effects.

The process comes from the earliest days of Photography’s invention, but was popularized by the landscape painters of the Barbizon School in the 1850’s or so. The most famous practitioner of cliché verre was the painter Corot.

Painters and printmakers have returned to cliché verre time and again as part of their practice, many drawn for its abstract possibilities, but photographers have long experimented with its potential, too. Check out this abstraction by Henry Holmes Smith, made using syrup and water on a glass plate, and exposed with a spotlight. (Remember, too, that Smith effectively grandfathered the late-20th-century “Alternative Process” movement through his students Betty Hahn, Robert Fichter, and many others… )

Henry Holmes Smith, “Dancer”, 1952. Gelatin Silver Print

A little more recently, the photographer Abelardo Morell made a body of work using cliché verre for a book published by The Museum of Modern Art. These were done by pressing leaves and ferns into half-dried layers of ink on glass.

Finally, some beautiful work by photographer Martha Casanave, using her own tears and a microscope. Each cliché verre print (done in the Salt process) references the emotions at the time of tear collection — “Tear No. 482: Having to go home”; “Tear No. 721: Suddenly slathered with snow in a Moscow sauna”; or “Tear No. 802: What? No, I thought it was your idea…So, do you regret it?”