Poisoning myself 4 artz
January 28, 2010 11:54 AM   Subscribe

I'm getting interested in working with alternate photography processes that involve potassium cyanide. How stupid an idea is that?

I've done a ton of digital photography and a bit of silver based dark room photography. Recently I got a view (large format) camera and I've been getting interested in alternative processes.

The thing I'm most interested in doing is contact printing with the wet plate collodion process. Partly because I think it's really cool, I love the idea of making negatives on the spot and not using commercial products. But also I'm interested because I think it's maybe the most beautiful photographic process I've ever seen, at least monochrome.

As I understand it, potassium cyanide is the superior fixing agent for wet plate collodion. Now I know that people do this and survive and lead relatively normal lives. However, I'm trying to figure out if I think this is a good idea for me.

Some details:
I'm a fairly meticulous, careful person
I don't have a great workspace but would like to be doing this on location (some sort of a tent thing) ideally anyway.
I don't have a tremendous amount of money

I don't have a ton of experience working with chemicals, other than a recent basic chemistry class and my previous dark room classes.

So...what are my chances of getting involved in this without poisoning me or my loved ones?
posted by sully75 to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
look at it this way: "risk" is the probability an event happens, balanced against the consequences of that event.

If you're a meticulous person, and take the utmost care in storage, handling and disposal of cyanide, the probability of an incident are very slim.

On the other hand, the consequence of said incident is very likely death.

You do the math.

(plus, I'm fairly confident KCN is not sold in the street)
posted by _dario at 12:13 PM on January 28, 2010

Disclaimer: I do not work with potassium cyanide, or know anything about the photographic development process. I have worked in a chemistry lab where it has been used, however.

Safetywise, potassium cyanide can produce gaseous hydrogen cyanide when mixed with acid. Ingestion of the liquid or inhalation of the hydrogen cyanide gas is a sure-fire way to kill yourself or others. I would research in detail all of the chemicals you require for this process and any special safety procedures that need to be taken into account (MSDSs are often a good place to start, though not always the whole picture). It can be neutralized with bleach, according to wikipedia.

If you are serious about trying this out and can actually find a source for the potassium cyanide, here's I would think you should do:
- Find someone who has worked with this development process and get them to teach you. At the very least, attempt this in the prescence of someone else who is aware of the risk of working with this stuff and knows the appropriate safety measures to take if things go wrong.
- Work in an extremely well-ventilated area. Tents sound kind of sketchy to me. Test the process first, several times, in a controlled environment, preferrably in a fumehood.
- Find out what sort of personal protective equipment you need to do this: I would think at a minimum latex gloves, eye protection and a lab coat/clothing barrier would be required, though I don't know exactly. Again, seek out someone who has done this before and get them to show you exactly what to do.
- Be extremely anal about controlling spills and waste disposal. Find out if you can take neutralized waste to the toxic disposal, or somewhere else appropriate. You may know all of the risks and precautions about handling this stuff, but the little kid who thinks it looks just like table salt might not. Nor might the person who cleans out your drains if you were to pour it down there.

As a person who handles dangerous chemicals on a regular basis, I think potassium cyanide could be handled by someone who knows all of the safety precautions and has access to the appropriate environment and equipment to do so. Please don't try this without ensuring you know fully what you're getting into.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 12:20 PM on January 28, 2010

How stupid an idea is that?

I'm reminded of the model rocket enthusiasts that use "alternative fuels" for their hobby and blow themselves up. However careful you know you'll be, you'll need to be even more careful than that.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:21 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Safetywise, potassium cyanide can produce gaseous hydrogen cyanide when mixed with acid.

And you know, this is exactly what they use to execute people.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:23 PM on January 28, 2010

This is an remarkably terrible idea. Guaranteed to be environmentally unfriendly combined with the chance, however small, of accidentally killing a loved one. Go back to digital photography for your loved ones if not for the environment.
posted by mullingitover at 12:39 PM on January 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you are not comfortable doing dangerous activity X, then you should not participate in dangerous activity X.
posted by chairface at 12:53 PM on January 28, 2010

I have used the wet-plate collodian process. It's actually quite simple.

There is another fixer that most people use instead of the potassium cyanide - the name escapes me at the moment, but you should be able to find it pretty quickly. It takes a bit longer to fix, minutes vs. seconds, but it works just fine. I've used both and unless you are extremely proficient at all your other preparations (plate prep, pouring technique, exposure, etc.) you will never notice the difference between the two fixers.

In any case, working with deliberation and taking basic precautions and preparations, you should be fine. I took a class to get the hang of the process before I struck out on my own. People have been creating photographs with this process for well over a hundred years with this process - the details and the procedures are well tested. Feel free to memail me if you like for more information.
posted by gyusan at 1:16 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I really, really want to try wet plate collodion photography myself someday - there are a few people who offer workshops around the US.

I doubt people doing workshops use potassium cyanide as a fixer for hands-on sessions, though, I can't imagine the liability logistics. From what I've read, hypo works fine but for whatever reason potassium cyanide is more favored - I'd be interested to know if this preference is about carrying on tradition, or if it really does somehow make a better image.

Aha - after a bit of searching I found this blog post, which has a side by side of photos of the same subject fixed with the two different chemicalsh... there's a difference, yes, but both have that awesome, unmistakable ancient feel to them.
posted by usonian at 1:29 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

There are a lot of chemicals that will just injure you if you have an accident.

There are also a lot of chemicals that will just kill you, flat out, no second chance, no warning, no escape if you have an accident. This is one of those chemicals. It doesn't seem worth it to me (a trained chemist) but if you're still really interested, I second beepbeepboopboop.
posted by sararah at 2:24 PM on January 28, 2010

Best answer: From a good friend's irreverent ambrotype guide: "Yes, the hardcore wetplaters use potassium cyanide, but, I’ll stick to regular modern fixer, thanks."

I don't think her work suffers because of that choice.
posted by holgate at 2:39 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wet collodion is pretty straight forward and people have been doing it for a very long time. A lot of old printmaking and photo processes use really terrible chemicals, I have handled all kinds of really dangerous stuff and it has never been a big deal if you just are careful, always stick to the exact plan and never deviate, and trust in the process.

I have a friend who assisted a professional who did wet collodion for a few years. People always asked him how dangerous it was and his response was always that it was pretty much impossible to fuck up as long as you knew what you were doing. It's not a hard process but it's not something I would want to learn by trial and error on my own, I would see if you could assist someone else or take a class on it.
posted by bradbane at 2:56 PM on January 28, 2010

The thing about wet plate collodion,in addition to chemicals themselves, is that you have to rush through the whole process before the plate dries. Also, the plate is glass, which itself is hazardous; it's bad enough to slash up your arm on a shattered pate, but that's the least of your worries if a bunch of hazardous chemicals get in your bloodstream.

One more thing: Many of the chemicals are tricky to get your hands on, and when you do, you can expect to be added to a government watch list or two. A non-trivial portion of the chemistry (in truth, nearly all of it) is extremely dangerous in one way or another. Modern "safety film" got that name because it doesn't use nitrocellulose, which is explosive; wet plate collodion does.

You really, really, need to know exactly what you're doing.
posted by Sys Rq at 3:04 PM on January 28, 2010

Yes, it is possible for people to work potassium cyanide, if they're trained to deal with dangerous chemicals and have access to all appropriate safety measures; I've worked in labs where cyanide was needed for some routine stuff.

That doesn't mean it is a good idea for your situation. If I were to use this method - and it does look interesting - I'd be doing it in a fume hood in a chemistry lab, with appropriate PPE, and the waste would be stored and disposed of according to the applicable hazmat regulations. (Purchase, storage, transportation, and disposal of hazardous chemicals is really highly regulated, by the way, and you'd need to be aware of and in compliance with those regulations.) For doing something on location, in a tent (!), I would never consider using KCN. Use the safer alternate fixer mentioned above, and once you're familiar with the technique, if you really need to try the potassium cyanide version, consider talking to whoever taught your basic chem class or finding a professional and seeing if you can try it out in a safe, supervised place.

I'm sure someone will speak up and say they've done this in their unventilated closet without problems, and that people have been doing it for a century so there's no need to worry. Thing is, with really toxic stuff, the price for a single mistake or accident can be very high. You can be very, very careful and follow the protocol perfectly, but look: I've worked in biochemistry and chemistry labs for the past decade. Accidents happen to even the most highly trained people. Beyond that, all I can say is that people took risks years ago that we would not take now. There were certainly chemists who survived years of direct exposure to radioactive materials, mouth pipetting chemicals, and washing their hands with benzene, but you sure as hell won't find me doing any of those things.
posted by ubersturm at 3:20 PM on January 28, 2010

Ok, stop presses.
Sodium thiosulphate is used as an alternative fixing agent.
Use that, it's (well, relatively) innocuous.
posted by _dario at 3:33 PM on January 28, 2010

The nice thing about cyanide is that if it doesn't kill you, you'll probably be OK (as opposed to all those chemicals that, if they don't kill you now will cause you long term disfigurement, disability and disease that will kill you later). However, it can and will cheerfully kill you.

100-300 parts per million (0.01 - 0.03%) is an efectively lethal concentration of HCN in air according to these guys. This isn't something I'd run right out to do, but if you're really set on doing this I can't stop you, so here's my advice. Figure out how big a room you're working in. Measure the room's heigth, length and width in meters - round down to account for crap in the room. Multiply those numbers to get the room's volume in cubic meters. Multiply that by 1000 to get the rooms volume in liters.

Figure out how much KCN you'd be using in grams. Divide that number by 65. That's how many moles of HCN you'd get if things went horribly wrong. One mole of a gas takes up about 22.4 liters at room temperature and atmospheric pressure, so multiply your number by 22.4. Now divide liters of cyanide by liters of air and multiply by 100 to get percent. If I were doing this (and I already said I probably wouldn't) I'd shoot for a 10 fold safety margin (0.001%)

So if your room is 2m x 3m x 5m it contains about 30,000 L of air. If you are using 5 grams of KCN, that's 0.08 moles, so about 1.7 L of HCN. 1.7 L / 30,000L = 0.006%. That would be deep into my THINK LONG AND HARD ABOUT THIS range since you really can't count on perfect mixing of the air and any generated gas.

(Cyanide can also enter through the skin and be ingested and less can kill you that way.)
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:39 PM on January 28, 2010

On not preview - WHAT _DARIO SAID!
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:53 PM on January 28, 2010

Response by poster: Great advice from all. From what I've read, Sodium thiosulphate is an alternative but doesn't have the same properties as sodium cyanide. However it does have the not-killing you property. But I've also read that the difference is notable only if you have everything else perfected. My only concern is getting into the process and really loving it but at some point sort of being forced to choose between using cyanide or not having my pictures be as good as they could be.

Holgate: I'm actually a big fan of your friend's photography, I'd seen her on flickr a long time ago. To know that she's not using cyanide is a good recommendation for me.

Thanks again!
posted by sully75 at 4:40 PM on January 28, 2010

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