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:

Color-safe bleach

Aluminum sulfate






Cough syrup

Hydrogen peroxide

Olive brine


Driveway degreaser


Ginger juice



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

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

3 replies on “Absinthe, Ambien, and Other Caustic Chemical Experiments with Photography”

  1. If the artist can’t control, predict or dictate the outcome it’s not really art is it? It’s an amusing accident, like those paintings you see done by elephants. You just have to ask yourself why? What is it that he thinks he’s photographing?

  2. Before digital it was control, perfection and repeatability that were the holy grail of the printmaker. Now that we actually have rather precise control of those factors it appears that accidents and uncontrolled variations were the “really” important elements to making “real” art. All part of our love/hate relationship with technology and an example of how far we’ll go to deny the inevitable. Which makes these pictures seem like quaint throwbacks to a bygone era. Nothing here that could not be accomplished by adjusting color “Curves,” “Layering” in a photo of soap suds in the “Darken” mode and applying a little distortion using Photoshop’s “Liquify” filter. But, that would not be art because…?

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