Jon Verney makes his multi-hued prints by using the sulfur-rich water and mud in hot springs and geysers to bleach and tone silver-based prints. Verney first tried the process at a hot spring in Italy, and has since traveled to hot springs in Iceland, Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and the Salton Sea in southern California to make the images in his “Thermophile” series. “It was like painting with the earth,” Verney tells the magazine of the Stamps School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan. An MFA student at Stamps, Verney will be showing his thesis show alongside his classmates’ projects tonight through April 2 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
He explains that he got the idea from Romeo DiLoreto, a darkroom master Verney met while working in Italy as a darkroom technician, responsible for mixing chemicals for sepia toning. To make a sepia print, a black-and-white print is placed in a bleaching agent “which erases the image and reverts the silver in the emulsion back into an undeveloped state,” he says. When the bleached print is put into a bath of sodium sulfide, “the sulfur latches onto the silver and forms silver sulfide, a new chemical compound that causes the image to redevelop in warm brown tones.” DiLoreto noted that the high concentration of sulphur in a hot spring could turn a bleached photo to sepia. Verney took a bleached print to a local hot spring to try it. Watching the paper change color and then seeing a bronze-colored image appear was “a baptismal experience,” he says.
He’s since discovered that he can get a wide range of hues at different hot springs, depending on the temperature, acidity or mineral content of the water. “I realized that along with the sulfur, the water also contained a rich array of other dissolved elements—iron, calcium, aluminum, nickel—and these molecules would also bond to the silver, fusing and forming new compounds.”
Each print is unique, influenced by factors such as how long the image is in contact with the water. Like every lover of alternative processes, Verney appreciates the element of chance and uncertainty.
Working with boiling mud and sulfurous water requires some daring and ingenuity, of course. He sometimes puts prints in an old peanut butter jar with holes cut into the lid. He hurls the jar into a steaming pool, then he pulls it back in by a string. Check out the article in the Stamps publication and visit Verney’s website to see his images and how he hurls a jar over the edge of a crater.