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Absinthe, Ambien, and Other Caustic Chemical Experiments with Photography

by Allison Meier on August 15, 2013

Photogenic Alchemy

Photogenic Alchemy: developed with absinthe (all images courtesy of Matthew Cetta)

What happens if you put absinthe in your photographic emulsion? Or Drano? Or Ambien? These are the kind of caustic chemistry games New York artist Matthew Cetta has been experimenting with in his Photogenic Alchemy series.

The project evolved out of a time of depression when he had no desire to even get out of bed, and it was at first a way to go out in the world and explore with photography. As Cetta explained to Hyperallergic:

I originally modified a Holga 120N to shoot 35mm film so that I could create images that included the sprocket holes. I set out on the streets of New York to take street shots. However I felt like I could tinker more. The next logical step was to modify the film. Having been taught to develop black and white film, paper, and color prints at SVA, I already knew that chemistry played a big role in photography; after all, an analog photograph in its most elemental form is nothing more than a chemical reaction.

The distorted results are reminiscent of the late Miroslav Tichý‘s lurid looks at half-dressed ladies that he took with his handmade cameras, although Cetta’s subjects are more frequently the streets of New York, although there are some sparsely dressed women. Cetta said he’s been inspired by artists like Matthew Brandt, who uses materials like lake water and pixy stix in developing his photographs. “The whole project was a really a pushback against the digital revolution as a whole,” Cetta stated. “Every class I took emphasized perfect color and perfect exposure, but in real life perfection is in the imperfections. I wanted to emphasize those imperfections.”

Not all of the solutions have been successful, as hydrogen peroxide made the film snap while he was rewinding it, pepper spray removed all the film’s light sensitivity, and gasoline, which was his “favorite failure,” actually “melted the spindle like an ice cream cone on a hot day.” Yet the results with Peto-Bismol, turpentine, olive brine, ammonia, cough syrup, Febreeze, iodine, and other hazardous chemicals and odd household items do have some fascinating image manipulations.

“The goal was to see what each chemical would do and the more caustic ones always produced a more drastic effect,” Cetta said. “But, eventually my mantra became ‘Would this kill me if I drank it?  Put it on my film!'”

Here are some selections from Photogenic Alchemy, with their unconventional solutions listed with each:

Photogenic Alchemy

Color-safe bleach

Photogenic Alchemy

Aluminum sulfate

Photogenic Alchemy

Ambien

Photogenic Alchemy

Bengay

Iodine

Iodine

Photogenic Alchemy

Ammonia

Photogenic Alchemy

Coca-Cola

Photogenic Alchemy

Cough syrup

Photogenic Alchemy

Hydrogen peroxide

Photogenic Alchemy

Olive brine

Photogenic Alchemy

Drano

Photogenic Alchemy

Driveway degreaser

Photogenic Alchemy

Febreeze

Photogenic Alchemy

Ginger juice

Photogenic Alchemy

Pepto-bismol

Photogenic Alchemy

Turpentine

More images from Photogenic Alchemy are on Matthew Cetta’s website.

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