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Gelatin Silver Print

Constantin Brâncuși
Autoportrait dans son atelier (Self-Portrait in His Studio) , c. 1922
Gelatin silver print
34 x 27.9 cm (13 3/8 x 11 in.)
Courtesy of the artist and Kasmin Gallery, New York

Gelatin silver printing was one of the most popular and common means of making monochrome photographs, since its 1880’s appearance. Its story has started around the 1870s with the invention and development of the gelatin (an animal protein) silver emulsion. With its stability and simple production process, it was only natural that albumen print (or albumen silver print) using coating paper with egg white and salt was replaced with the gelatin silver print. (** In the early 1900s, gelatin silver prints were often mistaken for albumen prints because of its albumen-like sepia toned surface.)

Three simple parts can be seen in gelatin silver print: a) a paper as a base; b) a white opaque baryta layer, coated with gelatin and barium sulfate, creating a smooth surface; and c) a gelatin layer containing light-sensitive silver compounds (salts). In other words, the process of production is applying a silver gelatin emulsion (containing light-sensitive salts) to a paper coated with a layer of baryta.

Additional chemicals can be used on prints as overcoats to photographer’s preferences. It is to adjust the final tone of the results or to make the print more stable, thereby making it possible to endure the longer periods of time.

“Black and white is abstract; color is not. Looking at a black and white photograph, you are already looking at a strange world.”

Joel Sternfeld

Man Ray
Noire et blanche, 1926
Gelatin silver print
17.1 x 22.5 cm (6 3/4 x 8 7/8 in.)
MoMA Collection
© 2020 Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

# Silver

Silver looks different in photography from what we usually see in jewels and kitchenware. Silver in a black and white photography exists as small particles (around 0.5 micrometers in diameter) and silver of this size absorbs lights across the visible spectrum. Depending on the particle's distance, they appear as black or gray. Because of the contrast between light and darkness, the gelatin silver print is excellent for expressing the density of space/objects as well as the depth of human emotions. As it gives a feel as if the time has been sized, the audience could not often feel the flow of time.

Using these characteristics of gelatin silver prints, Walker Evans, an American photographer, left us with a series of photographs including his work with Farm Security Administration (FSA). His works capture and document candid images during the Great Depression. Moved away from the European modernism, his lenses had captured the scenes of the ordinary people’s ordinary life with restrained aesthetics, conveying the mood of the time: depressed, stunted, and miserable.

Walker Evans
Alabama Tenant Farmer, 1936
Gelatin silver print
23.6 x 18.7 cm (9 5/16 x 7 3/8 in.)
Lent by Elizabeth and Robert J. Fisher, MBA ’80
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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