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Cross my palm with silver

Updated: Oct 16, 2018

Back in the late 60’s, before archival printing standards became common among dedicated darkroom workers, Kodak was the only game in town, and even their best papers had a relatively low silver content.

The amount of silver in a piece of photographic paper determined the richness of the blacks, and the subtle transitions available between the intermediate gray tones. I discovered Agfa papers around 1969 when I got to Syracuse University, and it was a game changer. Agfa put Kodak to shame, and once the addiction took hold, merely mocking those who had not yet discovered the difference was not sufficient.

Public humiliation was required to ensure that the uninitiated were converted as quickly as possible.

Hearts stopped in the late 70’s when the Hunt Brothers of Dallas, Texas cornered the silver market and prices soared. Instead of raising prices to accommodate the market, manufacturers decided to reduce the silver content of existing papers, ignoring the growing fine art market that demanded only the best quality printing paper available. Ilford entered the fray, but their products turned out to be less than desirable, with silver content similar to Kodaks.

Finally, a light shined through. Hungary was producing the Forté brand of paper, with so much silver, it felt like it was dripping onto your hands every time you held a fine print. Not inexpensive but readily available, it became my standard, and even today, nearly 40 years later, the quality is easily discernible.

When I had time to print my personal work it would take me nearly 8 hours to produce wet photos from 3 different negatives. The printing process was slow and calculated, requiring hours to go from concept to execution. The time devoted to ensuring that the prints were free from chemicals that would compromise their archival life span was as detailed and time consuming as pruning a Japanese Bonsai tree.

Chemistry was routinely monitored for exhaustion levels. The room was as tightly sealed from light as the clean rooms in today’s manufacturing processes are sealed from dust.

And then, in a heartbeat, it was gone. Kodak, Agfa, and Forté wiped clean by the virus of digital media. Silver went away a bit later. We have mined all the silver there is on the planet. Any projects requiring the metal would be forced to reclaim existing quantities in some other form.

Truth be told, I can make passable digital prints on my high-end Canon printer using some very expensive 100% cotton rag paper I purchase from Texas. I scan the negatives on an Epson V800 (the trick here is to scan at 800%, not 1:1, to avoid data loss when manipulating the print size in Photoshop), even out the density and contrast, and then print. The whole process takes about an hour.

Is it as rewarding as standing over caustic chemicals and churning wash water for eight hours, and then waiting another four hours for the prints to air dry? Not even close.

"Photography is nothing more than intense leisure and contemplation that ends up in a good black and white print properly fixed and rinsed so that it does not fade too soon."

Elliott Erwitt

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