Grams, Grams, Chemograms & Nolangrams

By Nolan Preece Back to


Digital photography is now taking on the burden once carried by conventional photography, but artistic exploration will continue with many outdated processes in the years to come.

Photography lends itself to producing a multitude of effects difficult to obtain otherwise. Chemistry may be the least explored area when it comes to new image invention without a camera. The popularity of digital capture has pushed photography so far ahead that unexplored processes have been left behind, as was the case in the early days of photography. It is a new day for chemical experimentation in the wet darkroom.

My first serious exploration into some of the nuances of photography began in 1978 while pursuing an MFA at Utah State. I was working feverishly to come up with new ideas, as grad students usually do. Of interest at the time were the sabbatier effect (solarization), cliché verre (handmade negatives on glass) and the photogram (I borrowed the word “gram” for these techniques). These were often considered rouge techniques outside the realm of “true photography” defined as photography that in- volved a camera, film and a darkroom. I wanted to work contrary to the convention, as Moholy-Nagy had suggested. He stated that photography was all the results that can be achieved by photographic means with or without a camera. At that same time Surrealist painters Max Ernst, Yves Tanguay, Roberto Matta and Man Ray also influenced my work.

“Legs” (Nolangram #000) 1979 Glass negative printed in enlarger on Agfa Portiga Rapid silver gelatin paper. Duo-toned in selenium toner.


During research in 1979, I came across an interesting account of the painter Corot who had held a piece of glass over a candle and smoked it with soot. Then he drew into the soot and contact printed the resulting image on photo-sensitive paper. The technique he was working with was called cliché verre in French or “glass negative.” I had to try this out.

A kerosene lamp worked fine, so I cut some small squares of glass and pre-tested them in the enlarger to see if they would fit. I applied soot to several pieces of the glass and started making scratches with an etching needle. Accidentally, my hand bumped the kerosene container, and as the oil spread out across one of the soot covered glass squares, the most incredible patterns and designs started to take shape. It was so strange it was surreal. I had found something I had never seen before, either in the history of photography or art. I decided to include the new discovery in my master’s thesis, and I set to work laying a foundation of images.

The glass negatives could be printed directly onto photo paper with an enlarger, or inter-negatives could be contact printed from the glass negatives. I tried solvents other than kerosene, and it seemed that mineral spirits worked the best. The technical addition of selenium duo toning in 1999 increased the color and added another dimension to the work, plus it gave greater longevity to these silver prints. Scanning the glass negatives has now taken Nolangrams to the digital level, and also makes retouching much easier.

Meeting Douglas Kent Hall in 2000, I asked him what I should do with my process. He told me, “Become the maestro, name it, teach it, present it to the world.” So I jokingly started calling it the Nolangram process. For those interested in work done along these lines, Henry Holmes Smith, Fredrick Sommer and Francis Bruguiere are worth researching.

“Carbonscape” (Nolangram #023) 2001 Digitally scanned glass negative, printed to 12” x 16” with a 3800 Epson printer on Radiant White Watercolor Paper. Originally printed on Ilford Warmtone Multigrade FB silver gelatin paper.


Creating a Nolangram is really very simple. Take a kerosene lamp, remove the chimney, extend the wick, light it and rotate a piece of glass over the flame. Layers of soot will start to build up until you have a fairly opaque quality to the glass negative. Using eye droppers, or whatever tools you can dream up, apply mineral spirits to the cooled soot and watch the solvent spread. Stop application when you see something that works for you. This procedure should be done outside where the danger of fire and fumes can be prevented. To go digital, scan the image on the glass, clean it up with Photoshop and print it as large as the output you select.


For photographers who like to peruse old Photo Lab Indexes, try taking a look at old toning formulas. In 1982 I noticed that the “Varigam” toners by DuPont included the use of Thiourea (Thiocarbamide) and an alkaline base such as sodium hydroxide, sodium carbonate or potassium carbonate (these chemicals are available at Photographers Formulary). By putting each of these chemicals in salt and pepper shakers and applying them to a wet sheet of silver gelatin paper, the magic begins. The resulting unpleasant silver sulfide stain is then toned in a GP1 gold solution to open it up into yellows, crimsons and reddish browns. This is the method I use to make a Chemogram. An enlarged printed image can be incorporated into the overall print, and can be selectively fixed under the safelight with a brush where you don’t want staining action to take place. Then apply the chemicals with salt and pepper shakers to achieve the selective staining desired. Finally, fix the entire image, hypo clear and wash normally. Chemograms scan beautifully and can be combined with other digital images. (Remember to treat all chemicals as if they are toxic.)

“Ag Encounters Au” (Chemogram) 1983 Thiourea/Sodium Carbonate stain on Oriental silver gelatin paper with printed image. Gold toned in GP1 for six hours.
“Chemical Storm Event”, (Chemogram), 1990 Thiourea/Sodium Carbonate stains on Oriental silver gelatin paper with solarized Dektol painted lines. Gold toned in GP1 for eight hours.
“A Simple Solution”, (Chemogram), 2008 Thiourea/Sodium Carbonate stains on Bergger silver gelatin paper with Dektol stamped rectangles. Gold toned in GP1 for five hours.


The aesthetics of these processes are grounded in surrealism. They bring into play the accidental, whereby the photographer becomes a controller rather than a creator. This method of working often produces multiple levels of meaning brought together to create a sense of connection that is intuitive, unconscious and abstract. The images are more accurately felt than observed. With some of these photographs, especially the Chemograms, the juxtaposition of a printed image with chemical staining creates a form of spatial interaction in which the illusion of depth is provided by the printed image. When chemical staining alone is used, dark tones advance and light chemical coloration recedes, creating another form of spatial interaction. Both of these effects tend to produce a warm/cool contrast. These techniques may seem draconian, but it is the result that counts. Imagination comes into play with critical thought processes about control and the use of materials. Many ideas and combinations of ideas are passed over in search of the one single personal vision for the final print.

The fact that brilliant permanent color effects can be created by chemical means on B&W photo paper leaves many questions unanswered. It is gold chloride that does the work to transform olive drab into vibrant color, and at the same time gives great longevity to the print. The Nolangram, printed on silver paper from a ghost matrix on glass then duo-toned in selenium, brings forth new exploration being done with cameraless photography.

It is artistic nature to struggle with oneself and then come to some sort of subjective conclusion in resolving the work. A recent paradigm shift has occurred in photography, not unlike the one in both photography and painting more than a century ago, but all indicators point to a bright future for photography. Digital photography is now taking on the burden once carried by conventional photography, but artistic exploration will continue with many outdated processes in the years to come.

Product Resources: Chemistry obtained at Photographers’ Formulary; Oriental paper: Kodak Dektol developer; Ilford fixer; Apple iMac computer; Adobe Photoshop CS4 software; Epson 4990 scanner and Epson 3800 printer; Beseler 45MCRX enlarger with a Schneider -Kreuznach 150 mm Componon-S lens; Beseler darkroom timer and easel

About the Author

Nolan Preece
Nolan Preece is a fine art photographer and art professor/ galleries curator at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, NV. He teaches digital photography, platinum printing and alternative photo processes.