The Past, Present & Future Of Traditional Black and White Enlarging Paper

By Bruce Barnbaum Back to

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In the 1980’s fine art photography went through a wrenching period. The numerous excellent fiber-based enlarging papers manufactured by several companies were suddenly facing a huge threat: RC (or Resin Coated) paper. RC paper was quicker to work with, developing fully in just about a minute and was a fast way to fully process and dry prints. Plus it dried perfectly flat, not rippled or curled up like fiber based paper. It quickly became popular. So popular that it appeared possible that all the excellent fiber based enlarging papers would disappear under the onslaught of RC. In the midst of all this apparent change, Ilford introduced a new graded high quality fiber based paper named Galerie. I tried it and really liked it, about as much as the Oriental Seagull I was using at the time. So I thought: here’s a new, excellent paper coming out even in the face of the apparent RC revolution. Good news!

RC papers were quick and easy, but quality was lacking. You could get a usable image, yet it lacked the clear whites, the deep, rich blacks and the overall brilliance of a good fiber-based paper. I tried some RC papers back then, and quickly determined that RC stood for “Real Crap.” Fortunately several excellent fiber-based papers survived the RC crisis, and all seemed fine.

Years earlier, when I first got into photography, there were several fiber based variable contrast papers available and I used DuPont Varilour paper for several years. Below your enlarger’s lens you could place a #1, #2, #3, or #4 plastic filter into a filter holder to get progressively higher contrast grades from the paper. With the earlier papers you couldn’t effectively print one part of a negative with one contrast level filter and another part of it with a different one. In the 1990s variable contrast papers with exceptional quality were introduced that used speed-matched filters.

The combination of color enlarging heads that incorporated dichroic filters for color printing and modern variable contrast papers allowed the new papers (and me) flexibility not available before. Now the filter was situated between the light source and the negative, not below the lens. With this arrangement, nothing altered the optics of the lens. So you could indeed print one part of the negative at one level of contrast, then alter the filtration (without altering the optics in any way) and print another portion of the negative at a different contrast level, blending the two seamlessly.

This was paradise, allowing me for the first time to print several older negatives that were impossible to print effectively with graded papers. There were a variety of manufacturers producing these high quality fiber- based enlarging papers including Kodak and Ilford but I zeroed in on the ones I used because the prints I made were easy to bleach and selenium tone. All was well. By the early 1990’s I had discovered and switched to Forte paper (made in Hungary) and it was the best paper I had ever used in my 20+ years of printing. The introduction of excellent variable contrast paper has been the greatest single improvement in traditional quality since I started in photography in about 1970.

Then digital came along starting in the early 1990s. A number of papers slowly (or maybe quickly) bit the dust. Kodak, Ilford and Forte remained. But by about 2006 there were lots of rumors about their demise. Being cautious, I tested a few other papers just to have a backup paper available, finding Bergger paper (made in France) to be a real good substitute if my favorite Forte should disappear. When I heard that Forte was indeed on the rocks, I bought a good supply of Bergger. But there was a problem. Bergger’s emulsion was coated on its base at the Forte factory. So when Forte disappeared, Bergger was set adrift.

A couple of years ago a friend of mine in Italy told me about a new paper under development by Adox, made in Germany. I wrote to Adox and got some test paper. It seemed to be quite good. A short time later, Craig Richards a fine photographer from Canada—a long-time friend and workshop co-instructor—told me about another paper he had been using, called Foma, out of the Czech Republic. I tried the Fomabrom neutral- tone paper sometime after getting some of the newly minted Adox paper.

Fomabrom appears to be the best paper I’ve ever encountered. Now, stop to consider that sentence. Forte was the truly excellent paper I used exclusively for about 15 years. At the end of those 15 years I found Bergger paper was equal to it. Then I found the Adox MCC 110 paper to be equally excellent. To my amazement, the Fomabrom paper appears to me to be better even than Forte, Bergger or Adox, all of them fabulous papers basically on par with one another.

The Foma paper has all the richness in the blacks that I ever got out of any paper in the past. Its whites are clear and sparkling. It goes to as high a level of contrast as any enlarging paper I’ve ever used (even higher than Forte, and as high as the old Oriental Seagull Grade 5 paper I sometimes used before switching to variable contrast Forte). It bleaches easily using potassium ferricyanide, and it tones beautifully in selenium toner. In other words, it has it all. The Foma paper I use is called Fomabrom Variant 111. Fomabrom’s advantage is its ability to achieve higher contrast that’s unmatched by any other paper I’ve used in my 40+ year experience. This gives me options to print those few negatives that are seriously low in contrast, that cannot be successfully printed on any other paper.

A lot of papers have disappeared over the years. Even DuPont, the maker of the first enlarging papers I used, disappeared way back in the 1970s, long before the RC assault or the digital assault hit traditional fine art papers. DuPont, as you well know wasn’t a small company, but it dropped its photo business completely. But new products are still coming out, and I have confidence that excellent papers will exist into the foreseeable future. For me, I love the process, I feel that the product is incomparable. Digital images can be excellent—I’ve seen plenty of good ones—but in my opinion they don’t match the brilliance and depth of a fine silver print. I feel I can do everything I want to do using traditional procedures and materials. I’m lucky, I love the process and I feel the product is unequalled. I have no desire to switch to digital for my fine black and white prints. (Though I must admit that I wish traditional photography had something akin to the digital clone stamp tool to get rid of negative pinholes or white spots on prints)!

When you look at the fine prints of past and present artists like Adams, the Weston’s, Strand, Caponigro, Uelsmann and so many others, you’d have to wonder how digital could possibly improve upon those results. Personally, I don’t think it can. None of those photographers were hampered by shortcomings in the materials, and today’s materials are significantly better than the ones they used.

For those worried about the future of traditional photography, consider this: there has never been an art form that has disappeared due to the emergence of a new art form (at least I’ve never heard of any). Even in the small field of photography there are still people working with Cyanotypes, Daguerreotypes and all sorts of other early forms of photography. The silver print didn’t end platinum/palladium printing. In music the harpsichord was allegedly replaced by the fortepiano and then the pianoforte, yet today people still play and record music using the harpsichord. And this brings up the future of film and other products, especially from Kodak, which has now announced that in its bankruptcy reorganization it is trying to sell its film division. I’ve been a contented user of Tri-X film in 4×5″ size for roughly 40 years, so it directly affects me. I hope Kodak will sell that division off, and Tri-X and other Kodak films will continue to be manufactured by another manufacturer, perhaps still produced at the same plant Kodak now uses. I just hope the quality control will equal Kodak’s, which is unsurpassed. However, if all of Kodak’s films suddenly disappeared, I’d be saddened but not devastated. Nothing put out digitally matches—or even comes close to matching—the exceptional contrast range available in film, so I’m not tempted to switch to digital. I remain committed to the unequalled quality of today’s improved traditional f ilm/ darkroom methods started by William Henry Fox Talbot nearly two centuries ago. There are other good films around from other manufacturers. I’d probably try several of the Ilford films, including FP4 Plus (which I use now in 2-1⁄4 roll format) or Ilford Delta films. I’d try out some films by European or Japanese manufacturers. There will be good replacements. But I do hope (and expect) Tri-X to be around for a long time, even if it’s under a different name by another manufacturer.

While carefully watching the evolution of digital, consider this: every negative I have ever exposed and developed is available to me instantly for printing. Is that the same with digital, or will it be the same in the future? Every time digital advances with new storage methods will the older images remain accessible? These are reasonable questions for digital users that simply don’t exist of traditional users. They’re also reasons that I happily stay with traditional methods.

Resources: Fomabrom papers – fomafoto.com, Adox -adox.de/English; Kodak-kodak.com; Ilford- ilfordphoto.com


About the Author

Bruce Barnbaum
BBarnbaum
Bruce Barnbaum teaches photography workshops throughout the year, focusing on the art of seeing and the art of conveying impressions of your photographed world (real or imagined). He has two monographs in print: Tone Poems - Book 1, 2002; and Tone Poems - Book 2, 2005. Both are collaborative efforts, featuring a CD of classical piano music performed by Judith Cohen. www.barnbaum.com