American psychologist James Hillman dedicates a chapter of his book Alchemical Psychology to the relationship between the material properties of silver and the mind. He reflects on silver’s symbolic role throughout the steps of alchemy and proposes to use alchemical language in psychotherapy-rather than its consideration as metaphor- as a means to unlock our potential to transform trauma. In his chapter called “Silver and the White Earth,” he writes, “philosophical silver neither adheres to its reflections, nor is it passively moved by its images. The psyche of silver is ‘hard and dry’; brilliant.” He explains that silver is associated with albedo, the “whitening” stage of metals in alchemy, which “refers to the emergence of psychological consciousness, the ability to hear psychologically, and to perceive fantasy creating reality.”
Hillman’s writings echoed in my mind while I was reading about the presence of silver in photographic film and the use of herbal film developers in analogue photography. It made sense that silver would have this role in the first forms of photographic images, given its reflective nature and how it can blur the line between fantasy and truth.
I was introduced to herbal film developing by friend and fellow artist Sofía Gallisá Muriente, who recommended that I take a class on processing film using anamú, a local plant species that grows wild in the city. Anamú is high in phenols which act as chemical aids in the process of developing film, and it happens to grow in the back of the San Mateo Community Urban Garden underneath the avocado and tulipán africano trees. I often see it growing in shady, overgrown lots and home gardens while traversing the city. The leaves and roots have a strong garlic-like aroma, a more pungent version of onion’s tear-inducing aerosol. In fact, the effect is so offensive that Boricua (Puerto Rican) elders call it “la mata que el chivo no masca,” the plant goats never eat. Despite the unsettling fragrance, the plant is held with deep reverence for its strong anticancer, analgesic, abortive, and anti-rheumatic properties, making it a staple plant species in Boricua folk medicine.
I contemplate its dark home beneath the banana leaves before I harvest it for our Rewilding Borikén workshop Fotorevelado con Anamú. I smile thinking how this dark cave seems to hint at anamú’s potential use in film developing, which also requires darkness.
The third workshop in the Rewilding Borikén series was facilitated by local filmmaker Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, one of the few people on the archipelago who experiments with these techniques, who guided participants through basic herbal recipes for developing film. During the workshop, she taught the class to make decoctions with freshly picked anamú from the community garden and other plants like úcar (Bucida buceras), a tree commonly planted for urban landscaping, that grow in the San Mateo neighborhood.
Beatriz began the workshop by inviting participants to take pictures with her analog camera using 120mm black and white film. The unexposed film was then placed inside a plastic cylinder tube called a Paterson tank and put in a changing bag. Next, herbal film developer solution was poured into Paterson the tank to allow the phenols to transform the exposed silver salts embedded in the gelatin of the film into silver metal. (Developers convert the latent image on the film’s thin layer of silver into a visible image, as if transforming the esoteric/mystical into the tangible/corporeal.)
After a few minutes, participants poured out the developer solution and added water to cease the development process and prevent the picture from becoming overexposed. The next stage required pouring a “fixer” into the tank to remove the silver salts that had not been exposed to light to leave behind the silver metal that forms the image. Beatriz then showed the class how to safely dispose of the fixer and the silver particles in the sewer, before rinsing the film with a few rounds of water. Finally, the film was ready to be removed from the Paterson tank and hung out to dry. Throughout the process of experimentation, participants were quite literally “looking for answers in the dark.”
The class photographed gandules, yucca, broccoli and other plants, but the anamú eerily permeated the entire process from serving as our photographic subject to providing phenols and sulphur compounds for film development. Sulphur’s physical characteristics are warm and sticky, and its chemical constitution tarnishes silver. Place an egg yolk on a silver spoon and watch the surface blacken. Hillman equates sulphur with desire and silver with our capability of self-reflection. Silver has the ability to help us see a reflection of our psyche without reacting to it and allowing us to study the passing images of our own state of mind. But sulphur tarnishes silver as desire tarnishes our self-reflection. The polishing is where we get the insight.
As we disposed of the cast silver inside a bottle toward the end of the class, I couldn’t help but think about silver’s dark history of colonial desire. I was reminded of Eduardo Galeano’s critique of colonialism in his book Open Veins of Latin America and the maniacal, centuries-long campaign to extract precious metals in the Americas. Silver has a heavy story. So it’s rather bittersweet that the silver in our images (extracted from who knows where) is being used to document a community garden that has become a symbol of the struggle to reclaim the sovereignty that colonialism wrested away.
Questions abound regarding the future of this art form. What noble, responsible ways might we work with silver? How can it be processed and disposed of without damaging the environment? We can start by making film developers using local plant species and extracting silver from our spent fixers to reduce harm. Hillman suggests that we can begin by recalibrating our way of seeing minerals as living seeds rather than merely inert, dead rocks:
By considering metals as seeds, alchemy kept less to the distinction between vegetable and mineral (organic and inorganic) kingdoms. Seeds are living forces; a metal such as silver is a vis naturalis (natural power) with encoded intentionality, a capacity to move, form bodies, enter into combinations, take on a history, branch into ramifications; but through all such activities and transmutations it remains true to its own “blood”. These ore-bodies are not dead matter to be pushed around but vital seeds, embodiments of soul, not objective facts but subjective factors. The alchemical view incorporated into its theoretical premises what modern natural science is now stating as new: the observer and the observed are not independent from each other.
I hope that as you study the visual guide for this workshop you recognize the elemental magic, contradictions, and questions embedded in the tools and materials used in analog photography. May it truly connect us to our craft, just like the alchemists did.