Inside Electrophotography

Inside Electrophotography

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This year F295 is excited to feature Tom Carpenter’s Electrophotography workshop. Electrophotography is a process that is better known for creating copies of simple office documents, but through the use of a large format camera Carpenter has been using it in more interesting, artistic ways. We recently had the chance to speak with him more about the process and what makes it so unique.


F295: How does the electrophotography process work?
TC: Electrophotography is based on the concept that opposite charges attract and like charges repel. The same force that holds a balloon to a wall when you rub one against your hair makes electrophotography work.

F295: What are the benefits of working with electrophotography?
TC: You don’t need to work in a darkroom! The entire process can be completed in the light. It’s a process that can – with practice – produce finely detailed images with deep rich blacks and a nice tonal range. The Electrophotography process is slower than digital but faster than film. It’s a great way to teach the basic concepts of photography. Aperture, shutter speed etc… and you don’t have to use toxic chemicals so it is perfect for a classroom environment.


F295: How do these steps aid in the creativity?
TC: You are really “crafting” an image. At each point in the process the image can be altered or manipulated. The exposures can be very long which allows for interesting possibilities.

Once the image is on the plate or paper it can be smudge, wiped, and “edited.” Unlike other photographic processes the Xerox flat plate process uses reusable selenium plates. With even careful use, plates will accumulate scuffs and scratches. Some people find this surface, developed with age, charming while others find it frustrating. The scratches can be removed with careful polishing with Brasso.

Using a modification to the system, known as a “Hot Wire” invited by the Rochester Artist Joel Swartz, the carbon based toner image can be transferred to just about any surface. The hot wire is basically an insulated wire that can shoot out or “spray” an electrostatic charge. I used this process at a Brockport College event “Drawing on Walls.” I photographed students and staff and used the hot wire to transfer the images onto the gallery wall. Once the images were on the wall I used a heat gun to melt the toner into the wall.


F295: How did you become involved with electrophotography?
TC: I started modifying or hacking old laser printers. I was able to print un-heatset images and transfer them to various surfaces – even clay!

Living in Rochester, the home of Kodak and Xerox, people would tell me stories about this strange Xerox machine that was like a copier, but used a camera. No one had one because most were scrapped. Eventually an artist in Rochester passed along her equipment.(she was cleaning out her garage), but not much information was available about how to use it. Joel Swartz, who worked extensively with the process in the 70’s and 80’s, generously took time to teach me how to use the equipment. Several years ago the family of Charlie Arnold entrusted me with the late artists equipment. Charlie Arnold produced some of the most incredible work using the process. Now I have to share what I know with others.

F295: Why do you enjoy using this process?
TC: Even though it’s a Xerographic machine each image is one of a kind. It’s relatively easy to get a photographic image using the process, but it take times and skill to craft a really excellent image.


F295: How difficult is it to make or buy the materials/equipment needed to do this process on your own?
TC: The equipment is still out there. Some people just don’t know what it is or how to use it. I find equipment and supplies on eBay or Craigslist in the Rochester area. I am working now to build a 4×5″ version that would work like the larger 11×14” camera. If you know how the process works and are a little technically savvy it’s possible to build a little charging unit.

F295: What are the manual steps to the process?
TC: There are five basics steps: Charging, Exposing, Developing, Transferring to paper, and Fusing.

1. Charging: The selenium plate is placed in the charging unit. The plate is exposed to thousands of volts of electricity giving the plate a positive electrostatic charge. A dark slide is slid into the plate holder to protect it from light. The #4 camera is focused on its subject as one would with a traditional medium or large format camera. The ground glass is removed and selenium plate is inserted.

2. Exposing: The Dark slide is pulled out and the exposure lasting anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes is made. The areas of the plate that are hit with light lose their positive charge.

3. Developing: The plate is now ready for development. The plate is placed on a tray full of toner and carrier beads. The toner is negatively charged. The dark slide is removed and the plate is rocked back and forth. This is known as cascade development. The toner is held to the carrier beads with an electrostatic charge. The parts of the plate that have not been exposed to light still have a positive charge stronger than the carrier beads thus pulling the toner off or them and adhering the toner to the plate. When the plate is removed the image is complete and should be visible as a revered positive. Like one would see on a Daguerreotype.

4. Transferring to paper: At this point the image can be transferred. A sheet of paper is placed over the image taking care not to move the paper causing the image to smudge. The plate and paper are placed back into the charging unit and the same electrostatic charge used for charging the plate is used to “lift” the negatively charged toner onto the piece of paper. The plate is pulled out and the paper is lifted off.

5. Fusing: The image is now no longer reversed and is ready for fusing. At this stage before fusing one can smudge, draw on or transfer the image to other surfaces.

We are excited to have this workshop at this years upcoming F295 Symposium, read more here


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