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Vol. 12, No. 1, 2013
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the coffee art of

Saul Bolaños



John M. EdwardsJohn Edward's work has appeared in, CNN Traveller, Missouri Review,, Grand Tour, Michigan Quarterly Review, Escape, Global Travel Review, Condé Nast Traveler, International Living, Emerging Markets and Entertainment Weekly. He helped write “Plush” (the opening chords), voted The Best Song of the 20th Century by Rolling Stone Magazine.


Costa Rica, a coffee democracy in a sea of banana republics, is known more for its number-one export than its art. It’s only natural then that the Costa Rican photographic artist Saul Bolaños decided to fuse the two and extract art from the ubiquitous bean. His patented cafegrafia ™ (coffee graphics), photo images made real by coffee, explore the offbeat flight paths of Central American visual art.

© Saul BolañosBolaños’s process is quite revolutionary for a nonrevolutionary republic. Using both powdered and liquid coffee as a pigment to make up a photo image -- instead of the standard silver emulsion -- he has at the same time developed a special secret chemical process to make the images absolutely permanent. No darkroom is needed. Developing an image can be accomplished in full sunlight. Having previously treated a surface of a variety of media (paper, glass, wood, ceramic, and stone) for imaging, Bolaños simply strokes it with coffee, using a brush, and presto! The subject magically appears.

In front of the Hotel Gran Costa Rica in the capital San Jose’s 19th-century Plaza de la Cultura -- a bustling marketplace of manic vendors hawking everything from psychedelic Guatemalan textiles to Costa Rican T-shirts -- the middle-aged Bolaños sometimes sells inexpensive cafegrafia to passing tourists. “To be an artist in Costa Rica is not easy,” says Bolaños, a self-professed caffeine addict, with a lava-hot cup of java steaming in one hand. “There are many art lovers but very few art buyers.”© Saul Bolaños

He displays what looks like an old photo of a Marquezian nude, then rubs it, holding up a finger lightly dusted with coffee grinds. “My favorite is Costa Rican espresso, dark roast,” he says, by way of explanation, to an amazed onlooker. “I drink five cups a day. I stop a few weeks each year when it affects my nerves.”

To Bolaños, the photochemist, Costa Rica is coffee, and from his laboratory lair in the suburb of Ezcasu, he has discovered, in the last two decades or so, many things to do with it besides drink it. The staining properties of coffee are well known (Bolaños taps his teeth to demonstrate); the reaction of coffee with certain metallic oxides is not.

“In 1989, I discovered a strange reaction. I made a photo image, which, after being covered with coffee extracts, reacted outside of a darkroom -- and the coffee took the place of the image. The quantity of coffee ‘fixed’ by the image was in direct proportion to the amount of oxide in the image, thus giving a perfect gradation of opacities (middle tones) made up of coffee.” After many years of direct exposure to sunlight, test images show no evidence of fading, difficult to achieve even with conventional photo chemicals.

© Saul BolañosWe might conclude Bolaños is some kind of alchemist since he reveals little about he achieves his beautiful golden effect. “The tones are richer and warmer than any process I know of, and I know many,” he boasts about his roasts.

In fact, Bolaños’s magical mystery tour into the surreal world of coffee art is the result of a lifetime of research. Born in San Jose, Bolaños spent his boyhood buzzing around photo studios, surrounded by cameras, lenses and prints. In 1970, he moved to America and began his professional career as a photojournalist with a California newspaper. In 1973, he switched to commercial portrait and advertising photography, while teaching his art on the side and perfecting his craft.

His obsession with the photochemical process then led him to Europe, where for eight years he haunted laboratories in Switzerland, France, Germany, England and Italy, pouring like a nosey Nostradamus over technical literature. A return to his homeland brought all the ingredients together, and in 1989 he embarked on his research with coffee photography.

Since then he has developed five different processes using coffee, in addition to decaf techniques using other substances like gold, bronze and quartz. Besides creating and developing a new medium, the restless innovative wizard Bolaños has focused his efforts on inventing new technologies, including a special camera and enlarger. His Faustian laboratory lair in Ezcasu has the air of a mecca of science as well as a café of aesthetics, including a library that would make any Merlin envious and equipment he has either built or modified himself.

“If I lost everything, I’d start all over.” Bolaños bruits. “Your average photochemist is a flunky for the company he serves, whereas historically the alchemist was adept at many crafts. After all, leaving behind a lasting impression is the next best thing to eternal life.”

So well-versed is he in the technical science of photography that his discourse often bewilders the amateur shutterbug and cappuccino quaffer. “After cafegrafia, I developed orografia, using powdered gold as a pigment. I dissolve gold in agua regia (nitric and hydrochloric acids), and the resulting gold chloride is made into a fine metallic powder by adding ferric salt to the solution. The powdered gold is dried and used to dust and develop photo images that will accept it. The images are fixed by gun-spraying them with a varnish.” Gold images on red crystals were exhibited by Bolanos in the Costa Rican Museum of Art in 1990.

Bolaños’s newest art is vitrografia, related to high-temperature chemistry and the properties of quartz. “In this process, a glazed ceramic piece is covered with a light-sensitive emulsion and exposed to light by contact under a positive or a negative. The image is then developed” -- Bolaños curls his fingers into Spanish question marks and rolls his eyes comically like a mad scientist -- “with powdered quartz and a metallic oxide. The image is then fired in a chamber until the quartz fuses and ‘vitrifies’ and combines with the glaze.” According to Bolaños, vitrografia portraits are not affected by gas, water, fire, acids, or chemicals -- and will last for centuries in the open air, making them ideal for cemeteries. “This is only a small part of my research. What I have in my lab now I cannot publish at this time,” he says with a sly smile. “Right now it’s all just a curiosity.”

Luis Ferrero Acosta, Costa Rica’s best-known art historian, has called Bolaños “a master;” others say he is a “witch,” an accusation which he does not deny.

Since 1990, his work has been the focus of numerous gallery exhibitions, newspaper and magazine articles, and TV spots in Latin America. But in the U.S. and abroad his work is still relatively unknown. Two techniques were featured at the 1993 Photo & Image Expo (Seattle) and the 1993 USA Coffee Show (Boston). But the international art community (perhaps the world’s leading coffee consumer) is beginning to wake up and smell the coffee. At the prestigious 1993 International Exhibition of Photography (Puyallup, Washington), for example, Bolaños won medals for two works: “The New Man” and “The Dreamer” -- the first time Costa Rica had won in a major international photo competition. The anonymous entries were judged on artistic merit alone, not other ingredients; judges remained unaware that Bolaños had maybe slipped them a little caffeine.

About “The New Man,” a weird self-portrait of the artist emerging from a giant egg, Bolaños says, “In the search for myself I grow only when breaking away from old beliefs. My body dies once but the person within dies a few times in a lifetime and is transformed.”

Bolaños has refused countless lucrative offers to mass-reproduce other artists’ work using his strange brew. “I don’t want art to be like old newspapers in the trashcan. I didn’t renew my contract with my old agent. I get by selling my work myself. I won’t get rich this way but money isn’t everything.” Bolaños smiles mischievously. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t entertain serious offers.”

His overpowering eye instead centers on his main addiction, be it a rural scene of children picking coffee beans or the traditional coffee-making apparatus in still life, their sepia-like fresh-brewed textures driving home the fact that Costa Rican life, outside the tourist districts, hasn’t changed much in the last century. Other shots range from tranquil beach and rural scenes and portraits to espresso-like prints of magical realism involving clowns with balloons and dreamlike nudes.

Bolaños is now setting his sights and lenses on Big Apple competitions and exhibitions. “I’ve never been to New York, but I hear they appreciate good coffee there.” Where better to bring his caffeinated creations to boil than among the brave baristas of New York City’s art scene, Starbucks excepted. “I do not drink or smoke, no religion, no politics, no sports, no TV. I am extra-sensitive to what I consume -- but coffee, luckily is still legal. It gets me going: I like it pure, without fat, sugars and artificial colorants. His response to skeptical critics: Take art not with a grain of salt but with a little cream and sugar.



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