The Qatar Lab

In the spring of 2013, I lived in Qatar as a photography instructor on Carnegie Mellon University's branch campus. There had been no prior photography classes on that campus, so I improvised.


I used the biology department's chemistry lab as my base of operations, as they could provide me with chemicals and lab equipment. I did not have access to any space that could handle conversion to a traditional red-light darkroom, so I modified my workflow to allow work under white light. From the Pittsburgh campus, I imported a few plastic trays, film developing tanks and reels, and a film changing bag that allowed daylight manipulation of undeveloped film. For producing images, I used a Hasselblad 500 and a Toyo 4x5 view camera to expose film, created negatives from digital files printed on Pictorico transparency film, and wet/oiled paper prints.

The lab reserved a hood for my chemical storage, and I did most of my prep work for mixing solutions and coating paper in the lab after hours. I relied on late morning and mid-afternoon sunlight as a UV source, but also experimented with a small UV illuminator used by the biology program. I stored all non-hazardous materials and equipment in my office on the other side of the building, where I could also set up a clothesline for drying prints.


The chemistry lab was able to order raw materials from Sigma Aldrich, but import regulations made some photography-specific compounds harder to get. I enjoyed giving myself the challenge of creating photographic solutions from scratch; the only thing that surprised me was that hydrogen peroxide was unavailable, both in stores and through the lab.

For film developer, I used caffenol, a coffee-based solution that can be produced from items available at a typical grocery store. I used instant Folgers coffee from the faculty break room, sodium carbonate from the supermarket, and crushed vitamin C tablets from the pharmacy to get ascorbic acid. For fixer, I ordered pure sodium thiosulfate through the lab and mixed a 10% solution. I opted not to use a particular stop bath or hypo clear, and just used a long water rinse to clean the film. The lab provided silver waste disposal services.

I decided on print processes that could take advantage of the strong, consistent sunlight of the Arabian peninsula, along with being well-suited to limited facilities. I was able to order ammonium ferric citrate and potassium ferricyanide for cyanotype, gum arabic and potassium dichromate for gum bichromate, and table salt and silver nitrate for salt printing. I brought over a large stash of Rives BFK paper and a bolt of unbleached muslin for printmaking. In addition, I used bleach, sodium carbonate, and tannic acid produced from faculty break room teabags for toning prints, and liquid watercolor pigment for coloring gum.

For more specific information about the caffenol process and the courses I taught, see the documents page.

01 April 2014

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