By David Vestal Back to

Postcard From Ansel Adams

While throwing out old papers, I saw and saved this postcard. My letter to him is lost, but I can reconstruct my questions, and interpret his answers:

Q. 1. How do you test the washing of your prints?

A. 1. He meant the Kodak HT-2 silver nitrate stain test for residual hypo. A very light
stain, or, preferably, no visible stain, indicates a good wash, the kind people call archival.

Q. 2. I asked about the chemical stability of the Stoeller mount board he used. Someone
told me that it tested acidic, which, if true, means it’s not good for permanence. Hearsay is not always accurate.

A. 2. A cop-out answer: Stoeller is a reputable paper company, and Ilford used Stoeller for its fiber-base photo papers, but that tells us nothing about their mount board. The store that sells a product is not the place to ask about its quality.

Q. 3. I asked what washing aid he used for prints.

A. 3. A good answer: Kodak Hypo Clearing Agent is an effective washing aid, and consists, as he said, of a sodium sulfite solution with a little bisulfite added to control its pH, its degree of alkalinity (or acidity).

His comment on Kodak going too far refers to their recommendation to put no more than 100 8×10 prints through each gallon of fixing bath 1 and of fixing bath 2. In my experience, Kodak was right, and Ansel was extremely cautious in limiting his use of it to 50 8x10s per gallon. His advice is good: rinse between fixing baths and err, if at all, on the careful side.

About the afterthought on the address side of the card, my answer would have been the late George Eaton, the Kodak chemist whose pioneering research led to the making and marketing of Kodak Hypo Clearing Agent, KHCA for short. He was a leading authority on b/w print fixing and washing for maximum stability. His colleagues, among them T. H. James and Dr. Walter (Nobby) Clark, also deserve much credit for this team effort. They were all generous with accurate information.

Ansel’s vague answers, strikeovers, missing letters and wrong letters, and his typing past the right-hand edge of the card—all typical—combine to suggest that, far from being Mr. Always Plan Ahead, he was essentially impulsive. The great evocative power of his photographs and prints owes much, I think, to that side of his character.
— David Vestal

About the Author

David Vestal
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.