Art Term Tuesday: Archival Pigment & Silver Gelatin Prints

Katy Thompson, Director of Education

“Why don’t they just say ‘photograph’?” is a question I’ve heard uttered in the FWMoA galleries multiple times. When looking at photography in a fine art museum or gallery, the label lists the medium, or material, not as photograph but “silver gelatin print”, “archival pigment print”, “giclée print”, or something else entirely. What does that mean? Isn’t a photograph a photograph?

It is! A museum or gallery, however, is not referring to the final product (the photograph) but to the materials or process that made it (silver gelatin). In the same way a label next to a painting doesn’t say “painting” (the final product) but “oil on canvas” or “acrylic on wood” (the materials), the institution is giving you insight into the artistic process to understand the artist, the work, and the visual narrative. With The National: Best Contemporary Photography 2022 now on view at FWMoA, it’s an opportune time to explore these photographic processes and the reasons for choosing them. Below is a silver gelatin print and an archival pigment print:

Claire Dunn, Argentinian, b. 1996. New Perspectives, from the Earthstars series. Drawing on silver gelatin print, 2022. Loan from the Artist. Image courtesy of Claire Dunn.
Jeanette May, American, b. 1963. Rotary Dial Phone, from the Curious Devices series. Archival pigment print on paper, 2020. Loan from the Artist. Image courtesy of Jeanette May.

The silver gelatin print by Claire Dunn is, indeed, silver! Giving off 90s scratch paper vibes, Dunn’s iridescent photo explores the conversations between earthly matter, DNA, and star constellations. The luminous forms, depicted like constellations, were made using the artist’s own DNA: her hair, saliva, and fingerprints. The correlation between these themes points to the patterns found across nature, connecting humanity with the cosmos. Like what you might find under a microscope in biology class, Dunn’s silvery touch beautifies what we might otherwise shy from.

The most commonly used chemical process for black-and-white photography, and the fundamental process for modern analog color photography, silver gelatin prints were introduced by Richard Leach Maddox in 1871 and refined by Charles Harper Bennett in 1878. An advancement on the collodian wet-plate technique, dominant in the 1850s-1880s, silver gelatin prints can be exposed and developed years after their manufacture. Despite this, silver gelatins are multi-layered structures that require specialized coating equipment and fastidious technique to ensure consistent end results free of damaging impurities. In fact, early prints were of poor quality until coating machines for the production of continuous rolls of sensitized paper were introduced in the 1890s, giving them the smooth and glossy shine we attribute to them today. Popularized in the 1920s and 1930s, this style partnered with the transition of photography from pictorialism into modernism, photojournalism, and “pure” photography.

Like all photography, the process is based on light sensitivity; in this case, for that of a chemical compound of sliver halides. To develop a silver gelatin print, an image that consists of silver metal particles suspended in a gelatin layer, the artist applies an emulsion of light-sensitive silver salts in gelatin to a base. The base, or support, is usually paper; ideal because it is lightweight and flexible, paper or canvas are also strong enough to withstand the multiple steps and handling required. Coated with a layer of baryta, a white opaque pigment mixed with gelatin and barium sulfate, the sensitized paper creates a smooth surface. Artists who desire more textured surfaces can use a variety of textured felts, either before or after drying the paper, dependent on the preferred effect. A gelatin binder holds the silver grains of the photographic image; an ideal binder, it is tough, resistant to abrasion once dry, and swells to allow processing solutions to penetrate. The photograph is developed out, meaning it is made visible through exposure to the chemical reducing solution. Finally, an overcoat (or topcoat) is applied. A thin layer of hardened gelatin, it rests atop the gelatin binder as another layer of protection for the surface of the print. Sharply defined and highly detailed, the smooth, even surface permits further chemicals to alter the range of tone.

Jeanette May’s archival pigment print of “curious devices” juxtaposes seductive designs with the inner workings of obsolete technology to reveal our complicated relationship with technological iterations. Each object’s style, color, and material construction epitomize a period of both aesthetic and technological advancement. Some devices are opened to expose their archaic innerworkings. What becomes of the beloved tech that stops working or cannot be updated? The rich velvet colors and crisp, sharp details are integral to a realistic still life. The use of color contrasts with our ideas of antiquated technology; often, we’ve seen them only in black-and-white film and photography.

An archival pigment print is a museum quality print that uses refined particles of pigment to create a long-lasting artwork, another nod to rising technologies for May. Printed from a digital file directly to paper (no dark room), archival pigment prints make use of developments in printer technology. Placing multiple ink cartridges in the head, which has small charged crystals in various colors, of the printer releases specific amounts of ink through electrostatic charges. Stiffer and more stable than dye-based inks, these long-lasting prints, when displayed behind glass and protected from flash, can last 80 years on display and 200 in an album! Their archival, or long-lasting, status is achieved through the combination of pigments and paper quality. The pigment-based inks are made from finely ground powders suspended in a liquid, meaning they are not water-soluble, quickly drying and binding to the paper fibers and inhibiting their fading. This form of printing focuses on individual pieces, not bulk editions. A giclée print, on the other hand, makes use of a standard, dye-based inkjet printer and cost-efficient, bulk prints.

The chosen process, therefore, is often determined by the desired outcome, and the purpose, and the artists narrative. Visit FWMoA to explore photography further during The National, on display through January 8th, or in the Print & Drawing Study Center by appointment with Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings.

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