Salted Paper Prints, or the Unforgiving Old Gods of Printing
Patrick McBride has been busy during the pandemic, brushing up on his salted paper printing skills. He shares his experiences and frustrations with us all.
Printing in a darkroom occupies a strange hybrid state, simultaneously being partly its own art form, and partly one of the formats film photographers can choose from. It’s not as convenient as scanning film and editing on a computer, and it has a very steep learning curve. However, there exists, in the chemical soup of photography’s past, a family of processes to challenge any and every photographer: Alternative process printing.
One of the most easily accessible members of this large family is salted paper printing, one of the oldest members too. Don’t let its accessibility and simple ingredients fool you though. While easy to start with, if you want to make consistent high quality prints, this can and will take over your life.
But, with such a large challenge, comes the opportunity to make prints that are impossible using standard silver gelatin printing, as well as providing a stepping stone into more exotic printing methods. Once you master a process like this, it will help you gain a vast amount of control over silver gelatin printing too.
Salted paper printing was the first negative to positive printing process invented where the image is stable for longer periods of time. One artist particularly famous for it is Henry Fox Talbot, who also pioneered the process. It was the main way of printing photos until Albumen printing waltzed in and stole the spotlight
What you need
Despite a very steep learning curve to master the process, it’s fairly easy to start out making these prints using household objects, no darkroom or enlarger necessary! There are complete starter kits available for relatively cheap (Bostick and Sullivan is one good place to start), but if you want to source materials as cheaply as possible, a complete parts list is quite short:
- Paper (has to survive immersion in water, I use Hahnemuhle Platinum Rag)
- A tray larger than your paper
- Salt Solution (1-5% is typically good)
- Silver Nitrate solution
- Fixer (Anything with Sodium Thiosulfate should do)
- A sink (Or a large bucket, puddle, inflatable pool, large Ziplock bags, etc.)
- A brush (optional)
- A pane of glass or acrylic, something to squish a negative against your piece of paper
- A source of UV light (The sun, UV exposure boxes, unoccupied tanning beds, etc.)
The process has been outlined in a variety of sources, so I’ll keep the description brief. I wanted to sketch an outline because there’s one step that’s often overlooked or not included that caused me a lot of grief in making blotch free pictures.
- Measure your salt solution into a separate container, dump onto the paper and immediately start brushing. Make sure the coating is even, or streaks and spots will appear. Alternatively, float the paper in a tray of salt solution.
- Brush (or float) the paper with the silver nitrate solution in the same way, and then dry. Gram for gram, you should have more than double the amount of silver nitrate solution on your paper. For example, when using 5% salt and 12% silver nitrate, brush equal amounts of each. More silver nitrate won’t typically hurt but the chemical reaction uses up 2x the silver per salt, and if it runs out, you get blotches.
- Squish the negative onto the paper, and expose (from 30 min- a few hrs in sunlight). You should have some way of peeling back the paper every now and then to check how exposed the print is. A contact printing frame is very helpful, but not absolutely necessary.
- Once the print looks about 1-2 stops darker than you want it, bring it in and rinse in water. The step many methods leave out is washing the print in salty water (the concentration here isn’t very strict, around 5% ish works for me), which helps avoid blotches by getting rid of excess silver nitrate. At this point, you really can’t over rinse it. I typically go for 5-10 mins in 2-3 salt baths.
- Fix for about 4 mins or so, just like any standard print
- You’re done!
There are a myriad of different variables you can tweak to get different results, from using really crazy salts like potassium iodide, to unusual papers. What makes the process so incredibly difficult is how picky it is. For one, it will only print well on certain types of paper. You also have to keep your brushes and workspace super clean, because a single crystal of silver nitrate in your brush can leave streaks of black across your print. To get into every problem would take a whole book though (in which case you should check out Salted Paper Printing by Christina Z. Anderson).
It really takes a lot of time and learning to get this process down, and you really can’t have efficiency or timeliness as any sort of priority. However if you are one of the lucky few on whom the gods of photography smile (I’m still waiting for my smile, it would make things so much easier), the final prints you can achieve with this are ethereal. I could prattle on about the tonal qualities and micro-contrast, but I’ll just let these pictures do the talking.