Ilford MG Art 300 Paper

By David Vestal Back to

ilford300a

I must start with results or it will take too long to get there, as it did in my darkroom. Here’s most of what I’ve learned about Ilford/Harman’s new Multigrade Art 300 black and white paper. It is a whole new kind of printing paper, technically inbetween conventional fiber-base and RC papers. It comes up quickly in the developer and the prints wash more quickly than what Ilford now calls “baryta FB,” but not so quickly as RC papers.

Conventional FB processing, although with luck it works, is no way to handle this paper. I had to learn an approach that’s new to me. After development and the stop bath, it works best with quick fixing—just one minute in a strong, non-hardening rapid fixer. The directions that come with the paper specify Ilford

Multigrade Fixer or Hypam diluted 1+4: one part stock fixer plus four parts water. Another way is to fix for just 2 minutes in Multigrade or Hypam fixer diluted 1+9, but when I tried that, thinking it was conservative and safe, it got me into trouble. Except for this paper’s persistent tendency to stain, and to produce bleached areas within the picture in spite of careful handling, I feel I almost have it under control now. About one print in every four or five still shows such defects in my darkroom for no known reason. The paper seems somewhat temperamental. Or it might be any of a multitude of unknown variables.

My guess is that these defects may result from new- product bugs that need to be worked out, as happened around 1970 with early RC papers. Mating a radically new all-cotton art paper base to Multigrade’s triple emulsion (low-contrast, high-contrast and curve-con- trol) might well pose unforeseen problems.

z Bravo in studio, cropped, Mexico DF 7/1987

What It’s Like

This is a thick, stiff, all-cotton paper, flexible but slow to curl. I couldn’t tell the emulsion side by touch or surface appearance under safelight, but never got it wrong. The emulsion side is the concave side. It is light in weight, and getting it into a vertical print washer takes some doing. Placed edge-down in the tank, it pops back up so that inches of each print stick up out of the water. These floppy tops curl and stick together while wet. It’s not easy to get them all separated and held down in the water, and the recommended wash times (30 to 45 minutes, no more), may anyway not be long enough to ensure complete washing in such a washer. Wash them one at a time in a tray. The emulsion has a mildly warm tone and the paper base is a warm white.

It’s not a fast paper (ISO 100 and 50 with Multigrade filters, 200 without) and printing dense negatives can get you into reciprocity-failure extended times that make life difficult. I gave up on an otherwise promising negative when its test exposures got up to several minutes. The tones come up quickly in development, at about 12 to 15 seconds, and development proceeds normally. There is considerable dry-down. If in doubt, you could use Ansel Adams’s shortcut by drying a test print in a microwave oven and comparing it to a similar wet print.

Processing each print by itself from development through its final wash in a tray before starting to process the next print is easy and relatively safe, and, of course, time-consuming. MG Art 300 is not designed for batch processing, as I learned when trying it got me in big trouble: for instance, five prints, all good when they went into a water-filled holding tray after a first fixing bath, were all badly stained, and some also showed bleached white areas a little later, when I took them out to put them through their second fixer.

There was no warning and no way to save them. This taught me to use rapid fixer at 1+4 for just one minute, and to process each print by itself without delay. Not convenient, but any good print deserves all the time and care it requires.

Although the paper’s D-Max is a low 1.4 (as against MG IV FB’s approximately 2.0), its black looks deep to the eye. It’s a rough-textured matte paper, much like what Kodak used to call “tapestry,” and has a sort of subtexture, an eggshell sheen that helps the blacks look black. It looks and feels like a thick, rough watercolor or charcoal paper. This texture seems to have been chosen for its “artistic” character after a survey to find out what art photographers want. I’m not one of them. When you’re drawing in charcoal a definite “tooth” on the paper is useful. In a photo print it has no function. It’s a cosmetic vanity. My Art 300 prints show me that this conspicuous texture is tolerable in light prints with no large dark areas, but interferes annoyingly with dark prints. That texture competes for the viewer’s attention against the photo’s dark details, which, in effect, it largely wipes out. For me this is quite a good paper for light prints, but poor for dark ones. Other things being equal, I’d much rather have “MG Smooth 300,” which doesn’t exist but probably could. I don’t know what new problems such a change might bring, but to me the prospect of a smooth semi-matte paper, on this thick base and with this emulsion, and just enough shine so it doesn’t kill the blacks, is more desirable.

Swamp near Layton NJ 1990

History enters here. Around 1900, photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Clarence White, Edward Steichen and Gertrude Käsebier were anxious to win recognition for photography as an art medium. The public perception was, and largely still is, that photography is a chemical and mechanical process that can’t possibly be art. In truth, as someone accurately said, “Anything can be art, but very little is.” The photo artists of that time fought back by inventing The Photo Secession. Their tactics included making photographs that looked like handmade drawings or etchings. It may have been Steichen who once got such a photo accepted in a general art exhibition, until the jury found out it was a photograph and rejected it in horror. The Photo Secessionists imitated other media to get their pictures past the art museum door. Some of their best work−much of it’s really good−now sells for millions of dollars.

In the 1930s a few photographers concerned with social problems fought poverty by showing the public what Lewis Hine said had “to be corrected.” The US Department of Agriculture’s Farm Security Administration, directed by Roy Stryker, sent some able photographers out to show how bad things were on dustbowl farms. The pictures were given free to the press, so people saw them. Conservative congressmen hated them, just as they would today. The FSA work of those few photographers is now prized more as art than as a historical record. FSA photos look just like what they are, not a bad thing for any art form. That was The Photo Depression.

In 1969 there was a breakthrough: Lee Witkin’s new photo gallery in New York had an Ansel Adams show that sold out at $150 per print, and suddenly photography was Art. Other galleries opened, many run by art dealers who knew nothing of photography. They wanted and got photos that don’t look like photos, conforming to the familiar esthetic of 1930s camera clubs: tricky and artistic. And now The Photo Recession is very big. Some excellent work is done in this mode, and many of today’s art dealers, curators, critics and collectors prize it far above most straight photography, as do many art photographers. I feel that it’s good for them and for me to differ in our tastes.

In short, MG Art 300 is made for Photo Recessionists but not for me. I like photos that look like photos. In testing this paper I printed pictures that I felt could survive in spite of its artistic texture. I’m sure that many whose letterheads say “Fine Art Photography”

will love MG Art 300 just as it is. I wish them well and often enjoy their work, but I don’t expect to use this paper often. If it had a more photo-friendly surface, I’d use it more. It’s excellent for a few of my photos, but not for many of them. Incidentally, one test report on MG Art 300 says it doesn’t scan well because of its surface texture, which the writer otherwise adores. His problem may be with his scanner. For me it scanned quite nicely in spite of a surface texture I don’t like.

Manuel Alvarez Bravo at home, Mexico DF 7/1987. This image shows the difficulty I encountered with MG Art 300 in the darker areas of the print image.

Processing

Do it all at 68°F/20°C plus or minus 4°F throughout. Agitate constantly whenever possible. Remember that this paper likes short wet times. One writer says that MG Art 300 works better for him with longer develop- ment than the recommended two minutes in Bromo- phen 1+3. I saw no difference that mattered between 2 and 3 minutes in Bromophen and between 3 and 4-1/2 minutes in Ilford Warmtone 1+19, so I’d choose the shorter time with either one.

Wear rubber or latex gloves to protect your hands and the prints. This thick paper carries much of each chemical along with it and requires considerable drain time before the next chemical. Count the drain time after each chemical, say 20 seconds for an 11×14-inch print, as part of its processing time. Here’s a sequence that works for me:

Development, 2 minutes or more with constant agitation in Bromophen; 3 minutes or more in Warmtone. Most other paper developers should work as well.

Acid stop bath, 30 seconds (the directions say 10 sec- onds, which is nonsense, considering the necessary drain time).

Rapid fixer 1+4, 60 seconds, no more, including drain time. (I did a 1+4 clearing-time test, which showed that this paper just barely clears in 30+ seconds; but this is complete fixing, unlike Ilford’s also recommended 2 minutes in 1+9 rapid fixer.) Ilford says that 2 minutes fixing at 1+9 produces prints with good “permanence for commercial use,” or some such words: in photography, “commercial permanence” is an oxymoron.

Pre-wash, 5 minutes in running water with constant agitation and several changes of water: dump and refill the tray several times.

Washing aid, 10 minutes with constant agitation: I used Heico Perma Wash: Ilford’s or Kodak’s washing aids will do as well, as will a 2% solution of sodium sulfite.

Final wash, 5 minutes in running water, with constant agitation and frequent water changes. Residual hypo testing shows that they’re clean at 5 minutes, but I wash for 10 minutes to make sure. Then the print is ready to dry or to tone.

Drying: I squeegee all water drops off both sides of each print and put it between clean blotters, which I change frequently. Unhardened prints on Art 300 stick lightly to blotters at first, but peel away cleanly and dry flat. Use only photographic blotters that are never used for incompletely washed prints. Or you can just squeegee or wipe water off your prints and hang them up on clips to dry.

All that is for one print at a time. It’s difficult to process two or more prints together, and you might lose fewer prints to MG Art 300’s mystery defects, if they occur in your darkroom as they did in mine, by processing your prints one at a time.

Clearing-time test strips, MG Art 300 fixed in Hypam and developed 3 minutes in Bromophen diluted 1+3. (Left) Hypam 1+9. (Right) Hypam 1+4.

Processing for Stability, Including Toning

All of the above, plus selenium toning. I must warn you not to selenium tone prints in the initial washing- aid if they have had only the recommended 2 minutes in rapid fixer diluted 1+9. They are then incompletely fixed and selenium toner will stain them. (I took a long chance, thinking that Ilford’s chemists must surely know the fixing and toning of this paper better than I ever could. In this case, apparently not.) Ilford neither recommends nor warns against selenium toning in the washing aid of MG Art 300 prints that have had only their recommended two minutes in rapid fixer 1+9: they don’t mention it.

One minute in rapid fixer at 1+4 gives barely complete fixing, but the prints selenium tone without trouble after they’ve been completely washed, and toning improves them visually as well as protecting them chemically against oxidizing gases. The blacks deepen and the contrast in dark tones is increased.

Here I ran into ambiguous instructions from Ilford. Both a December 2001 bulletin, Processing B&W Fibre Base Papers, and a May 2011 one, Multigrade Art 300, recommend selenium toning, for prints fixed 60 sec- onds in rapid fixer at 1+4, in the 10-minute washing aid bath that follows the 5-minute pre-wash, with toner added to the desired dilution. But a 2007 bulletin, Harman Selenium Toner, says “Prior to toning, your print should be properly fixed and fully washed….” [my italics]. After my several disasters with MG Art 300, I chose to tone only completely washed prints and had no trouble. To end the toning, put the print in running water for 2 minutes; then wash it thoroughly. To my eye, the toning improved every photo, both at 1+20 toner dilution for 4 minutes, which they say is for protection with little or no color change, and at 1+5 dilution for 4 minutes. My choice is to tone at 1+20, since I see no significant difference. And then I ran out of paper, so I haven’t tried toning in the first washing- aid bath. However, that should work as well as toning after complete washing, and should be less tedious and inconvenient. The toner is especially toxic, so handle it with care in a well-ventilated room, and wear protective gloves.

For toning after complete washing, I diluted my toner in a fresh Permawash bath (1.5 fl oz PW concentrate in 64 fl oz water). 65.5 fl oz divided by 20 = 3.275, so I made my 1+20 toner by adding 3.25 fl oz of Harman Selenium Toner to the PW bath. And 65.5 divided by 5 = 13.1, so I made my 1+5 toner by adding 13 fl oz of toner to the PW bath. Mix well before using. Toning with constant agitation was rapid and even. If you are toning for color, as I am not, keep an untoned print in good light where you can compare it with the print in the toner. Otherwise it’s very hard to judge. I tone mainly to raise dark-tone contrast and I accept whatever color comes. The added stability is a bonus.

After toning and the 2-minute rinse to stop it, I repeat the 10-minute treatment in washing aid without any toner, then wash each print for 10 minutes before drying it. Each time I add a print to the blotter stack I also change the blotters. As I said, you can just hang your prints up to dry, the way I hang damp blotters.

When I print again on MG Art 300, I’ll try toning in the initial washing-aid bath, one print at a time, from development to drying. But before that, once I have the print exposure, I’ll expose four prints, one after another, then process them one at a time.

Four prints, because if you make just one, something happens to it; and if you want one for yourself you have to start over. Four prints, one to keep, three to give away or exhibit or sell. Four is a handy number for photo printing.

To sum this up: for me MG Art 300 is a potentially excellent paper that can probably become much better. If it does, I’ll surely buy and use it. If you like its texture and don’t mind its chemical antics, consider it excellent right now. In decent prints its tones are rich and beautiful, and not like those of any other paper I know. It is unique, and it offers something special that defies description. You feel it when you see the prints.

To my mind this paper’s problems are a) chemical—the stains and bleaching and b) visual—the unfortunate surface texture. I hope that both problems will be solved, and the sooner the better. More than most photo companies, llford has always been a friend to photographers who care for quality, and I like to see them doing well.

Editor’s note: We re-scanned David’s photos made on MG Art 300 and indeed also had problems with artifacts from the surface. Best scanning was achieved with Descreening turned on- perhaps this is a good thing for photographers who use this paper- it’s like a built-in watermark making it difficult to copy the original silver print.


About the Author

David Vestal
Dvestal
David Vestal is a photographer and teacher whose publications include The Art of Black & White Enlarging (1984) and The Craft of Photography. His photographs are exhibited internationally and are found in numerous private and public collections including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. The wit and wisdom of his commentaries have long earned him a strong following among readers.