Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Crystallization Experiments #3: Photos

Vintage photo with alum crystals

The final experiment for now with crystallization before moving back to textiles (which, by the way, do NOT crystallize well). To see earlier experiments see Crystallization Experiments 1: Books and Paper Ephemera, and Crystallization Experiments 2: Reading Glass Curtains.

Photo in supersaturated Borax solution

I half expected photos to simply dissolve or to have the images become muddied when immersing them in supersaturated solutions but not so. In fact the reverse is true; crystallization seems to seal and preserve the photos, particularly the Borax crystals.

The formula again involves 3 tablespoons of 20 Mule Team Borax per cup of boiling water, stirring to dissolve and create a supersaturated solution. Immerse the photo and wait for crystals to attach. The photo here (taken circa 1973 and printed by a drugstore photo service) was immersed for about a day. It is now rigid and covered in crystals.

Self portrait: photograph encrusted with Borax crystals


The next photo, taken of my mother standing in the garden in Stone Mountain, Georgia circa 1949 or so, is also a commercially printed snapshot. This photo was immersed in an alum crystal solution (1/2 cup boiling water and 2.5 tablespoons alum), which forms much larger crystals, for about 24 hours.

Frozen hope: photo encrusted with alum crystals


The final experiment involves a photo circa 1910 or so, developed on an uncoated paper much thinner than the photographic paper used today. I left it in a supersaturated alum solution for a few hours. It crystallized nicely but once out of the bath and drying, the crystals began to fall off. As a result the end result shown below is a bit of a cheat. I glued crystals back on, which enabled me to strategically place them where I wanted to. However, in the close-up below you can see that hundreds of miniscule little crystals are adhering to the photo paper on their own.

A Moment in 1910: photo with alum crystals


How do you frame a crystallized photo? Find an old frame, remove the glass, and glue the photo directly to the frame backing. Here, both frame and backing were wood, which worked out well aesthetically.

Framed crystallized photo

 After viewing these experiments, a friend is planning to dip one-page programs for a memorial service for her mother in a Borax crystal solution. The possibilities are endless. The "frozen memories" metaphor is fairly compelling. Have fun experimenting on your own.


  1. So grateful for these technics, thank you! Would like to know, what can be the substitute for Borax to make it looks like your first photo? I can't find it in our shops.

    1. Hello, curious to know what you find as a substitute to achieve the same crystallisation effect as Borax. i've used Alum salt but the result is not the same for paper/collages dipped in water

  2. So sorry, no, I don’t know any substitute. Can you order online?

  3. Great, happy you found it. You are in for a lot of fun.


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