One Negative - Sixteen Different Alternative Process Prints

Practical experience of alternative photography makes it clear that :
  1. it is necessary to see the original print itself to appreciate its beauty as reproductions will only show the qualities of the reproduction.
  2. there is only one way to learn about a process and that is to do it.
  3. manuals often reflect research without practical experience.

Here are a series of prints using different processes but the same negative as a guide to the qualities of each process. The subject is the south aisle of Chichester Cathedral. The subject has a wide ranger of tone and fine gradation. The negative was made on Ilford FP4 film exposed at ISO 32 to give a negative with a density range of 2.0 suitable for contact printing. The prints were prepared as guidance for those coming on my Wedgwood to Bromoil course of workshops and also reflect experiments done on the workshops.

The earliest print is a salt print, the positive part of the Fox Talbot’s calotype. You will notice the glorious range of tone and the subtlety of gradation, which results from the negative reflecting the optimum density range for the process.

The albumen print overtook the salt print in the early 1850s. In essence the straight albumen print is a salt print made using denatured albumen or white of egg. This gives a smoother surface that was thought to give the detail that was expected from a print made from a collodion negative.

But as customers became more used to the glossy prints made using this fine process, improvements were sought. In the case of the albumen print, one approach was to give texture to the shadows by including a custard made from arrowroot, a transparent glaze used in cooking, in the size. This was the albumen arrowroot print.

Daguerre and Talbot’s announcements of their methods of making photographs acted as a catalyst to further experiment. Ponton announced the results of experiments with dichromates as early as 1839 but Herschel’s paper of 1842 led to the processes where iron salts provide the light sensitivity which, when combined with other salts, give prints of different colours. The first one we illustrate here is the cyanotype that is one of the simplest and safest processes. The old complaint was that they were blue, (this was the blue print process), but there are ways of changing the colour. Here is an original blue one.

Here, for example is a cyanotype rex which gives far more flexibility and is far faster than the original process, the process uses a different iron salt.

Similar principles apply in the cyanotype rex’s sister process, the chrysotype rex, where gold salts are used. The dilutions needed to make these prints are such that it is fairly inexpensive to use. Different colours can be obtained depending on the temperature during processing or the nature of the acids.

A significant problem was that, as working methods had not been well enough established to give consistent quality, many albumen prints faded. Other methods than those using silver salts were looked for. The first successful commercial method of making non-silver prints was Swan’s carbon print of 1864 that was first marketed by the Autotype Company that continued to make carbon tissue until 2009. At the end the tissue was made for the copper plate gravure process. Carbon referred to the carbon black pigment originally used as the pigment where the varying thickness of dichromated gelatine gave the gradations in the print. The print here was made using Autotype carbon tissue for gravure. The process gives probably the best results of any photographic printing process and it will accept negatives of a density range of up to 2.8. The pigment, iron oxide, discolours as the copper plate is etched. As it gives the burnt sienna of renaissance drawings, I am happy to use it to make prints.

As we have said, carbon tissue was not only made for making prints using a transfer method to make prints on paper, but when the picture was transferred to an aquatinted plate and then etched, a continuous tone image was produced in intaglio which gave ‘ink on paper’ prints. Etching through the varying thicknesses of the gelatine gives a corresponding variation in the depth of the etch which results in varying depths of tone in the final print.
Intaglio itself is the method of printing where ink is in the etch below the surface of the plate. The plate is polished clean before the plate and paper are passed through the press when the ink is forced out of the grooves and transferred to the paper. This is unlike the lithographic processes where the ink is on the surface of the plate (see bromoil).

In the 1870s Willis developed Herschel’s original experiments from 1842 to produce the platinum print which, beside carbon, became the fashionable printing process for the top end of the market. It could not accept the density range of the carbon process but the combination of the subtlety of its tones, tactility and density range have still to be surpassed.

There followed another revolution. Silver gelatine film and silver gelatine paper gave faster speeds, ease of operation and printing which reduced costs and spread photography to the amateur market , ‘You press the button and we’ll do the rest’. This led to the gifted and rich amateurs to seek something more artistic and in accordance with art fashions such as Japonaiserie and impressionism. Prominent among these processes was gum bichromate printing where the printer could choose the colours, the sharpness and the tones. In this case the pigment was incorporated in the a dichromated gum which hardened in proportion to the light.

Other media with long chain molecules could be used, one person made ‘gum’ prints with casein from her own mothers-milk others used other bodily fluids but the one illustrated here followed on from the albumen example. Gum prints using denatured egg white give a very sharp image but using the whole egg, tempera, can also give perfectly good prints on watercolour paper.

The ‘control’ pioneers such a Steichen and Demachey, soon became bored with gum printing and went on to oil printing and the Bromoil where the lithographic qualities inherent in the silver gelatine photograph were used to make prints using printers’ ink. Here is a bromoil as an example, the visible image is made from etching ink. These prints could also be run through an etching press to produce a bromoil transfer print.

One of the disadvantages of the salt print was that one had to coat the paper with salt first and then sensitise it with silver nitrate to give a silver chloride print. A process developed by Mr Nicol enabled the paper to be coated with only one coat. The process was essentially a variation on Herschel’s iron based processes but using silver nitrate as the metal salt to make the final picture. Not only was Nicol’s process too late to compete with platinum but his methods of fixing the image were not very effective. Over the years a number of processes have been developed from Nicol’s original including the Kallitype and the Van Dyke print. Here is a Van Dyke print otherwise known as brown print or even as a Kallitype I. It is probably, after the cyanotype, the easiest process with which to get good results.

The difficulty is that although the kallitypes can give startlingly beautiful results which can rival platinum the results are neither predictable nor consistent. Later developments of the kallitype use a range of developers to give different very subtle changes in the perceived colour, here is one using sodium formate as the developer which is said to give a blue tone!

Those with enquiring minds will wonder if one can take different chemicals and processes and do a little experimentation. Many have done so. Here is what looks like a platinum print but was made using the standard Willis platinum method but substituting a silver salt for the platinum (it has been suggested that this should be called a ‘Silverex’.

Another variation is to mix and match the processes themselves, gum under or over platinum, Van Dyke over gum or even platinum over bromoil. Here is a gum print over a cyanotype.