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The history of photography, seen through a certain lens, is a history of scientific discoveries and technological advancements mirroring the growth of humanity’s collective progress over the course of the Industrial Revolution.
Scores of distinct photographic processes have been invented the past 175 years, with innumerable men and women making important contributions. This quick guide outlines only a handful of the fascinating photographic processes that exist. We hope it will serve as an introduction to the vast variety you will encounter whether as a new or seasoned collector and aficionado.
An initial basic distinction between photographic processes is a categorical one: photographs are either the result of a negative-positive process, or they are somehow made as a direct positive (positive-to-positive) process.
Felix Teynard (1817-1892), Colossal Statues Seen from Three-Quarters View, the Temple of Rameses at Abu Simbel, c.1851-52. Salted paper print from waxed paper negative. Title in pencil (on the mount). Estimate: $40,000-60,000. This work is offered in Photographs: The Evening Sale on 5 October at Christie’s New York
The principles of the former were established by the English inventor and aristocrat William Henry Fox Talbot in the 1830s. The most basic aspects of the procedure are as follows: sheets of paper — the thinner the better — are soaked in a weak solution of sodium chloride (ordinary table salt); after drying, the paper is then coated with a solution of silver nitrate. The chemical bond between the salt solution and the silver nitrate yields a light-sensitive coating, which will darken when exposed to light. Areas of the image receiving the most light darken dramatically, while the darkest areas of a scene, such as those in deep shadow, will remain paper-white. And thus a ‘negative’ image, a reversal of tones is produced.
These ‘paper negatives’ can then be reversed through contact printing to yield a positive image. Waxing the paper negative would make it even more translucent, and gives a more sharply focused photograph. These are collectively referred to as salt prints, and they were the most prevalent form of photographic prints on paper through roughly 1860.
Gelatin Silver Print
In the middle of the 19th century, it was determined that coating paper with a light-sensitive solution in which the activated silver salts were mixed into a ‘suspension medium’ produced a range of desirable results, including higher sensitivity to light and much sharper images.
Robert Adams (B. 1937), Nebraska State Highway 2, Box Butte County, Nebraska, 1978. Gelatin silver print, printed 1979. Signed, titled, dated, print date in pencil and copyright credit stamp (on the verso). Estimate: $15,000-20,000. This work is offered in Photographs: The Evening Sale on 5 October at Christie’s New York
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For a period of time in the 19th and 20th century, albumen (egg-whites) was the most commercially viable substance to serve this purpose, followed by the use of gelatin. A gelatin silver print then is simply a sheet of paper that has been coated with a very thin layer of fast drying liquid gelatin within which the light sensitive silver salts are suspended.
With the ability to be mass-produced, this became the most widely distributed form of photographic film and paper, spanning the full length of the 20th century up until today. If your father (or aunt or grandfather) had a darkroom in the basement, he was definitely shooting b&w film and making b&w prints, both of which were made on ‘gelatin silver’ materials.
Solarized gelatin silver print
A solarized gelatin silver print is not a process per se, but a technique used while making gelatin silver prints in the darkroom. More properly it is called the Sabatier effect (first described in 1859 by H. de la Blanchere).
Man Ray (1890-1976), Untitled (Self-Portrait with Camera), 1932. Solarized gelatin silver print, printed before 1939. 8 rue du Val-de-Grâce credit stamp (M9) (on the verso) Estimate: $200,000-300,000. This work is offered in Photographs: The Evening Sale on 5 October at Christie’s New York
The effect, as illustrated so perfectly in this self-portrait of Man Ray, happens when photographic paper is exposed again to light while it is in the midst of a developing bath. Man Ray himself utilized this mystifying happenstance extensively after his assistant, the photographer Lee Miller, accidentally came upon the technique while working in the darkroom. The results are virtually uncontrollable, therefore rendering each solarized print a unique object.
Platinum (and the closely related metal palladium) is a dense metal — twice as dense as silver — that also becomes light sensitive when chemically bonded with nitrate; it is also more chemically stable than silver.
Platinum prints are made without a suspension medium like albumen or gelatin; the light sensitive solution is simply coated on the surface of a prepared sheet of paper, much like salt prints that were discussed earlier. Platinum prints are monochromatic, and not exactly black-and-white; the tones range from reddish brown to rich, warm black tones, and the mid-tone range is often more greatly expanded than in silver prints.
Many artists over the history of the medium, including Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston and Irving Penn, made platinum prints at some point in their careers; examples of images, printed in platinum, are often much more rare than a contemporaneous gelatin silver print of the same image. Karl Struss, a young member of Stieglitz’ Pictorialist circle of the 1900s and 1910s, made a small group of gorgeously rendered platinum prints during his career.
Karl Struss (1886-1981), Man’s Construction, 1912. Platinum palladium print, signed, dated in pencil (on the recto); signed, dated in pencil (on the mount); titled, dated in ink, Hollywood credit stamp and ‘Member Pictorial Photographers of America’ label affixed (on the reverse of the mount). Estimate: $90,000-120,000. This work is offered in Photographs: The Evening Sale on 5 October at Christie’s New York
Initially produced by the Technicolor company for the Hollywood film industry, the dye transfer process produces an extremely vibrant palette and stable color print. During the post-war years, the process was made prevalent by Kodak for general-purpose graphic arts and commercial work. The laborious process requires making three printing matrices, one each for cyan, magenta and yellow, which are rendered in succession.
William Eggleston (B. 1939), Untitled (Greenwood, Mississippi), 1973. Dye-transfer print, printed 1980. Signed, dated ‘c.1971’, print date, numbered ‘4/12’ in pencil. Estimate: $180,000-220,000. This work is offered in Photographs: The Evening Sale on 5 October at Christie’s New York
A key characteristic that made the process attractive to artists was that it allowed the practitioner a high degree of control. The artist most widely associated with the process is William Eggleston, who holds the distinction of being the subject of the first one-man exhibition of color photographs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1976), and who turned to the process precisely because of the depth of color and maximum amount of control.
In the 1990s, due to dwindling commercial interest in the process, Kodak stopped making the materials making important dye transfer prints that much rarer.
Dye Destruction / Dye Bleach Print
Dye destruction prints (also known as dye bleach prints) are color photographs made from a positive transparency and thus fall in the category of a positive-to-positive process. The dyes, which are embedded in the paper during manufacturing, are bleached during the various chemical baths that comprise the processing stages.
John Chiara (B.1971), Seven Chimneys-Carter-Highway 1, 2013. Unique dye-bleach print. Signed and dated in pencil (on the verso). Estimate: $5,000-7,000. This work is offered in Photographs: The Evening Sale on 5 October at Christie’s New York
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Compared to the complex dye couplers that make up chromogenic prints (which are printed from negatives), the colors are much richer and far more stable. These types of prints are more readily known by their trade names of Ilfochrome and Cibachrome. The earliest commercially produced dye destruction prints date back as far as the early 20th century, but the majority of these types of prints were made post-war and later.
Contemporary artists like Richard Learoyd and John Chiara (above) have found ways to use dye destruction paper directly in their studios and in oversized, hand built cameras to dazzling effect, producing unique direct positive prints, bypassing the intermediary stage of enlarging from a transparency.
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