Forgotten Chemical Photography

Much to the chagrin of Eastman Kodak, the world has moved on from chemical photography into the realm of digital, thanks to the ease of use and high quality of modern digital cameras. There are a few photographers here and there still using darkrooms and various chemical processes to develop film, and the most common of these use some type of chemistry based on silver to transfer images to paper. There are plenty of alternatives to silver, though, each with their unique style and benefits, like this rarely-used process that develops film using platinum.

This process, notable for its wide tonal range, delicate highlights, and rich blacks, produces only black and white photographs. But unlike its silver analog, it actually embeds the image into the paper itself rather than holding the image above the paper. This means that photographs developed in this manner are much more resilient and can last for much longer. There are some downsides to this method though, namely that it requires a large format camera and the negatives can’t be modified to produce various sized images in the same ways that other methods allow for. Still, the results of the method are striking for anyone who has seen one of these images in person.

As to why this method isn’t more common, [Matt Locke] describes a somewhat complicated history involving the use of platinum to create commercial fertilizers, which is an identical process to that of the creation of explosives, which were needed in great numbers at the same time this photographic method was gaining in popularity. While the amount of research and development that goes into creating weapons arguably generates some ancillary benefit for society, the effects of war can also serve to divert resources away from things like this.

14 thoughts on “Forgotten Chemical Photography

    1. My dad gave me his old Pentax Spotmatic. While the body is only a memento you can easily fit the lenses to my mirrorless digital camera and I am most assuredly having a lot of fun with that. Since a mirrorless camera does not have, well, a mirror it is trivial to make an adapter ring, it only has to hold the lens a bit of a distance from the sensor to compensate for the old SLR’s mirrorbox. No complicated optics, these rings are cheap and easy to find. Mirrorless also gives you live view and focusing aids which makes these lenses much much easier to use. To boot, APS-C is a bit smaller than fullframe, cutting off the softer corners of the 35mm image, at the cost of basically increasing the apparent focal length.

      In the 60s many lenses used M42 or M39 screw mounts, my dad’s old camera used M42. This opens up a whole world of vintage lenses from Japan, Germany and the Soviet Union. And since mirrorless cameras have become popular the prices for some of those old vintage lenses have shot through the roof.

      1. There’s a number of pretty good old lenses; generally the ones that require less aggressive lens designs are the only ones that can be both cheap and good. It’s easier to make a 135mm good around f/4 than to make a 35mm good around f/1.8. The less-good older lenses don’t necessarily have enough resolution to be able to get away with cropping, even though the center is better than the corners. I have an 85mm medium format lens on a tilt-shift adapter, but it’s a bit underwhelming so far trying to use it on the regular format.

    2. As I hit 50, I bought from an auction site, some of the film cameras I had lusted after as a kid. They were ridiculously inexpensive. I have a couple of 120 cameras and a number of the Nikon F series, my favorite is the F3, which can share lenses with my D700. I do use them, though the cost of film and the time it takes to get it developed forces you into a different mindset when taking pictures.

      Film isn’t dead, it’s just resting. When in Honolulu this spring, I found “Treehouse”, a shop dedicated to film cameras (yes, they had some nice ones for sale) and vinyl records. You could even buy film there.

  1. I did a series of prints that were selenium toned, you retain a neutral colour but the image is not as vulnerable to fading like a silver one is. Cheaper than platinum, but toxic to work with.

  2. The gum-dichromate process is as stable as the dyes or pigments used, and with much effort color prints are possible. The process is not particularly difficult for hobbyists to try.

    The cibachrome (ilfochrome) was a commercial positive color process, very stable. It used toxic chemicals. It was discontinued in 2012 due to insufficient demand.

  3. Silver prints got toned with selenium (toxic, and very smelly) platinum was toned with uranium.

    One of my favorite old (used glass plates, >100 years ago, demo 1904, for sale a year later) color processes (yes, color) was called “autochrome” . Invented by the Lumiere brothers it worked using normal silver monochrome chemistry. On one side of the plate was a normal emulsion, the other side (which faced the lens) had a color filter made from very fine starch grains 1/3 dyed red, 1/3 green and 1/3 blue. So you would expose it, and develop the emulsion side as a positive image. To view it, you lit it from the emulsion side, and the filter grains did their thing in reverse.

    This additive process was revived in the 1980’s by Polaroid as their instant super 8 movie film (a flop) and instant 35mm slide film (popular for presentations before lcd projectors became ubiquitous) Instead of starch grains, they printed the film base with very thin vertical lines of the three filter colors. (Based on the even older 1894 “Joly” process)

    Your corporate drone would take their power point deck, use a vga->35mm box (or photograph your crt screen with a camera in a light excluding hood, or darkened room) run the Polaroid film thru its hand cranked processing box (took a few minutes), hand mount the slides, and load them into a carousel tray. It was about 3x the cost of normal 35mm E-6 processed. The processor was ~$100 I think. (Figure at least $2/frame in today’s money)

    It was cumbersome, but a whole lot faster than sending a floppy disk to a service, that would return slides the next day for about $20 (80’s money) per slide. (or $50 each for same day, plus what the bike courier charged)

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