Why Gum?

I am not the type of photographer that easily translates my visual work and the reasons for it into concise verbal or written reasoning. I am always a little in awe of those artists who are completely and oh so easily and casually able to do so. During my end of semester graduate critique, I was asked “Why Gum Prints, what do they offer that just printing digitally doesn’t.” I knew the question was eventually coming, but I had been so focused on learning my process that I had not really given that type of question much brain space.

My answer was probably as soft and vague as the visual first impression of a gum print can be. It was something along the lines of how I feel that the merging of the pigments and the soft swirl and layering of color that they give somehow feels more like the reality of being outdoors. Most of my subject matter ends up being some version of nature or outdoors, and sometimes the closeted feeling of being in an Indiana woods. When you are out in nature with the wind blowing or even just gentle drafts of air moving around you, it shifts trees, grasses, your hair, clothing, leaves, any and every object really, which then causes the light and the shadows to move, reflect, and absorb all around you. This feeling of the movement of light and color that is present at the time I capture an image, it feels visually present to me in the final gum prints. The images are not a literal interpretation, but more about that the feeling than something exact.

The second part of my answer is that I am drawn to the process. I like challenge of mixing my own pigments to re-create an image that obviously already caught my eye or I wouldn’t have taken the photo. My favorite moment in the process is watching my images appear one layer at a time as the undeveloped pigments lift off, and I also really like the mix of science and art. Since the beginning of this degree journey I have been looking for ways to link my science past to my art, but I was looking to my subject matter. The answer was process not subject matter. I have spent a decent amount of time working in environmental testing labs and science labs so I was already completely comfortable working with chemicals, scales, formulas, etc. The process is also not so rigid that I can’t make weird changes or go with a feeling I have about a different exposure or weird mixing of pigments. So all in all, the Gum Bichromate Process allows just enough of the rigid protocol of science joined with the flexibility of Art. Perfect because I like rules, protocol, and guidelines until I don’t, and then I just want to do what I want. This is a process that fits that part of my personality perfectly.

Along with those explanations I am going to start a running, random list of reasons to answer the question of, “WHY GUM?”  I am also going to include quotes from other artists that say what I want to say better than I can.


  • They feel a little less like a moment frozen in time. More like the moment still exists.
  • I like the challenge.
  • Process- It really is a lot of work for one photographic image.
  • The nod to historical process. Gum Prints were the very first color photographs.
  • Chemistry is amazing.
  • I like to photograph trees, gum arabic (the stuff you mix your colors in!;) comes from a tree.
  • Every image is one of a kind.
  • “It (gum) is a process for the impressionist, not the realist, and is for the man who has an idea to put in permanent form, an interpretation of some beautiful mood of nature, rather than for the man who is content to reproduce simply the facts as they lie before him.” -Francis Orville Libby (Christina Z. Anderson, Gum Printing and other Amazing Contact Printing Processes, 13)
  • On process and the mix of science and art, Mary Donato (who was a research Geologist!!!!) “…satisfying my analytical and expressive impulses by combining 21st -century digital devices with 19th –century printing process to create handmade photographic images. (Anderson, 33)
  • Handmade and what she said. Handmade in this instance also equals time consuming and feels like a way to slow down the constant flow of time around you, especially in a world that just keeps zipping faster and faster.
  • “Gum printing appeals to those who appreciate the journey as much as the destination.” –Christina Z. Anderson (Anderson, 37)
  • “The gum process is all a paradox. It is at the same time the easiest and yet the most difficult of all processes; has the shortest scale and again the longest; is one of the oldest methods and yet to most of us the newest. It receives the greatest praise and at the same time the greatest ridicule.” –R.V. Sawyer in American Photography (Anderson, 36)
  • I love mixing pigments and making my own colors. I get to explore color in a way that no other process in photography provides.
  • I am the photographer, the editor, and THE PRINTER. I am now all parts of my process while still utilizing my electronic buddies.
  • Photographic printmaking without the need of a dark room.
  • I have gotten the hang of basic 3-5 layer registration gum printing and now I can start trying new things and different experiments within the framework I have built.
  • There is not one, right way.
  • Science aside when images appear they feel magical, and if my process plus subject matter has that same magical sense that I feel when in nature then it is a double whammy.
  • Weird but true, I like using paint brushes.
  • I love having a lot of small details to pay attention to.
  • Tactile and not completely tied to a computer.


    St. Cuthbert Way, Cheviot, Northumberland. Hamish Stewart

As soon as I get some of this semester’s work scanned in I will share the results of the ‘process’ journey that I had this semester. Until then enjoy the feeling invoked by Stewart’s two lane dirt road, you can visit his website gumphoto.co.uk to view more of his images and read about his gum printing process. I know I want to walk down this road -not drive.




2 thoughts on “Why Gum?

  1. I’m glad this question came up and that you have pondered it. This one is my favorite: “Gum printing appeals to those who appreciate the journey as much as the destination.” –Christina Z. Anderson (Anderson, 37)

    Liked by 2 people

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