The Alchemy of Silver

By John Sexton Back to


These days I am often asked why I still work with traditional silver halide films and photographic papers, rather than the latest and greatest digital innovations. I believe I am asked this question so often because many photographers have decided to change their working methods to incorporate digital capture and digital printing, or are using a hybrid approach of exposing and scanning film and then printing digitally. For me, the answer to this question is simple. I love the alchemy of the classical silver halide photographic process, and still today find it to be magic… even after 40 years.

I think each photographer should use whatever equipment or approach they find works best for them. I frequently say that photographs reveal not only that which is in front of the camera − the subject, but also that which is behind the camera− the photographer. For me, making photographs involves more than simply finding a subject and making an exposure, but also includes the processing of the negative, as well as the challenges and excitement of print making in the darkroom. The ultimate destination of this journey is the final expressive print.

I vividly remember the first time I saw a print emerge in the developer. It was Christmas night 1969, and my friend Mark had received an enlarger as a gift that morning. He invited me over to see how it worked. We had borrowed a strand of Christmas lights off of the tree and arranged it so it had only red bulbs. I will never forget the magic that trans- pired, watching that image appear in that small developing tray on a wobbly folding table in his bedroom. I’m not sure how many tens of thousands of images I’ve watched develop under the dim glow of safelights since that time, but I still find it an exciting and intoxicating process. I like the tactile aspect of touching the print in the processing chemicals. I enjoy the anticipation of waiting for the fixing process to complete, so that I can turn on the white light to see if the print meets my expectations. If the print does indeed meet−or exceed− my expectation, it is a thrilling experience for me. For some reason I do not feel the same emotional connection to the digital printmaking process.

Geologic Conundrum, Banff National Park, Canada. ©2004 John Sexton. All rights reserved.

My darkroom is my personal sanctuary. It’s a place where I can close the door and be alone. I find working in my darkroom is like a form of meditation. Interestingly, I encounter a similar feeling when I climb under the focusing cloth when photographing with my view camera. Such was not always the case. When I first began working with a 4″x5″ view camera, as a college photography major, it was not by choice but rather a requirement during my second semester of photographic classes. I found the view camera to be an awkward, nonintuitive, and burdensome piece of equipment. However, somewhere along the way my feeling changed, and for nearly 40 years a 4″x5″ view camera has been my primary format of choice.

Along with the experience of making negatives, processing the film, and exploring the alchemy of the traditional darkroom, I find there is something intrinsically unique about a beautifully executed silver gelatin print. The changes in technology of digital printers, inks, and papers over the past few years allow a skillful digital printmaker to create images that look almost the same as a traditional silver print. Once a print is framed behind acrylic or glass, I would say some of these prints are virtually indistinguishable−depending on the media and also on the image.

That being said, I still find a successfully executed silver print has a unique ambiance that cannot be put into words or recorded in sensitometric graphs. It must be seen, up close in person, to be fully appreciated. I might say it is perhaps even analogous to a truly fine wine. If you have never experienced such a wine you can never understand what others are talking about.

Rock Forms and Roaring Fork River, Near Aspen, Colorado. ©1996 John Sexton. All rights reserved.

I will never forget the experience when, during another college photography class, we made a field trip to the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art (today the Norton Simon Museum) to see an exhibition of photographs by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Wynn Bullock. I had never seen photographs with such beauty and power. I made the 125-mile round trip from home to the museum two or three additional times to sit and stare at these photographs. Some of the images brought tears to my eyes, an experience I had never had previously when looking at photographs. I found myself catching my breath with excitement and awe. I was inspired in every way by these prints.

It was seeing that exhibition, along with encourage- ment from one of my classmates, John Charles Woods (a fine photographer), that led me to attend the two-week long Ansel Adams Yosemite Workshop, along with John, a few months later. That workshop, as well, brought new inspiration to my photography. I remember Ansel passing around original prints from his personal collection as we sat in a small group (after we all carefully washed our hands) and Ansel taught us the proper way to carefully handle the prints by the mount edges. There were original prints by Bullock, Edward and Brett Weston, Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Uelsmann and of course by Ansel. It was during that three- hour session that I quietly made the decision that I wanted to learn how to try and make prints that were as beautiful as the ones I was holding in my hands. I still find pursuit of that desire to challenge me today and, on those rare occasions when a photograph meets or exceeds my expectations, it gives me great pleasure and satisfaction.

One thing I have noticed in the last few years is that because of the plethora of tools available in the digital domain, sometimes the tools employed in digital printmaking speak more loudly than the meaning of the image. I find that some − certainly not all−photographers working in the digital domain over-sharpen and over-manipulate their images, because it is so easy to do so. Whether in the classical darkroom or the digital darkroom, I think alterations to the image should only be made when it’s necessary to achieve your visualization about that photograph. I have particular concern for photographers that approach the use of their camera with the cavalier attitude of “it doesn’t really matter… I can fix it in Photoshop!”

I think it’s important to look at the process of photography holistically. There are many new creative possibilities today, but having an awareness, sensitivity and skill based on the rich history of traditional photography gives one even more creative freedom when exploring the latest technologies. I am reminded of the statement made by the noted painter and photographer Charles Sheeler: “Isn’t it amazing how photography has advanced without improving.”

Product Resources: Cameras: 4×5 Linhof Master Technika 2000; Lenses: 75mm, 90mm, 200mm Nikkor-M; Film: Kodak T-Max 100, 400; Filters: #12 deep yellow, #23A light red, #21 orange.

Monument Valley, Dusk, From Hunt’s Mesa, Arizona. ©2008 John Sexton. All rights reserved.

Tenaya Lake, Clouds, Afternoon, Yosemite National Park, California. ©2009 John Sexton. All rights reserved.

About the Author

John Sexton
John Sexton is known as a photographer, master print maker, workshop instructor and lecturer. Author of four award-winning books, Sexton is best known for his luminous black and white images of the natural environment. Sexton served as photographic assistant and consultant to photographer Ansel Adams. John’s finely crafted large format photographs have appeared in numerous exhibitions and publications, and are included in permanent collections and exhibitions, throughout the world. For information on John’s workshops, prints, and publications, visit