Friday, October 28, 2011

End of Silver Gelatin Prints at the Library of Congress

Start of a glide, Orville and Wilbur Wright, collection of the Library of Congress

My recent article for Washington City Paper is this week's arts feature. You'll need to read it before reading the blog post.

Initially a 2800+ epistle was whittled into a 1500-word essay, and stands as another testament to the relationship between writer and editor. I've been lucky enough to do some freelance writing for CP for the last 16 months, and Jonathan Fischer has been a heckuvan editor (not to take anything away from Erin Engstrom and Ally Schwartz, who have edited most of my smaller ditties for City Lights). I don't know if he has made me a better writer, but he has certainly made my writing look better in print.

Two elements didn't make the print edition.I thought I would share them here.

The first bit was about Jantzen in the 1980s. His first job was working as a preservation technician for the Library of Congress.
The negatives he worked from were not the original negatives. Jantzen knows this first
hand; he used to be employed by the Library in the 1980s as a contracted preservation
technician. One of his responsibilities was quality control on negative duplication. “Part
of my job was to make certain the duplicate matched up with the original. You know. No
big hairs [on the duplicate negative].” Because materials become brittle as they age, the
Library of Congress duplicated the negatives in their collection so they could continue
to provide duplicate prints of work in the collection without damaging the primary
artifact. “When I first heard of it I thought it was bull shit – that you could not have a
duplicate that would behave the same as the original. And, I was stunned [ at the result].”
He wondered what it would be like to print with the duplicate. 20 years later, he became
that guy.

The second bit that was not included was a note on the developing process.

The process of developing a silver gelatin print lacks the immediacy of digital
photography. The film, a negative image, is dusted off and set in the negative carrier,
which is then placed in the enlarger. Light shines through the negative and projects an
image onto an easel below. To figure out the right exposure, a single sheet of silver
gelatin paper is placed on the easel, and strips are exposed to various durations of light.
The paper is developed through successive liquid baths, which reveal the image and
desensitize the strips of silver within the paper to any further exposure to light. The
various strips determine contrast and brightness, and allows Jantzen to make an informed
decision about how long to expose the print. That first print he likens to a rough draft. Usually
those are good enough for a basic print. However, since he does not know what client
requested the image from the Library of Congress, he has to assume the print must be
exhibition quality.

A second print is exposed, and Jantzen goes through steps called dodging and burning.
Dodging is a process of blocking light to allow more detail to appear within darker
sections of the print. Burning is a process of over-exposing very light sections of the
print, again to allow more detail in those areas of the composition. . “If there was a slight
difference between an almost perfect print and a perfect print, I’ll expose more paper.”
Detailed notes are taken throughout the process. In the end, the prints that require it will
receive spotting and etching. Spotting is the process of adding dabs of dye to the print to
obscure dost spots that affixed to the negative when the original negative was initially
processed. Etching is the process of taking a knife to the final print an scraping away bits

of silver gelatin to reveal more details and value within the darkest parts of the print. The
final step involves toning the prints to give them a warmer quality. 

On a final note: One thing I constantly find of interest is how quickly digital has evolved. This might be the reason why I have chosen to write about the issue with the Library of Congress as well as an early critique of the Photo Annual at Artisphere. I bought my first digital camera in 2003. It was a 5 megapixel (mp) point-and-shoot (pas) and it cost $800 refurbished. Today 5 mp is standard on an iPhone and you can buy a 16 mp pas for around $100.

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