The gelatin silver print in the digital age.

At the Silver International Conference and Competition held March 3-5, 2006, at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, the main question on everyone's mind was how the beloved gelatin silver print would survive the digital age. A few weeks later, this same question came up repeatedly in conversations at the annual Society for Photographic Education conference held in Chicago. More recently, my concern was renewed when I received yet another brochure from Epson touting how their new inks work in combination with their printers to produce "real black and white prints, without any compromise."

With each advancement in digital black-and-white printing, darkroom photographers ask, why bother? We already have an excellent process with highly reliable products and suppliers. It is relatively easy to learn to make good black-and-white prints. Yet, many artists have devoted decades to mastering the process. The gelatin silver print combines the essence of craft with the ambition of art, and, in our time of dreary automation and mediated experiences, the satisfaction, even joy, of darkroom work is undeniable.

But there are big profits to be made from digital technology. Chemical darkrooms do not cost as much to set up or maintain as digital studios, and a half-life is built into the hardware and software. Consider this: how many of us have the same computer and printer as we did five years ago? It is a figure unlike the number of us who have the same camera and enlarger. Compare the Nikon FM2 I bought in 1985 for $600 to the Nikon Coolpix I bought in 2003 for $999. One is a reliable workhorse and the other is a fancy paperweight. Yet each year new products designed to improve our digital images are marketed as "the way to go." Crowds flock to buy a printer with the newest technology and the latest inkjet papers, and to upgrade their software, plug-ins, and print drivers. All this is an attempt to mimic the traditional gelatin silver print we have been making for decades--and the result is still found lacking. One positive aspect of this drive for the latest gadget is that the technology-obsessed dilettantes show up a lot less in photography classes. My students are overwhelmingly interested in making pictures instead of just learning technique, and my classes are as full as ever.

Just as photography freed painting to do more than record a likeness or scene, digital imagery is freeing film photography from the mundane tasks of commercial and news photography that instant imagery serves so well. Painting did not die in 1839; it is now more important than it has been for a long time. Photography is entering a similar phase where the handcrafted object, and the properties that make a gelatin silver print unique, are taking on a new significance. This credo was made famous by the late Robert Heinecken who said, "The photograph is not a picture of something but is an object about something." (1)

Judging from auction prices and gallery exhibitions, the fine art market seems more interested than ever in the gelatin silver print. Obvious reasons for this include its handcrafted nature, depth of image, quality of tones, overwhelming beauty, lengthy tradition, and the fact that it utilizes a precious metal. Yet museums are also open to whatever is happening at a given time. Tim Wride, Interim Head of the Photography Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), commented:

  We in the museums are in a privileged position in that we go where the
  artists lead us. They are the ones who dictate what we collect, and at
  LACMA, we've been collecting digital photography for some time. With
  the technological advancements in stability and longevity, it has made
  our job easier. Gelatin silver prints and inkjet prints are different
  objects and what's really interesting is why an artist chooses which
  material and how that medium effects the artwork. (2)

Likewise, Billy O'Connor of Wessel + O'Connor Gallery in New York said that black-and-white photographs are what he wants to exhibit, and, having been in the business for twenty years, he knows what his collectors like. "Having said that," O'Connor notes:

  We have had quite a bit of interest in some color digital work
  recently as well. With the recent $3 million at auction for ...
  [Edward] Steichen['s] image [The Pond-Moonlight (1904)], it shows the
  allure of the unique black-and-white image--no matter what the
  specific medium (it was a platinum print). But being a handmade object
  in the digital age adds to its value. (3)

With market forces driving the trend, the end of the silver print is inevitable, unless users keep it alive. James Reilly, director of the Image Permanence Institute at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York, tells us that it takes a sophisticated and costly process to manufacture silver paper, and, when the market becomes so small that companies cannot make the profit they want, they will stop producing silver paper. Kodak has already decided to stop production of its silver paper line, Agfa is gone, and Ilford sold their black-and-white division to employees. Fortunately, Eastern Europe has a long history of fine silver paper manufacturers, and distributors like Freestyle Photographic Supplies in Los Angeles have guaranteed them a strong market. If photography teachers continue to see an advantage to teaching chemical-based photography, we can continue to provide enough profit to ensure a steady, if diminished supply. Gerald Karmele, senior vice president and chief operating officer at Freestyle, points out that about ninety-five percent of the photography market chases technology. When black-and-white was all there was, the market was huge. As color became the norm in the 1960s, the market share of black-and-white users inevitably dropped.

Now that digital is the latest thing, the market has segmented once again. The manufacturers that see their sales drop panic and leave the still relatively lucrative black-and-white segment ripe for smaller businesses to exploit--and this is a good thing. Karmele has his finger on the pulse of the black-and-white market, and his business has grown considerably due to his dedication to cultivating good materials and keeping supplies on hand. Educators play an important role in supporting the market, and, while not every photo student will continue using black-and-white materials, every photographer who uses black and white probably learned the craft in a photography class. This suggests that, while the gelatin silver print may eventually hold only a niche in the photography world, it will be around for a very long time.


But if the end is in sight, why fight the inevitable? Ansel Adams's analogy between music and photography is instructive here: "Each print is like a performance, each is unique, not something that is formulaically executed, identical and robotic." (4) "Command-P" lacks the aura and mystery that comes from working in the dim red glow of the darkroom, the physical act of bathing a print in chemicals and the sound of water rushing over the surface. I clearly recall the moment as a photography student when I witnessed my first print appear in the developer. That experience, coupled with the power of the gelatin silver print, is what seduced me to photography.

As the digital revolution becomes more progressive, I still see a place for the silver print along with prints and any other form that may arise in the future. What I find most impressive, yet simultaneously depressing, about digital prints are their perfection--a coldness that makes each so perfect as to seem removed from human experience. This is the same coldness of the chemical-based prints made in commercial labs and exhibited in galleries. The homogenizing effect of digital technology, in capture and print, has elevated many mediocre images but has also helped emphasize the unique characteristics of silver-based film and paper and, more importantly, the handmade print. An article in Photo District News in 2004 spoke about the increasing number of magazine photographers covering the United States presidential election who were choosing film, precisely because their images looked different than those made by digital photographers.

The photographic print, when done well, is an experessive medium that conveys content, just as the image does, and a careful consideration of these choices is crucial for artmakers. As Wride said, it is the thinking behind the choice that is really interesting and, also, how that thinking affects the image. (5) The combined experience and effect of the silver print, powerful and visceral, is an opportunity younger artists could miss as they are exposed to fewer and fewer silver prints. Perhaps they will be brought up with the digital print as their basis for seeing a photograph. Certainly the daguerreotypists were dismayed at the lower quality of the ambrotype, and they in turn were dismissive of the much lower quality of the tintype; albumen prints from wet collodion have a distinctive look compared to gelatin prints and platinum is entirely different from silver. Time marches on and that with which we are not familiar will become foreign and eventually lost. We still have choices and need to decide how to exercise them, but my own experience as an artist and teacher is clear: I still remember my first silver print appearing in the developer (fortunately, I do not recall the bad image), and my students tell me how exciting it is to make "real" photographs. My colleagues report a sharp decline in enrollment when they drop chemical photography classes. As digital photography becomes ever more popular, the unique properties of the gelatin silver print will become more appreciated. Look deeply into a richly printed, beautiful gelatin silver photograph and it is hard imagine who would want to let it become obsolete.

THOMAS MCGOVER is the author of Bearing Witness (To AIDS) (1999) and Alpha Teach Yourself Black and White Photography in 24 Hours (2002). He is an associate professor of art at California State University, San Bernardino