Catching the light (but not too much)

Several years ago, while travelling through India, I discovered a peculiar shop called “Old things dealers”. From over-aged books to most ancient kitchen utensils, anyone could have found any “thing” to bring back from the country as a souvenir.

I was very excited to discover a series of negatives dated from the 1930s in their original box. As a tourist, I usually try to avoid taking back trinkets. However I couldn’t resist this find. I was attracted by these portraits and landscapes from the past that were once abandoned in this shop. Back from India, the box of negatives was put away on a shelf and abandoned again.

The old things dealers, Tamil Nadu, India. Credit: Gina Gunaratnam.

The old things dealers, Tamil Nadu, India. Credit: Gina Gunaratnam.

My passion in life is printmaking. It is a fantastic art with many techniques, a demanding practise with specific material, but allowing a lot of fantasy. A few years after my trip to India, I came across a printmaking techniques that could allow me to develop the old negatives in a nice way: the photopolymer plates (1).

Some printmaking techniques consist in creating an image by cutting lines into a flat and hard surface like metal, plastic or wood. The matrix created can be reproduced and you obtain several paper prints of one image. Printmaking with photopolymer plates allows to use photographs to create a matrix. The photopolymer gets hard when exposed to UV-light and melts when protected from light and developed in water. I usually like to engrave images on metal plates, but using photography allows me to catch the natural light that I am unable to represent in a drawing.

It was great to discover this technique, but I had to find someone to show me how to create my matrices and a place with all the specific equipment. It took me several years but I finally discovered the Edinburgh Printmakers, where I attended a great workshop on photopolymer printing. I also found a museum using photopolymer for letterpress printing: the Basel Paper Mill, Swiss Museum for Paper, Writing and Printing. In addition of showing a wonderful collection in an building from the Middle Ages, it is a lively place with a team of papermakers, printers and bookbinders working on each floor of the building.

I have an agreement with the museum: I can use their material to prepare my matrices and print my images on a century-old press. In exchange, I explain the printmaking techniques to visitors. This activity in such a beautiful place is a waking dream.

Left: print with a photopolymer plate. Credit: Gina Gunaratnam. Right: exhibition at the Université de Haute-Alsace in Mulhouse, France. Credit: Ludovic Holbein.

Left: print with a photopolymer plate. Credit: Gina Gunaratnam. Right: exhibition at the Université de Haute-Alsace in Mulhouse, France. Credit: Ludovic Holbein.

For one year I tried to reproduce in the museum’s laboratory the technique that I had learnt in Scotland. It was difficult to domesticate the UV machine and to get the precise quantity of light needed to create plates. But I eventually got a series of images presented in an exhibition. That was my little contribution to the International Year of Light. The Indian negatives are still on the shelf. But one day I will give them a new life, for these “old things” gave me the opportunity to discover a modern technique that brightens my life.

More Information

1 – Photopolymers are large molecules that change their properties when exposed to light. They are used in printing processes and also have a wide range of use in industry like dentistry, 3D-printing or micro-electronics.


IYLBlog_Gina_portraitGina Gunaratnam is communication coordinator at the European Physical Society. She also works as a volunteer at the Basel Paper Mill, where she prepares her prints for exhibitions and presents printmaking technics to visitors.

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