LA Hoffman

L.A. Hoffman

The second in a series of guest posts on Hidden Hazards in the Arts with our partner, the Local Hazardous Waste Management Program in King County (LHWMP)…


Bathtubs, Cyanide & that Beautiful Blue Tone

I was lucky in my undergrad experience. My program had an emphasis on experimental and traditional (like 1826) photography. I understood that digital photography was going to be the 21st century medium, but I was drawn to hands on darkroom techniques.

Now I should point out that I studied at Montana State University. The school had acquired a Fine Art habit. Making art was “research” and we had access to all kinds of equipment and were encouraged to experiment. I have vague and blurry memories of safety lectures. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell you one word about gloves, tongs, or ventilation. I do have notes on “maybe do outside” scribbled next to a few processes, which seems hilarious and ominous to me now.

In spring semester (which in Montana means snow covered and 20 below zero), I took an intermediate black and white photography course. The assignment was simple: work with a Hasselblad, process 2 or 3 rolls of film and three prints. I filled my rolls, made the prints, and still had time before they were due, so I decided to try something new – tone my prints blue! Toning makes photographs archival, so it was good practice.

I rush-ordered potassium ferricyanide blue toner from Photographer’s Formulary and got to work. It was a cold day and my car wasn’t starting so I decided to work in my bathroom with a safelight. The directions seemed simple. Blue was a direct toner and I didn’t need to bleach the print first or redevelop it, I just had to put the image into the solution and wait for the color I wanted. I went into the bathroom, closed the door, and turned on the overhead fan and safelight. The solution was easy to mix and I got to work.

Sitting with my head over the tub watching my final print I started to get bored, so I read over all the text on the formula packet. There it was: “Always work under proper ventilation. Do not heat mixture to over 65 degrees Fahrenheit to avoid off-gassing.”

Off-gassing? Isn’t this cyanide toner– does that mean cyanide gas?!

I ran from the bathroom. How warm was it in my house? Where did that little bathroom vent go? How long had I been in there? Where were my gloves? Where were my gloves?

Luckily, I was a poor college student too cheap to turn on the heat. My house was balmy 50 degrees. I opened every door and window – freezing, but ALIVE.

Ten years later, Photographers Formulary carries a different blue toner, but you can still get potassium ferricyanide somewhere. I’m not sure I was truly in danger of gassing myself, I’d need a chemist to tell me that….but since I don’t have chemists on speed dial, I’ll just skip the bathtub in favor of a properly ventilated lab space – one where I won’t pass out in a cloud of fumes or drown in a tub of toxic chemicals.

The photo did come out beautifully though, as you can see.

–          L.A. Hoffman

Want to learn about the chemical hazards present in your practice and how you can protect yourself and the environment from toxic exposures? Join us for one of the following FREE workshops – the first of which is right around the corner!

Hidden Hazards in the Arts: Jewelry, Metalsmithing, and Printmaking
Brown Bag Lunch
Thursday, January 10, 12-2pm
4Culture – 101 Prefontaine Place South – Seattle, WA 98104

Save these dates for the next workshops in the series:

Thursday, March 14, 6-8pm
Chemical hazards in painting (aerosol spray paint, oil, water, acrylic), encaustic, pastels and adhesives (fixatives, glues, pastes)

Thursday, May 9, 12-2pm
Chemical hazards in studio glass (glass blowing, slumping, fusing, grinding, etching and polishing)

To RSVP or ask questions, email or call 206-263-3069.