The Handmade Silver Print

The Handmade Silver Print

Tomando Diez Minutos
Tomando Diez Minutos

This morning I was looking through a web site that contained images of photogravures, a strong interest and pursuit of mine, and read a comment about handmade prints having more value than inkjet images. This reminded me that the last several years, most of what I have seen regarding discussions of handmade prints has lumped silver-gelatin in with the far more laborious paths that include platinum/palladium, carbon, photogravure, etc., etc.

Silver-gelatin prints certainly do fall under the heading of handmade, I suppose. But I wonder if anyone has really thought about this at length and looked at it dispassionately, rather than out of fear for their personal ox being gored.

It is still in vogue among some, to speak in derogatory terms about digital prints. I began the very painful transition from analog to digital about seven years ago, not because I thought digital was necessarily better, but because I saw the handwriting on the wall and I wanted the additional tools that digital photography offered. Those tools have expanded a great deal in the interim.

In hindsight, I was right about that handwriting. Two (perhaps more now) of the Kodak films I relied upon, no longer exist. In particular, Kodak Professional Copy Film Type 4125, now gone, was a mainstay for me. I would take 30 film holders with me into the field, 10 of which were always loaded with Type 4125. It got used, a lot. One of the two variable contrast papers on which I most depended is also, no more. I would be hard pressed to work in silver-gelatin photography today, merely because of the lack of materials.


For those who do not know my background…

…and because it is probably needed for credibility in this post. I am a well-recognized expert on applied analog B&W photography, the inventor of a lot of techniques for analog B&W and color, have been published worldwide and am a former contributing editor to the recently defunct, Darkroom & Creative Camera Techniques magazine (last article of mine published was about 1997?). I have the knowledge and skill set with a wide margin to spare, and have analog B&W images in museums from here to Argentina. There are only a handful of people who I might find it difficult to out-do in the silver-gelatin darkroom. In short, I think I know what I’m talking about. Others may have a different opinion.


My premise(s) here is that there really is no added value to a silver-gelatin print based solely on the fact that it qualifies, technically, as a handmade photograph and that, based on those criteria which are held up to qualify a silver-gelatin print as handmade, inkjet prints are then also, handmade. That a collector would prefer silver over digital simply because silver is supposedly handmade is just absurd.

There is absolutely no virtue in something being merely handmade. We all have treasures we made in Kindergarten. They are truly handmade and none of them belong in galleries or museums (despite the ravings of morning-show hosts). A handmade object has no particular value as an object of art, unless skill and knowledge are also applied. There are many handmade silver prints out there that had no skill and very little knowledge involved in their production.

So, let’s first define the term handmade with reference to the fine art photograph, as including a high level of skill and knowledge.

Último Fotógrafo Callejero
Último Fotógrafo Callejero

Now we can go through the process…

First, we need to separate the high-level skill and knowledge from the donkey work. Loading a negative into a film carrier, raising or lowering the head of an enlarger on its column, focusing the image and starting an exposure, all require some skill and knowledge, but not anything a child can’t learn in a few minutes. Nothing really handmade about any of that. Anyone can do it.

Likewise, after the paper has been exposed, everything is pretty much drudgery. There is a certain amount of skill in running a piece of wet paper through successive trays without damaging it, but hardly anyone oohs and ahhhs over the fact you didn’t crease a piece of wet paper, even a very large piece of wet paper. And one must know how long to process, how to fix properly, tone, wash, flatten, spot, mount, cut a matte, etc. Spotting in particular requires a lot of skill, not easily acquired. (One mistake while spotting often means a ruined print.) But these are all after-the-fact things that no rational person would include under the heading of handmade, and are really just donkeywork. Backbreaking, intense, mind-numbing donkeywork, but donkeywork, nonetheless. When a painter completes a work, we do not include the coat of varnish he may put over it as a valuable addition to the handmade aspect of the painting.

The only meaningful handmade part of making a silver-gelatin print comes between the moment the enlarger exposure is begun, and the moment it ends. (The paper comes in a box, from a factory. Nothing handmade about that, either.) A lot of things can happen in that interim including dodging and burning, flashing, paper grade changes if using a variable contrast paper, and, well, um, er… not a lot more!

Now, I made that interim between turning the enlarger lamp on and  off, sound very trivial. And it is, on paper (pun intended), about as trivial as many would like to make the digital printmaking process sound. But that supposedly trivial period during exposure takes many years to master. That mastery is decidedly not trivial. What happens between on and off is the real handmade aspect of the silver-gelatin photographic print and has been described by more than a few as being like a ballet. (Somehow, the thought of a fat old man in the darkroom doesn’t quite jibe with ballet for me, but you get the idea.)

What happens in the hands of a master, between the beginning and end of an exposure in the darkroom is truly inspiring, truly creative, truly handmade and truly art. But precisely the same ballet happens in front of a computer screen! The only meaningful difference is that one gets to sit in a chair and has more tools at his disposal.

In the darkroom, most of what happens during exposure is burning. Dodging can only be done for the length of the base exposure and not even that. If your base exposure is ten seconds, you can only dodge for eight or nine of them. Burning can be done for seconds, minutes… there is no limit. In fact, most fine prints are almost all burn and very little base exposure; sometimes, none at all.

There is zero difference between what happens during an exposure under an enlarger and what happens in Photoshop, save that what happens in Photoshop can be done more precisely, with more repeatability and with a greater array of tools. When an image has been created under the light of an enlarger, it is run through the automatic routine of the processing trays. When an image has been created in the glow of a computer screen, it is then run through the automatic processing tray of an inkjet printer. All that printer does is the drudgery of laying down ink where the photographer has told it to. All the processing tray does is develop the image already there.

During an analog exposure, one uses a simple piece of cardboard to add additional exposure to some areas of the image. In Photoshop a broader array of tools is used to do exactly the same thing, but more precisely and with more repeatability. In fact, in Photoshop, it doesn’t have to be repeated. It can be done only once. Oddly, very similar hand motions are used with the computer mouse to burn or dodge an image, as those used in the darkroom.

(I don’t recall any record of anyone ever claiming that a cave painting qualified as handmade, but an oil painting did not, because the oil painting was made with better tools that were more precise and easier to use.)

No less skill or knowledge are required to build an image in Photoshop than are needed in the darkroom. In fact, because of the greater array of tools, more skill and knowledge are probably required for Photoshop, if one intends to take full advantage of them. The nonsense repeated about Photoshop and requiring less skill is just that, nonsense. Digital photography does not take anything away from analog photography. But the reverse is also true.

The image, and the quality of that image, should be all that matters. That a photographer has fingernails blackened by selenium and a bad case of dermatitis brought on by repeated exposure to Metol, does not in any way make his images superior. The mindless automaton aspect that many would like to ascribe to those who today employ newer tools is just as ridiculous now, as it was every time it has been applied to others in the past 100+ years. There is absolutely nothing automatic or mechanical about a fine art photograph made digitally, and no special virtue that can be automatically ascribed to any photograph made by any means, old or new.

For anyone still tempted to speak in low terms about the digital print as opposed to a handmade silver-gelatin print; beware the folks making platinum/palladium, or gum, or carbon or photogravure or Colloidian or Daguerreotypes (Now, there’s some real handmade stuff for ya!) who might wish to make a case against YOUR ox!

It’s not whether you make an image by coating collodion onto a rock whilst whistling A Hard Day’s Night, that matters. Only the final image matters. If it looks like garbage, and an awful lot of handmade prints do, it matters not at all that it was handmade, except, perhaps, to a very, VERY foolish collector.


7 thoughts on “The Handmade Silver Print”

  1. David, that was a wonderfully erudite rejoinder to the luddites who still believe it can’t be fine art less it first be dipped in the holy water of heavy metals.

    Thanks for shining a little light on what, for most of its zealots, is a bit of an overwrought abstraction (most making the argument having never actually made an analog print).

  2. Thanks for your comments, Jeff.
    I am all for anyone and everyone using the materials and approaches that best suit their work and temperament. I think a lot of the put-downs against digital tools come from a fear of losing what is cherished (in addition to ignorance on the public’s part). It is not digital photographers who are threatening silver-gelatin work. The threat comes from simple commercial expediency. No one is going to make silver-gelatin B&W photographic materials if there is no money in it. Those materials are not disappearing because evil digital is not adequately recognized as inferior. They are disappearing because few are sticking with analog.
    When machine-made platinum papers were inexpensive, they were the go-to paper for artists. Silver looked awful by comparison. Platinum got expensive and disappeared. Now, if you want platinum paper, you have to make your own.
    The same thing is going to happen to silver and sooner, rather than later. In the very near future, if you want a quality silver paper, you will have to make your own. Only those junk, ex-communist block papers that aren’t suitable for lining the cat box will remain. In fact, that may be the reality before I finish typing this.
    Let’s face it, a lot of alternative processes produce images that have a very tactile, rich, three-dimensional feel to them. The last commercial, silver paper I can think of where that description was at least partly applicable was Agfa’s Portriga Rapid. It may very well happen that the disappearance of most silver-based commercially made materials will force people to make better, more tactile materials, and to do better work.

  3. One doesn’t have to be a master print maker or even a photographer to know what one likes. One just has to like it.
    And if one likes silver prints one should be able to get them. And if the photographer doesn’t want to offer silver prints to those who want them he/she just lose the sale. Its as simple as that really.

    In the past year I have wanted to purchase 3 photographs. They were not offered in silver. I heard the same argument. “You are buying the art, not the piece of paper its on”. Well, yes I am. I am buying the art that is on the piece of paper I will get, and I want that piece of paper to have silver gelatin on it.

    1. Hi Kevin,
      While I don’t think most fine art photographers are overly concerned with ‘losing the sale’, I agree with your point; that you should buy what you want. The advent of new materials and equipment does not nullify the old. From the artist’s perspective (one artist, anyway) it is the image that counts, not the substrate on which it sits. I print digitally instead of on silver because I can make a much better image than I ever could on silver, and I was no slouch in silver.
      However, I have also adopted the photogravure of late, and the argyrotype (a hand-coated paper) and even just this past month, re-introduced film into my workflow as an additional tool, rather than a replacement for digital capture. Though I will never go back to silver prints, I have made that choice because I can make more fulfilling images in other ways. I can think of no reason why you should abandon or feel it necessary to justify your aesthetic preference for silver-gelatin images.
      (I even still have some of my 16×20 silver Peru landscapes in inventory if you’re interested.) 😉

    1. You’re way too late. I’ve been reading your web site for a couple of years now. 🙂
      Thanks for all the work you do. Film devotees may not feel the necessity of making their own film today, but soon!
      As for the handmade thing, I have been wrestling with photogravure for 3+ years now. If I finally get it to the mat, I may start looking at other things.

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