Magic Developers & The Photographer’s Romance With Nonsense

For the last couple of years I have been a reluctant denizen of Facebook. I follow a couple dozen groups, mostly having to do with photography of course and have come to enjoy it, though I cannot claim to completely get Facebook. I still haven’t figured out what to do with my own Facebook page or how to keep people from posting things there that I don’t want them to post. Until I do, my contributions there will be less than inspirational. In fact, I pretty much don’t put anything on my own page, at all.

There are groups on Facebook for just about every aspect of photography, digital or analog, old processes and new. For someone wanting to learn just about any aspect of photography there is something to be had on Facebook. That is a good thing. And then again, it sometimes isn’t. The death of the photography magazine and the rise of the internet’s everyone is an expert nature leaves someone who is trying to learn equally open to advice from actual experts and the self-appointed variety. There is no filter any more and the result is the unfortunate state of affairs in which old and LARGE sources of misinformation seem doomed to be repeated in perpetuity.

In the late nineteenth century the Kallitype was invented and promptly fell flat on its face. Part of the problem was just poor timing, but much of the difficulty had to do with the constant repetition of false information. An incorrect formula would get published in one magazine, then be copied and republished, warts and all, by other magazines. New advocates would come up with their own formulas, most all of which were no improvement at all, publish those and, well, the end result is that a very substantial portion of what ended up in print about the Kallitype was quite substantially wrong.

Over time this sort of nonsense turned into an unofficial tradition in photography and to my dismay, that tradition has jumped right over the divide into the 21st century, in perfect health.

One of the groups on Facebook deals with new devotees of B&W film. Many are millennials who grew up with digital photography and have just discovered B&W film. From my perspective that is kind of humorous, but their devotion is in most cases, sincere. Sadly, they have also discovered a new generation of experts who are nothing of the kind.

From the second half of the 19th century right up through the first half of the 20th century, one of the most ridiculous but nonetheless fervently believed ideas held by amateur and professional photographers alike was the search for photography’s holy grail: the magic developer.

The pure tonnage of magazine pages and ink devoted to secret formulas and special additives that would miraculously turn a photographer’s negatives into Ansel Adams lookalikes and the resulting prints into masterpieces, was staggering. To my astonishment, the exact same thing is now happening all over again.

The current magic developer is one of several variations on pyro. Now, there is nothing wrong with pyro and its variations. It will get the job done, and well. But it is a staining developer and that is often more of a hindrance than a help. Especially if you are using variable contrast papers, because the color of the stain sends paper contrast off in unintended directions. But the big problem is not the pyro but how it is being used. And it is not just pyro. Other developers are being used in these manners also. Post after post talks about using pyro with techniques for reducing contrast where the subject matter does not call for reduced contrast: split developers/water bath / dilute still bath / minimal agitation, all classes of contraction development (reduced contrast) that I thoroughly shot down as both ineffectual and risky, a quarter century ago. And if you are disinclined to accept my expertise

No problem! These techniques were also shot down by lots of people both before and after me. Even Ansel Adams pointed out that they were irrelevant with modern films.

These are development schemes intended to reduce contrast, as an approach to what in the Zone System is called contraction: intentional reduction of negative contrast for purposes of fitting an overscaled subject to a midrange grade of B&W silver-gelatin printing paper.  These approaches were marginally effective with old thick emulsion films (there are no films like this any more, unless some of the Eastern European junk is still that far behind) but were highly prone to loss of film speed, uneven development and other forms of damage to the image. I debunked these methods in great detail during the early 1990’s and published several new techniques to replace them, techniques that did not suffer from the same serious drawbacks.

Now, someone, probably several someones, is advising people new to film photography to use these contrast reduction film development formulas/techniques for development of normal exposures and subject matter: precisely where they should NOT be used, even if they worked well!

The fact that there are differences in developers is not in question. There are high contrast developers and fine grain developers and low contrast developers and high acutance developers and all kinds of variations. But the differences in this day and age are really quite minor, especially in light of the quality of modern films.

Notwithstanding old communist block films still made with early twentieth century technology being flogged as modern marvels, modern B&W films have no need of specialized developers. They are already fine grain films. They already have high acutance. They can easily be developed to compensate for an overscaled subject with modern techniques that are far more controllable and dependable (talking about SLIMTs here) than any of the older methods that were designed to work with thick emulsion films that no longer exist. Well, that no longer exist unless you are buying cheap, junk film from Outer Slobovia.

One of the things modern B&W films do not do well is to compensate for underscaled subjects. That is, what in Zone System parlance is a subject that requires expansion (prolonged film development for higher contrast). Most modern films will surrender little more than N+1. But more than N+1 also does not require a magic developer. The problem is simply solved by using selenium toner as an intensifier, on top of the N+1 achieved with expanded development for a combined N+2; the most that is required for the vast majority of potential expansion subject matter. If even greater expansion is needed, it is best achieved by employing a higher contrast film with its contrast reduced to the needed level with a SLIMT. In other words use a high contrast film and think of the subject as needing contraction.

Why this rant? Because young photographers are being led astray. AGAIN!! Or, perhaps, STILL. They are chasing magic bullets just like they did for decades under the misguided tutelage of popular photography magazines. And there are still people out there, lots of people, who are more than happy to hold themselves out as experts, claiming to provide those magic bullets.

There are no magic bullets out there. No developer, no film, no secret incantations. Even the Zone System about which I have written so extensively and for which I have invented so many techniques and tools, is not a magic bullet.

Ansel Adams himself admitted in later years his regret that he had overhyped the Zone System such that many users viewed it too, as a magic bullet. The most that can be achieved with the Zone System is a negative that makes it easier to exert control in the printing process. The only magic in photography is that which takes place during printing and that is not magic, but hard-earned skill acquired over years of practice.

The real and ONLY secret in photography is in the making of the print  and that brings us to the real point of this post.

The one thing you do not see in all those Facebook entries is any mention of the rigorous process of making the print. Instead, everyone is frantically searching for magic bullets while simply making straight positives of their film negatives with none of the work required to produce what is traditionally referred to as the fine print. And this is not isolated to silver-gelatin printing, either. It is also happening in what is generically referred to as alternative printing and even in the making of digital prints.

The only magic in photography is that of making the print and that is no magic at all. It is hard work involving a difficult to acquire skill set that few people today even know exists and even fewer pursue.

Strangely, the exact same skill set is required to make a print digitally as is needed in the traditional darkroom. The only differences are that with digital tools one gets to sit down, and there are more tools to accomplish the same things, in Photoshop.

Despite my status as (tongue in cheek) Zone System Guru, my advice to young film photographers today would be this: first and above all, learn to print. Use a single camera, a single lens, a single film, a single developer and develop all your film exactly the same way. Then, print, print, print, print, PRINT! After you have learned to print, in a decade or so, come see me and I will teach you the Zone System and the use of color filters. That, I believe, would be the proper order of things.

7 thoughts on “Magic Developers & The Photographer’s Romance With Nonsense”

  1. Your paragraph which begins by stating the problem with modern films is their inability to compensate is so full of errors there are too many to enumerate. Using the correct film/developer combination one can go from N-2, maybe even N-3, to N+5. This can not be done with a single film/developer combo, but is easily possible by making proper choices and employing the correct techniques.

  2. Pyro lives? Must be the daredevil nature of Millennials (or maybe their effort to think they still have a daredevil nature since, let’s face it, some of them aren’t all that young anymore).
    I think many magic bullets are simply people attempting to share what worked for them, maybe on only a few prints, and then thinking it will work on all prints for all photographers, so it simply must be shared and promoted. It’s human nature to look for patterns and then extrapolate them to things that really aren’t part of any pattern at all. Even “print, print, print, print, PRINT” is a patter, and isn’t a sure bet either. What’s needed is an understanding of why we take pictures to begin with and then to find a way to nourish that, be it with magic bullets, a decade of printing, or something else. It’s great to have resources and networks in photography, but it’s ultimately a very personal and somewhat solitary pursuit. One person with a camera. Eventually you figure out your own formula for why it makes you happy, or you move on to something else.

    1. I beg to differ on one point…
      If the photographer’s goal is a print, then learning to print is neither a pattern, nor is it optional. It takes years and is a skill quite clearly lacking in much of what gets put up on the internet by people who claim to know what they are doing.
      There is no camera, no film, no developer, no gadget and no magic bullet that will turn someone who cannot print, into someone who can. The trend that I see very clearly demonstrated among both film and digital photographers is the complete lack of the ability to print.

  3. An invaluable lesson…given in Pirkle Jone’s large format class…at s .f..a.i….circa 1980….was a lot of exposure to Fine Prints……Pirkle would trade a print of his,to a local collector who had a very nice selecton of fine black and white prints…..and the class would get to pass around and hold …and in my case “comunne”with such fine prints from edward,and brett weston…fredrick sommer…aaron siskind…harry callahan…ansel adams…paul caponigro…etc…….not under glass mind you….but breathing there in your hands…….it is not the same now….where you are learning from a screen image……Bravo David for putting this out there…

  4. This concept of “stand” techniques just wreaks of laziness. Too lazy to do the work to learn the process (and control it) to the point that you’re not guessing whether you’ll get good results, but you KNOW you’ll get a good result. Reliance on a single technique limits the palette that’s available to us.

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