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Saturday, 23 October 2010


Paper Negative Prints from the 1930s

“We’re changing the world with technology.”
Bill Gates

When William Fox Talbot took his photograph of a window at Laycock Abbey in 1835 (officially the earliest photograph in existence) he kept his process secret, which could have undone him. Four years later, when Louis Daguerre presented his daguerreotype, he made sure all the information became public knowledge, ensuring he would not only usurp the claim to be the inventor of photography but guarantee his process would dominate for the next ten years. A few cottoned on to Talbot’s secret; French photographers in particular admired the delicate tones of the Talbotype, or Calotype as it was better known and it had one advantage over the daguerreotype in that that an original negative on paper was made from which prints could be produced but economically it was no competition. The market for Calotypes was refined. Then at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851 Frederick Scott Archer formally unveiled his wet collodion process. The advantages negatives on glass had over paper were so many that the Calotype should have effectively become extinct. That didn’t happen. The images in this post are evidence of that. 

The photographs here are negative paper prints taken in the 1930s. They use paper as the film stock and with a few variations the process for creating the final positive print closely follows Talbot’s to a degree they can be regarded as direct descendents. Sensitized paper replaced celluloid in the plate holder, the image was exposed then taken to a darkroom for development. As it was being washed another sheet of unexposed paper was added to the tray, improving its translucency. Both sheets were removed, sandwiched together under glass and exposed to a light source. A positive contact print could now be developed. People did this because it was cheap and fast since there was no need buy film or wait for the negative to dry. Not surprisingly perhaps the process was stock in trade for photographers who needed to work quickly and weren’t too bothered with quality, the type for example who worked in fairgrounds and could knock up a print for the customer in a few minutes. 

That being the case, the Calotype may have survived but its place in photography as a fast cheap alternative seems a diminishment, a bit like a once great singer performing in an empty nightclub or an old fighter returning to the small, shabby arenas he started out in. Not so. Around fifteen years ago, at the moment just before digitalization changed photography, there was sudden revival in old processes, linked you have to think, to an unconscious awareness everything was about to change. Photographers like Sally Mann discovered the joys of the collodion process and some photographers went even further back, to the most basic camera possible; the pinhole. Today pinhole photography is established as an alternative process and among its practitioners there is a general feeling that if the camera is going to be a primitive construction, literally a cardboard box, then the film stock should likewise be basic. The paper negative survives. It is more popular now than it ever has been.

Technologies are superceded by others that are more efficient but they don’t die. Polaroid and Kodachrome films are no longer being manufactured but so long as the knowledge on how to make them is available devoted aesthetes will continue to try to produce them. In the same way the very ease of digital photography has created a nostalgia for standard film. There are people too who see the switch to digital as a betrayal of everything sacred about photography. They will continue using film and if that becomes no longer possible they will turn to the paper negative.


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