and back again!
Throughout the 20th century, b&w silver gelatin prints were THE standard in b&w photography.
Unlike modern inkjet prints which consist of ink sprayed onto the surface of paper, silver gelatin paper, like photographic film itself, consists of layers of organic and chemical material. So the resulting images have a slight depth and perhaps life to them.
Also like photographic film, silver gelatin paper undergoes a permanent physical change when exposed to light. The image is held by tiny, randomly dispersed, light-sensitive silver salts which sit in a gelatin suspension on the paper. Blacks are the stimulated silver grains and whites are the paper itself. This means that there is absolutely no color cast because the blacks and the whites are not composites of red, blue and green channels like a color print. Even CMYK can mix a color cast to key (black).
I’m not clear on the timeline of things but since I’ve been seriously involved with photography, since about 2000, if you took your work to anything but a pro lab that offered hand-crafted darkroom prints from a negative, you were getting inkjet prints of some form. But at least in the last 5 or so years, Ilford Photo has driven a charge to produce genuine silver gelatin prints from digital files using Durst Lamda and Theta machines.
Basically, instead of using a film negative and a light bulb to project your image onto silver gelatin paper, these machines use a computer to reproduce your image on an LED panel that the silver gelatin paper reacts to. Pretty slick!
In 2013, Ilford Lab USA opened to provide not only film processing but also these digital silver gelatin prints. There are other pro labs offering this service (some of whom apparently just send the work to Ilford) but I’ve never had any reason to try anyone else. All b&w prints I’ve sold to clients and shown in galleries since 2013 have been printed on silver gelatin by Ilford.
Ilford offers incremental sizes from 3.5×5 to 10×15 and does matt and glossy finishes. They only use RC paper. If you want fiber paper or larger sizes, there are other labs that will do it for you. Prices are a little higher than comparable ink prints but the cost difference is negligible considering the difference in quality.
Will the average person look at a silver gelatin print and seen an obvious distinction from ink? Nah. But the consistency from source to product is important to many art patrons. And I do honestly enjoy the look of my silver gellies over ink.
It’s probably arguable too, as to what technology is more archival at this point. I’m not going to go down that rabbit hole. I’ll let you know in a hundred years! Suffice to say, I shoot on silver and I like to print to it too.
So if you’re still getting chromogenic ink b&w prints, I urge you, regardless of if you shoot film or digital, to give silver gelatin a spin. It’s worth doing a side-by-side. Thanks for reading!
EDIT: In October 2017 Ilford Lab changed their name to Harman Lab after their parent company. The link to their site is now www.HarmanLab-US.com. The site looks identical to the previous site including pricing and options. I have contacted Harman and been told that this was strictly rebranding.
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