Washi: New Paper Negatives

If there wasn’t digital, I wouldn’t have been pushed in this direction. I would still be doing black and white Paris photos. It reminds me of how everyone thought photography would kill painting. In fact, photography freed painters to push their medium in bold new directions. We’re in the same kind of place with digital. Digital has taken over all the technical stuff, the day to day (e.g. wedding photos and portraits), freeing analog to push in new directions. Digital has allowed analog photography to place its own materiality front and center, making the medium itself the focus of artistic inquiry.

— Lomig Perrotin, creator of the new paper negative format Film Washi

French photographer Lomig Perrotin has long been interested in the materiality of analog film. In particular, he has experimented with scratching negatives to achieve an effect like cross-hatched hand etching to illustrate graphic novels. After experimenting with the method for a few years, he grew frustrated with the difficulties of scratching traditional, hard plastic negatives. Rather than change his method, he began exploring ways to change the medium.

Perrotin knew that he wanted more freedom to draw on his film, so he began to look into paper negatives. He discovered that many of the first negatives were paper-based: Henry Fox Talbot was using them in the 1840s, while Eastman Kodak used paper rolls before inventing the Brownie. The only problem with the historical methods was that Kodak coated their paper with beaver oil. Perrotin had a soft spot for beavers.

For his first efforts, Perrotin put silver gelatin onto tracing paper. While this seemed like a promising start, Perrotin discovered that the tracing paper was too sensitive to water, and the images were too fragile.

The breakthrough came when Perrotin's girlfriend told him about Washi, a Japanese fiber paper. Since Washi paper is designed to be used with water colors, it could handle being immersed in chemicals and water baths.

Almost immediately upon engaging with this new combination, Perrotin decided that he didn't want to draw on his new paper medium after all. As Washi is made from mulberry leaves, it is particularly textured and fibrous. While older methods, such as Kodak's, were focused on making the paper medium invisible, Lomig grew to value the materiality of his creation. So far, he has not been tempted to obscure it with the originally intended scratchings and drawings.



Washi paper negative, courtesy of Lomig Perrotin


After more than a year of personal experimentation, he was able to produce consistent results (considering the handmade variations inherent in the medium) and a new product and business was born: Film Washi.

In just a couple of months of general production, Perrotin has shipped his film to photographers in nearly a dozen countries around the world. Perrotin began this project during a slow period for his own work, so he has been heartened to see how his film could inspire others.

Perrotin is committed to making the Washi film accessible to everyone. Although there are small differences in processing, the Washi film can be used exactly like normal film. It can be loaded into most kinds of manual cameras (custom requests are even being considered) and processed in a standard darkroom. Because it’s paper, it can even be unloaded under infrared light rather than complete darkness.

Perrotin's assessment of the analog film world seems perceptive. In the past decade, we've found that digital cameras have no more spelled the end of film than photography did for painting. For many, the last 100 years of painting have been the most creatively expressive in the medium's history. Perhaps analog film is at the precipice of a similar era?

—Alexander Strecker

Editor's Note: The photographs in the slideshow above were made by Gilles Demarque de Rieux. Perrotin and Demarque de Rieux met at LensCulture Fotofest Paris 2013. Demarque de Rieux was so interested in Film Washi, he went to Perrotin's studio to see it for himself. He then produced a photo series about the film, using the film. It seemed like a perfect accompaniment for our review of Perrotin's new approach.