The touch of silver

Gelatin silver or silver gelatin? Which comes first? Technically speaking, hand printing on baryta paper, or fiber-based paper of hefty weight, refers to an embedded process: shooting black and white film, developing it, and printing it in the darkroom.

The baryta paper contains a suspension the silver halides, or salts in a gelatin layer. An image printed in the darkroom ‘sits’ on four layers: Cotton-based paper, baryta, gelatin binder, and a protective gelatin overcoat. As the silver is suspended in gelatin, we’re talking about a gelatin silver process, though many prefer the denomination, ‘silver gelatin,’ as it sounds better.

After enlargement, focus, and contrast control, the paper travels to three trays of wet dipping containing chemicals: Developer (I like the Romanian word for it, ‘revelator’, or revealer, as that’s what this chemical does, reveal the hitherto embedded but hidden image on the paper), a stop bath, preventing the paper from further developing, and a fixer ensuring that the paper will not be sensitive to the light anymore.

Afterwards the baryta requires a long bath in running water, typically an hour. This ensures that the added chemicals in the paper are washed out completely, so no staining can occur at a later stage.

Toning the baryta in selenium adds longevity to the print, and a dash of heightened contrast. Sepia toning or a similar chemical treatment can give the gelatin silver print a preferred look, while also making sure that your work will last at least 100 years without any change: the black stays black, and the white stays white (or tobacco and blue color, if toning was used).

I like my own prints to display fat contrast. Not necessarily grainy or sharp, but fat.

My second print that I processed after returning to the darkroom — when all darkroom experience, only one-week 40 years ago was, completely vanished — was based on a thin negative. This means that it took the light from the enlarger a very short time to burn the hell out of the paper, thus leaving behind a layer of black that’s hard to describe.

All I can think of is the fat color that the Renaissance masters used when they painted their chairoscuro masterpieces. I tried to take pictures of this print, The Hand and the Hound, and found it impossible to render without a perfect reflection of my iPhone in it. The surface is like obsidian, filled with strange depth and magic.

Written on the body

The point of this post about the basic process is to say the following:

Anything that requires your hand touch, even when the hand must be be-gloved, is magic. I take the saying, ‘keep it close to nature’ to my heart. There are minerals and chemicals that go into your hand touch. Your body is made of minerals and chemicals. So what you work with is actually the memory of your body. A miracle.

It may well be that the name ‘photograph’ means ‘writing with light’, but I like the idea that this writing with light is all about memory written on the body.

If you craft anything with your hands, keep going. There’s nothing like going through a process that requires your touch. That’s where the art of it is. In the touch.

When the touch of the baryta is the result of being utterly relaxed and utterly concentrated at the same time, you end up with work that not only touches the heart, but grabs it too.

And that’s the point of art: To grab the heart in a unique way and as a singular expression. After all, according to Zen masters, you’re all you’ve got. There are no others. The space you think yo inhabit is not one that defines you, but rather, one that you create. On point, and with everything else that’s in it.

I go out with my inherited Leica M2, the subject of The Danish Testament, and don’t look at things. I look at blobs of light and the horizon of our crossing of aims.

I say to the light: ‘I see you light, I’m going to touch you now’. I can hear the silver halides getting all bubbly inside, waiting for my touch.

It’s a good world, the art world. I’m here to touch it.

If you’d like to follow my return to the darkroom and the art I create, you may visit my Facebook page, The Danish Testament, where I post gelatin silver prints, short videos about the process, and philosophy about this venerable art of handmade photographs.

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