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Photosynthesis Solution

Vegan artist turns to the sun to avoid using animal products

Joe Smigiel likes to wear suspenders, but his suspenders, unlike most, do not have a leather triangle where the straps cross in back. His are naked because, from his suspenders to the soles of his canvas shoes, Smigiel is a vegan.

Like most vegans, who do not eat or use animal products, Smigiel (rhymes with “eagle”) does not want to be a part of causing any animal’s suffering. “After the best steak dinner of my life, I went home and randomly watched a YouTube video about slaughterhouses and decided to be a vegetarian,” he says. “That lasted 10 days.” After he investigated even “good” farms, he says, their practices made him decide to “go all the way to vegan.”

But being vegan was a challenge when it came to his artistic life as a photographer.

Smigiel is an educational specialist at Kalamazoo Valley Community College who has taught photography and digital imaging as well as geology. Before becoming vegan, he, like most photographers, used film having a gelatin solution, and gelatin is derived from the hooves, bones and connective tissue of animals. In fact, gelatin is so important to photography that George Eastman, founder of the Eastman Kodak Co., had the Peabody Gelatin Factory, a slaughterhouse, built right next door to his photography plant in Rochester, New York, so that the plant would always have a ready source of gelatin.

Eating and living in a conscientious, thoughtful way proved easier for Smigiel than doing photography without gelatin. “I became a vegan due to animal welfare concerns in December 2014, and that really changed my artistic aspirations toward being a wannabe painter,” he says. “It forced me to give up traditional silver-gelatin-based (film) photography.”

The list of animal products used in the visual arts is long and surprising. Along with products many peoples are aware of, such as albumen (from eggs), beeswax, animal fur/bristles and gelatin, the visual arts use rabbit skin glue for the canvases and linen that artists paint on, ox gall and urine to color paint, and isinglass adhesive from sturgeon for various purposes. Even pig bladders were once used as containers for paint.

Although digital photography essentially solves the animal-products problem for a vegan, since electronic imaging, digital negatives and vegan exhibition-quality inks are available for inkjet printers, Smigiel sought a different way around the animal-products conundrum: photosynthesis.

Photosynthesis occurs when cells convert energy from the sun into chemical energy, and it is largely responsible for producing and maintaining the oxygen content of the Earth’s atmosphere. Smigiel says that, having “always been drawn to antiquated photographic printing processes such as cyanotypes and Van Dyke brown printing,” he started making cyanotypes — photographic prints that use the sun, not gelatin, to create images.

Cyan means blue. For cyanotypes, the photographic paper is treated with ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, which are light-sensitive. When it’s time to make a print, objects or a digital negative is placed on the paper, and then these elements are left out in the sun for three to seven minutes. When the exposure is “done,” the objects are removed from the paper. The paper is then immersed in water, and the shadows of the objects remain paper white, while the background is blue. Cyanotypes can be enhanced using simple household products such as peroxide or baking soda that can have a profound effect on the final print. Even pouring old coffee on the paper can yield a beautiful result.

Several of Smigiel’s cyanotype photos look like traditional photos, that is, they have high definition and sculptural qualities. One of his favorite cyanotype photographs is of three blind boys taken when Smigiel taught an art camp for visually impaired youth in Greenville, Michigan.

“That was the best experience of my life!” Smiegel recalls, smiling. “The blind kids in a darkroom, well, they were totally at home.”

In August, Smigiel conducted a workshop on cyanotypes as part of The Photosynthesis Project, in which invited artists and writers in Southwest Michigan, myself included, have been exploring the subject of photosynthesis. An exhibition of work created for the project opens Nov. 2 at KVCC’s Center for New Media.

Putting the cyanotype prints into water, workshop participants really had no idea what was going to show up. Some people used plants. I used a straw wreath, some rings and a hunk of crystal. When the print was finished, it looked like the birth of the universe.

For the final moments of the cyanotype workshop, Smigiel had prepared some fabric for printing. After sunset, he mixed up the chemicals and the cloth in a five-gallon bucket and hung the cloth to dry outside. He got up at 5 a.m. to take it down before the sun came up. The cloth waited in a bag in a box, but time ran out before it could be used in the workshop.

Smigiel’s undergraduate studies of physical geography and geology and a master’s degree in environmental studies are now leading him in new directions. He is exploring making paint from natural substances. For The Photosynthesis Project, he “intends to create a painting integrating my long-term interests in visual art and geology together.”

But lest anyone think Smigiel is a perfect vegan, he confesses this: “I enjoy playing eight-ball at seedy establishments (cue tips use animal products), and I serve two felines at home.” And they eat meat.

Elizabeth Kerlikowske

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