Photo Meets Fabric
The fusion of photographs and fabric is not a new idea. It surfaced as early as the advent of photography. Early British examples include an early 1840’s ferro-prussiate portrait of John Mercer (on mercerized cotton) by J.B. Dancer, and an 1850 collodian on linen by F. Scott Archer. Nineteenth century examples include pillow tops, portraits, handkerchiefs, fire screens and art panels. A photographic enterprise emerged in the 1870’s with the application of scenic photographs onto canvas, “all ready for the artist’s brush” as the ad said. One wonders just how many nineteenth century paintings are actually over-painted photographs!
Photographers usually contact-printed directly on sensitized fabric in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Processes included salted silver, cyanotype & ferro-prussiate variations, platinum, gum bichromate, and vandyke/kallitype, carbon & iron-silver variations. Since then, both direct and indirect techniques have developed, including transfer and hybrid techniques.
The twentieth century saw frequent revivals of the historic processes such as cyanotype, gum bichromate, platinum, and vandyke. The noted photographer Edward Steichen printed cyanotypes on silk garments for his wife Johanna. Photo-linen, silver-emulsion coatings, dye-transfer, photo-screen, ‘quick print’ and transfer papers for color-laser copiers have been accessible since the 1970’s. Also by the 70’s, M. Stieglitz offered studies in alternative photographic processes, including cloth, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Digital printing innovations have greatly amplified options for printing on fabric and alternative substrates including metal. First Iris/giclee prints, inkjet and dye sublimation (sublistatic) made direct and indirect printing on fabric and other substrates possible. Electronic tools are changing constantly, offering the photographer many options with which to explore their aesthetic.
Contemporary digital artists often use heat transfer paper to carry digital photographic images to cloth, leather or other surfaces. Most use various inkjet printers to generate the images onto the paper, and heat-transfer them onto various support materials. Some experiment with running fabrics and alternative materials directly through inkjet printers. Eventually, wide-format digital printers, specifically designed for fabric, became available along with specialized dyes and fabric.
The debut of wide-format graphics in the early 1990’s introduced tremendous opportunity for further extension of photographic-quality printing on textiles. Today, building and bus-sized photographic images transform our perception of the environment.
In 1998–9, J. R Campbell and M. Stieglitz researched applications for the Encad 1500TX (Digital Textile System). While an early system, it was designed specifically for photorealistic printing on fabric. This wide-format printer accepted a variety of fabrics, up to 60 inches in width, and prints in full color at a resolution of 300dpi. The research team combined expertise in photography and textile design from both the industry and fine art viewpoints. They explored concepts not previously attainable through traditional processes. They investigated design concepts of layering, depth of field/focus, ghosting and integration of repeat pattern. Campbell’s art works examined the use of digital imagery on fabric to express concepts of form, identity and story.
Campbell also designed fabrics integrating repeat design and garment pattern. He engineered surface design effects emphasizing continuity of image across the body and seam lines on apparel. This relationship of 2-D surface and 3-D structure provided avenues of expression for the team.
Photographers often opt for the aesthetic quality of cloth as ground. Using the interrelationship of image and cloth texture may deepen the impact of the photographic image. Stieglitz often combined photographic images with fabric, in 2-D, 3-D and installation forms. This is observed in the four differing nine-foot hanging panels.
The research team produced and mounted the very first museum exhibition devoted to digital textiles in January of 2001 at the University of Nebraska’s Hillestad Gallery.
Later collaborative experiments with the large silk panel yielded:
Another cross-disciplinary design effort produced this silk jacket:
The archival quality of their images should be a critical consideration for photographic artists, whatever the technique or medium. Among professional photographers, responsibility to ascertain the archival qualities of the image is mandatory. Manufacturer’s specifications are often very general. The graphic arts industry developed many of the printers artists first used as proofing tools. This presented a problem with permanence, as many of the inks were water soluble and non-lightfast. One important resource of all photographers is Henry Wilhelm’s website (www.wilhelm-research.com), and his periodic updates.
The pigments used in the Encad 1500TX include the water-soluble ‘proofing’ inks and fiber reactive inks (dyes) for cotton and acid dyes for silk. All are steam set and match permanency standards for other FR-dyed fabric. Quickly other fabric printers, wide-format printers for textiles and alternative substrates came to market offering higher resolution and new options.
A variety of equipment is now available to photographers. With any technology, the conceptual supersedes the technical. Images are more about form and content than tools alone. Understanding medium, tool, end use or purpose of the output is critical. A rich tool array (hardware and software) is now available to the photographer for the translation of creative concepts. This may involve various processes and print supports, combinations, and tools. New media, particularly the electronic/digital array of choices, are alluring. Conceptual development and design statement utilize media and technique as a means to the end. Computer-controlled looms offer another area of design combining a traditional textile production tool with computer power. Lia Cook, an artist from San Francisco is widely known for her intriguing imagery, as in “Face Maze”:
In this era of snapped/grabbed/scanned/filtered ‘Photo-shopped’ work, the challenge of the photographer, as always, is to express meaning. A talented photographer can accomplish much with the aid of a computer, but new technology will not make up for weak artistic statements and/or poor design. A work is not successful due to the technology or media used in its creation. “Tools and techniques only serve; it is the conceptual and visual encounter that endures.” (M. S.)
Selected Related Bibliography
Surface Design, Surface Design Journal ‘Coming Full Circle, the Art of Mary Stieglitz’, an
illustrated article by Ingrid Lilligren, Summer 2007
January 2001 exhibit http://www.design.iastate.edu/IDRO/digicloth.html
BIG Picture, Journal of Wide Format Imaging, ‘Collaborations in Digital Textile Design’, M. Stieglitz, 4 page illustrated article (digital portfolio segment), Volume 6,
Number 3, May/June, 2001
History of Photography: An International Journal, ‘Historic Photographs on Cloth’, Mary Stieglitz, Taylor and Francis, London, Illustrated article 'Historic Photographs on Cloth', Vol. 1, No. 2, April, 1977