so why should I paint pictures that do? ~Pablo Picasso
Ah, yes, the 21st century...last week my students were working with an essay called "The Image Culture," and each read always gives me another perspective. The author (Christine Rosen) presents a historical look at the development of photography and the importance of the image. How many of us across the planet watched those Chilean miners being brought back from the underworld? Striking images, for sure.
Yet I wonder with the demise of paper and the rise of cyber, what will be around in the future for those who follow us? I love to look at the faces in the old photo cards...the cabinet card. The Cabinet card was the style of photograph which was universally adopted for photographic portraiture in 1870. It consisted of a thin photograph that was generally mounted on cards measuring 4¼ by 6½ inches.
In the early 1860s, photographs were most often albumen prints; the primary difference being the cabinet card was larger and usually included extensive logos and information on the reverse side of the card to advertise the photographer’s services. However, later into its popularity, other types of papers began to replace the albumen process. Despite the similarity, the cabinet card format was initially used for landscape views before it was adopted for portraiture.
Some cabinet card images from 1890s have the appearance of a black and white photograph in contrast to the distinctive sepia toning notable in the albumen print process. These photographs have a neutral image tone and were most likely produced on a matte collodion, gelatin or gelatin bromide paper.
Gelatin silver prints were the most common form of black and white photograph from the late 1890s to today. If you go to a museum exhibit of photographs by famous early 20th century photographers, many to most will likely be gelatin silver prints. Those 1940s black and white snapshots and real photo postcards in your family albums are more than likely gelatin silver. Here is a gelatin silver of Marilyn Monroe...it sold in 1980 for $56,000.
Many gelatin silver photographs have stark black and white images, distinct to the sepia tones of an albumen print. However, many vintage gelatin silver images are found with sepia tones, sometimes closely resembling 1800s albumen prints. This sepia tinge is most often caused by the toning of the paper, but was sometimes intentionally created by the photographer.
According to my research, most vintage gelatin silver paper (at seen on the back of the photo) will be off white and often with toning and foxing. The earliest examples typically have bright white paper with occasional discoloration. The earliest paper was handmade without wood pulp. Wood pulp, introduced to later photo paper production, is what makes later photos and newspapers turn brown. The earliest handmade gelatin silver paper was naturally white and, since there was no wood pulp, did not tone with age. This means that you should not be distressed if the paper on your 1903 photo is so much brighter than on your 1920s photos.
Technical definitions aside...look at the faces in the old photos...who were they? What happened to them?
Why were they tossed aside in a box that ended up at an auction? How many went to landfills?At least in the antique shops or at the flea markets, these folks live on...but perhaps Oliver Wendell Holmes had an insight into our times in 1859 when he described photography as the most remarkable achievement of his time because it allowed human beings to separate an experience or a texture or an emotion or a likeness from a particular time and place--and still remain real, visible, and permanent, but he did see a time when the "image would become more important than the object itself and would in fact make the object disposable." In our digital age will both the image and the object be disposable?