The black and white photographs I process by hand in my darkroom in Beckley, West Virginia, are all gelatin silver prints. They are custom printed in the traditional way, on heavy, double-weight paper with an enlarger. Each photograph is archival-processed and selenium-toned to insure maximum permanence. Each photograph is heat mounted on heavy, museum-quality, acid-free, 100% rag board, and finished with an acid-free, bright-white overmat. With proper care, the photograph should last 200 years or more.
What is a Gelatin Silver Photograph?
Many people ask what a gelatin silver print is and why it costs so much. The term "gelatin silver print" refers to the photographic paper and the process used to create the image. Peter Mawdsley invented the first photographic paper with a gelatin emulsion in 1873, and commercially produced gelatin silver printing papers were available by 1885.
Gelatin, an animal protein, is used as an emulsion to bind light sensitive silver salts (usually silver bromides or silver chlorides) to a paper or other support. After a brief exposure to light through a negative (under an enlarger), the print is immersed in chemicals to allow the image to develop, or fully emerge. Typically, the photographic materials in a gelatin silver print are extremely sensitive to light. Gelatin silver prints replaced albumen prints as the most popular photographic process by 1895, because they were much more stable, did not have a tendency to yellow, and were far easier to produce.
The old black and white photographs in everyone's family album are gelatin silver prints. These were generally machine printed and processed, but unfortunately turned brown over time. This discoloration on aging is due to the inexpensive paper base used and insufficient fixing and washing during the processing phase.
The Color Film Revolution
With the invention of color film and papers for color printing, black and white photographs soon fell out of favor with amateur photographers. It wasn't long before most small photo labs quit processing black and white film altogether. This forced the black and white photographers to find custom labs or process and print their own photographs.
One would think that this would have signaled the end of black and white photography. Fortunately, it did not. Fine art photographers and their patrons kept the medium alive. They understood the power and impact of a finely crafted, black and white photograph. Sometimes, color just gets in the way.
New Digital Photography
In recent years, the gelatin silver print has been challenged again with the emergence of digital photography. Photographers using digital equipment can electronically capture scenes on their cameras, download those files to their computers, and manipulate the scenes with Photoshop. Then, they can print color or black and white photographs on inkjet printers with the click of a mouse button. Photoshop is a powerful piece of computer software that can enhance colors, remove unwanted items, or add desired effects to create a perfect photograph.
Once this image is saved on a photographer's computer, he can produce unlimited quantities, with print 1,000 being as perfect as the first. Years after the photographer has passed away, great-grandchildren can print the same perfect photograph. With new developments in inkjet paper and inks, these prints could last 100 years or more. The ability of a digital photograph to be printed so easily, in unlimited quantities, virtually forever, has actually saved the gelatin silver print from extinction.
Collectible Gelatin Silver Photographs
A gelatin silver print, produced by the original photographer, is considered by many to be a collectible and worth its higher price. They know that it takes a traditional photographer many hours to produce one finished gelatin silver print, and there are limits on the final number that can ever be on the market.
The large art auction houses, such as Sotheby's and Christie's, do a booming business selling the photographs of our deceased, as well as living, art photographers. Collectors are willing to pay thousands of dollars, in some cases hundreds of thousands of dollars, for a single gelatin silver print by a well-known photographer.
As time goes on, there will be fewer and fewer photographers practicing the art of traditional black and white photography. It is, by any standard, a slow, tedious, and inefficient method of recording an image and producing a photographic print. The practitioners of this soon-to-be-lost art are not interested in efficiency, but in the joy and satisfaction of creating a photograph with the rich tones and quality that can't be achieved using any other method.