NAME Melanie K King
JOB Lecturer in Photography & PhD Researcher
WEBSITE Melanie King
PROJECT Ancient Light
Melanie K King is currently working towards her practice based PhD at the Royal College of Art. The project she’s sharing with Personal Work Journal is part of this work, and is called “Ancient Light: Rematerialising The Astronomical Image”.
Her research focuses on demonstrating the interconnectedness of photographic materials, the environment and living beings, and Melanie has recently begun to process her images using sustainable photographic processes such as plant-based developers or extracting silver from her used photographic fixative using electrolysis.
The work for this project was shot in remote areas of the UK, Ireland, Italy and Iceland, and Melanie has also participated in residencies with the UCLO Observatory and the Kielder Observatory, both in the UK.
Melanie has self-published selection of these images as a small beautifully published ‘zine which can be purchased from her website.
“Silver can only be formed in high energy stella events like supernovae. All the silver we have on Earth is precious and finite.”
What is your project and how did it come about?
Ancient Light is a series of analogue photographs taken in dark-sky areas, away from light pollution. The aim of the project is to capture light that has travelled for thousands, if not millions, of years before reaching photosensitive film.
My exposures are at least 30 seconds and can sometimes stretch to 30 minutes. I must then wait to develop the film, and I only really get to see my resultant images when they are printed or scanned.
I usually take photographs in places where I cannot develop them, meaning that I must wait to see if the images have been exposed correctly. This delay forces me to be reflective.
What were the challenges you faced?
Technically, it took a while to work out the correct ISO and exposure to use. I tried out several cameras and found that my Mamiya 645 camera was best due to its portability and its framing of the landscape. For taking analogue photographs on a telescope, I found that using a Canon EOS 35mm camera worked well with a T-mount, slotted into a telescope eye-piece.
In the darkroom, my Ilford Delta 3200 film is pushed two stops. I then generally use the highest grade on my enlarger and do long enlarger exposures to produce my prints on silver gelatin fibre-based paper. This process results in contrasty prints with deep velvety blacks. This process also helps to counteract (some!) grain in my print.
The project has been primarily self-funded. I am working class, so this has essentially meant paying for my projects through part-time work or applying for small pots of funding.
As I am a woman who has always lived in a town or city, I found it difficult to go outside alone at night. As a woman walking alone in a darkened area, there is always the real possibility of assault of some kind. In a rural environment, this danger lessened – but it is still difficult to find courage. Residencies allowed me to be immersed within rural environments away from light pollution, but with quick access to safe, secure environments where I could gather my nerves.
In the book you mention the awareness you had of being a solo female photographer in dark deserted space – do you think this is analogous to the visibility of female photographers in general?
In the book, I meant to refer to the feeling of fear about being a woman alone at night. However, I do think that there is a comparison to be drawn about visibility of female photographers.
I do think that diversity in photography is improving, but there is still some way to go. The Hundred Heroines project recently stated that though 70-80% of photography graduates are female, only 15% of professional photographers are women.
I’d love to know more about the alternative processes you work with – how did they come about and why do you think it’s important to share your knowledge by running workshops?
My way into photography was not through studying how cameras work or the theory of photography but through a more general arts education. I became interested in photographic processes because I enjoyed how dynamic light sensitive materials are. This has only intensified as I have discovered sustainable photographic processes, where I can work with plants and materials that I find within the landscape.
I am passionate about teaching photography and running workshops because I am keen to show the magic of the darkroom. I particularly enjoy teaching with sustainable, renewable materials as I know they do not negatively impact the environment. These materials also have a more immediate connection with nature. In one of my projects “Submerged Landscapes”, I documented an area close to me which is likely to be affected by tidal rising, and developed the images with seaweed.
How does using an alternative / natural process alter your relationship with the medium?
When I am working with sustainable processes, I often choose renewable materials that can be found within my local landscape. I forage carefully, making sure not to take too much or damage the plant I am working with. As I am literally touching the plants I work with, I feel that I have a deeper connection with the materials I use. In one of my projects I collected sea water to use in place of photographic fixer, which meant that I was splashed by the sea. As I make my own chemistry, I have a stronger technical understanding of how photographic chemistry works.
I think that the way I work is, in some way, good for my health. To create my images, I am often walking to the locations that I need to access. I am also working with chemicals that are not damaging to the environment – which subsequently means they are also kinder to my own body. Shop bought chemicals can be harmful to breathe in or touch, but that effect is lessened with plant based chemistry.