This is a nostalgic look at where all silver halide papers began. Written in 1998, an article on historical technology has itself become somewhat historical. It has been updated in places but is largely as originally written.
What started out as a large number of small, privately owned manufacturing businesses, over a century evolved into vast industrial concerns, and perhaps some intangible qualities in their products were lost along the way. The progression of photographic papers has always been linked to the state of the camera technology of the time, and for a good part of the first century of photography, the paper photographic print was reliant on contact printing processes.
The original paper was, of course, that used by Fox Talbot in the experiments that led to his ‘Calotype’ process in the 1830s, and was the first use of paper with a negative/positive printing process, as opposed to the metal plate of the Daguerrotype. The original process produced an image by printing out (that is the image forming during exposure), but the discovery of a latent image which could be developed out, with a consequent great increase in speed was the basis ofTalbot’s Calotype. For both negative and positive he used ‘finest quality writing paper’. As a negative material this was floated in, or brushed with, successive solutions of silver nitrate and potassium iodide. After drying, and just prior to exposure in the camera, the paper was given a further coating of a mixture of silver nitrate, gallic acid, and acetic acid which considerably increased the speed of the paper. After exposure, the paper was developed in the same solution. Fixing was in sodium thiosulphate (hypo), the input of Sir John Herschel. Producing a positive print on paper did not require high speed; silver nitrate was used in combination with sodium chloride to produce light sensitive silver chloride directly within the paper structure (‘salt prints’). After printing out to the correct density the positive print was processed in the same way as the negative, with rinsing, fixing and drying.
The Daguerrotype was the principal opposition to the Calotype, and indeed was the reason for Talbot’s premature announcement of his own process. The Daguerrotype with its jewel-like silvered appearance and high detail exerted a popular fascination, and it was not until well into the 1840s that paper prints came into consideration as a commercial rival. This was largely due to the commercial license that Talbot imposed as patentee of the Calotype process, which effectively curtailed the expansion of the process within England. Few photographers cared to invest their energy in a process that cost them £20.00 per annum to operate it, in which they were forbidden to give any prints to friends without Talbot’s permission, in which to sell any would be followed by an injunction, and in which the license could be revoked at a moment’s notice if the patentee’s displeasure was incurred. Licencees were few, and amounted to a handful of artists using photographic images as preparation for painting, plus a small number of well-heeled amateur enthusiasts. The great exhibition in 1851 was a turning point, when hundreds of excellent calotype prints from overseas were exhibited, showing the English what could be achieved without Talbot at the reins. The stifling effect on English photography of Talbot’s series of patents produced a high level of popular dissent, the pinnacle of which was a communication in 1852 from the Presidents of the Royal Academy and Royal Society to Talbot requesting that he put the interests of photography foremost. With such opinion ranged against him, Talbot had to unbend, and partially relaxed the patents, freeing his process for general use and claiming only a license for its usage in professional portraiture. With the restrictions removed, the following years from 1852 to 1857 proved to be the zenith of the paper negative/positive calotype process.
Apart from the legal issues clouding the use of Talbot’s process, there were still practical problems in using paper, either as negative or print. The texture of the paper used as the negative was a cause of graininess and loss of definition in the print, and waxing the negative after processing to improve translucency on printing was only a partial solution. As a print material, conventional papers limit the possibilities; the image is formed in depth within the upper layers of the paper fibres, and light scattering within the paper fibres limits the possible detail. Although the salt print process can give beautiful results, ‘commercial’ requirements need a brighter, higher resolution product. The process as we know it would only begin to take shape when a transparent material, inevitably glass, superceded paper as a support for the negative, and more development was put into the paper itself.
The waxed paper process was a refinement of use of the paper negative, and consisted of ‘sizing’ the paper with wax before sensitising, as opposed to improving printing density by waxing prior to printing, which was already practiced. This method, devised by another Frenchman, Gustave Le Gray, superceded all other paper processes, for apart from being stable after sensitising for up to 14 days also gave definition approaching that of glass collodion negatives.
The importance of washing was not yet fully understood, and Talbot himself in his own Reading printing establishment only partially washed, leaving a residue of thiosulphate which on hot pressing left a purplish tint to the image. The permanence was compromised, though, and relatively few of Talbots prints have survived without severe fading.
The wet collodion process introduced by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851 was left unpatented by Archer who died in 1857, like many photographic innovators, in poverty. It became the dominant method of negative production for the next few decades. Collodion is produced by reacting cellulose in the form of cotton fibres with acid, and Scott Archer dissolved this in ether to produce a binder that would adhere to glass. If this contained potassium iodide, after coating it could be sensitised with silver nitrate. The wet collodion method used glass plates which the photographer coated with collodion containing silver nitrate. After sensitising, the exposure was made and development was with gallic acid. The principal drawback was that exposure had to be made while the plate was wet, requiring the use of an on-site darkroom. However the superior tonal range and high definition made this disadvantage acceptable. For producing the positive print albumen paper was normally employed.
The first major innovations pointing towards modern print materials were those due to Louis Blanquart-Evrard who, although not the first to devise albumen paper, was certainly the first to successfully employ it commercially. Initially, he worked to modify and improve aspects of Talbot’s Calotype, always a legally dangerous thing to attempt, as Talbot had a habit of claiming that all modifications were contained within his patents. In the Calotype, the light sensitive salts are formed on the surface of the paper; Blanquart-Evrard reversed the sensitising sequence by floating his paper initially in a silver iodide bath, followed by a silver nitrate bath. This produces silver halide through a greater depth of the paper, giving improved detail and tonal range, and ci two stop improvement in speed.
The drawback was that the process had to be ‘wet’; although the paper could be prepared and kept for months, before use his method involved dampening with acidified silver nitrate solution and exposing after backing with moist paper between two thin glass plates. The need for wet exposure required the use of a darkroom at all times, so three years later he produced an important modification, the use of egg white (albumen) as a binder for the silver salts. This binder maintained a relatively high speed in the silver coating even when dry. Although never really taken up as a negative process, albumen paper had definite advantages as a method of mass-producing positive photographic prints, and Blanquart-Evrard in 1851 opened up a printing establishment with a friend and business associate, Hippolyte Fockedey, on the outskirts of Lille. This was a large establishment, staffed by about 40 girls who alternated their jobs between printing and farming the estate, depending upon the printing workload. In many ways the operation was ahead of its time – Blanquart-Evrard devised the first photo-finishing process, and by using chemical development at the print processing stage had made it possible to expose the print in only a few seconds, allowing prints to be truly mass-produced, at up to 300 per day.
Despite his involvement in albumen paper research, in his commercial printing operation Blanquart-Evrard turned to gelatin as the binder, and modified his process further, using a paper similar to the original calotype material. The paper was now sized with a gelatin solution containing potassium iodide and potassium bromide. This was then exposed to fumes from dilute hydrochloric acid, (enhancing the final reddish colouration) followed by sensitisation with silver nitrate. After drying, the paper was loaded with the negative into a contact printing frame which was given a timed exposure at a shuttered window in the darkroom.
The printing frame was unloaded in another darkroom, where female operatives sat at rows of benches developing prints in batches in a saturated gallic acid solution. The development time was about 20 minutes.
As the permanence of calotypes was already known to be dubious, no shortcuts were taken in the Lille factory, where prints were given two hypo baths, followed by gold toning, and a wash with changes of water over several hours. Air drying in the open finished the process, and exposure to light at this stage changed the image from reddish brown to neutral.
Albumen paper, although possessing the potential for chemical development, was universally used as a printing-out process. In the early years the albumen binder was used diluted with water, tending to produce a matt finish. Later, the albumen content of the solution was increased, with the effect of holding the image silver on the surface of the paper. This, for the first time, rivalled the resolution of the daguerrotype, while revealing a tonal quality hitherto unavailable on paper materials. A tonal range and resolution was possible resembling that of modem materials.
Despite Blanquart-Evrard’s pioneering work with chemical development, albumen paper was universally used for printing-out purposes, and chemical development reserved for intensifying light prints. This is probably largely for reasons of colour; chemical development produces larger silver particles in the albumen paper, appearing a dull grey, while the fine silver particles from printing out lends a reddish colour, altered to an attractive ‘selenium’ type purple when stabilised with gold.
The effectiveness of albumen paper as a product can lie seen by its endurance, lasting as a mainstream material into the 1890’s, even when more modern and versatile paper processes were coming on stream.
The principal improvement over the earlier salt processes is in the detail; by holding the image silver in a controlled layer at the surface of the paper, definition is improved, with a smooth surface and good tonal gradation. Albumen paper, by its stability prior to sensitisation was also a material capable of full-scale manufacturing, and photographic printing moved into a new industrial era. Germany was the world’s leading producer of albumen paper, and as in 1866 Britain alone was consuming 6 million eggs for the purpose, one gets some idea of the scale involved. Most surviving prints from the 19th century are on albumen paper.
Even in Fox Talbot’s time it was recognised that the quality of the paper used was bound up with the quality and stability of the image. Machine-made paper using chemically processed woodpulp was available from 1840, but its unsuitability for photographic purposes meant that ‘rag’ paper, produced from recycled cotton and linen fabrics would continue to be used, and progressively improved. Extra sizing agents in the form of arrowroot starch was one early addition.
The real breakthrough was the invention of ‘baryta’ sizing, first suggested in 1866. This completely negates the fibrous effect of the paper structure, and comprises a suspension of barium sulphate in gelatin which is applied to one side of the paper, filling the pores of the paper. After drying, this is calendered to produce a smooth finish onto which emulsion can be readily coated. The emulsion is held in a smooth even layer at the surface of the paper, giving high sharpness, maximum tonal range and separation, and keeping the emulsion layer well away from any possible contaminants in the paper itself. Brighteners and pigments can be added to modify the print colour. Early papers were very light in weight, as hand-coated papers were at the start, and there was no perceived value in heavier ‘card’ stock, as our current double-weight fibre base is called. As POP papers were the follow-on from albumen papers, this trend continued, and it was not until photo paper began to be used for postcards that heavier stock was available as an option. Germany was the main source of baryta paper until 1906, when Kodak set up their own plant in the USA . Other manufacturers have through the years tried to establish their own ‘captive’ plants for base paper production, but economics being what it is, there are now (1998) only one or two main suppliers of base paper in the world.
During the albumen paper phase new paper products were being devised. Photography entered the ’emulsion’ era with the publication in 1871 by Dr R.L. Maddox of a process using gelatin as binder for silver bromide, and forming high speed emulsions by mixing the silver nitrate and halide directly within a gelatin solution. This was primarily adopted as a medium for production of glass negatives, and sparked off the inauguration of many small scale plate producing manufacturers. In 1874 bromide emulsion was proposed as advantageous coated on paper for both negative and positive uses by Peter Mawdsley, the founder of the Liverpool Dry-Plate Co. The high speed offered obvious advantages, with exposures of only a few seconds enlarging was a possibility.
However Mawdsley was about 10 years before his time in concept; the professionals had no need for enlarging and it was only the amateurs who were interested in trying paper negatives, and whose use of small hand cameras eventually led to a demand for enlarging. Additionally, the quality of Mawdsley’s bromide paper product was not sufficiently high to convert the market. After the failure of his business, Mawdsley emigrated to the USA, and died in poverty. Mawdsley had not patented his bromide paper invention, which was later patented in England by J.W. Swan the co-inventor with Edison of the carbon filament electric light bulb. Swan was possibly unaware of Mawdsley’s earlier discovery, but had a clear idea of the potential of developing-out bromide paper, and recommended it as suitable for both contact printing and enlarging.
In 1879 he undertook the manufacturing of a bromide printing paper on a large scale, which he managed to patent, as the English patent laws required no proof of originality. Swan had also thought through the use of this high speed paper for print mass production from rolls using stepping machinery, or a roll-box as it might now be called. This concept was taken to the market by the engineer Schloterhoss in Vienna in 1883, who patented a ‘printing automat’ (automatic printer) which could automatically advance and expose sensitised paper, and could use either artificial or daylight. Using lower sensitivity silver chloride paper Schlotterhoss could produce four to five hundred prints per hour in overcast daylight or with electrical light. Schlotterhoss experimented with producing large editions of serial pictures, using both silver chloride and silver bromide paper. Unfortunately there was at the time no market for mass-produced images of this type and Schlotterhoss, who had invested his whole fortune in this invention, followed the time honoured fate of failed Victorian innovators and died in poverty.
At about the same time as Swan was commencing operations a factory for bromide paper was opened in France by E. Lamy at Courbevoie on the Seine. Germany, strangely lagged behind in bromide paper manufacture; Dr F. Stoize of Berlin was the first to produce it commercially, but even by 1894 was only producing about 100 metres per week. Eastman Kodak in the USA applied their might to the problem and produced the first highly efficient coating machine for both paper and films in 1884.
As the whole technique of gelatin emulsions was evolved there, Britain got an early lead in bromide paper manufacturing, and broadly speaking has always maintained it. By 1880, a factory was operating in England by W.T. Morgan, (later Morgan 8; Kidd) at Richmond. This was for many years the principal paper manufacturer in England, and the first to inaugurate large-scale photofinishing for the amateur market. From about 1884 Morgan & Kidd were claiming themselves to be inventor of gelatin bromide paper, and to have made it since 1874; possibly Mawdsley had made over his formula to them prior to emigrating to the USA. This appears to be an effort to stave off competition, as the Britannia Works (Ilford) introduced their own bromide papers in 1884.
By 1879 there were over 20 emulsion manufacturing and coating operations in the UK, although many of these were initially involved in plate manufacturing, paper being more complex in handling and finishing. These were pioneer days, and to join this somewhat select ‘gold rush’ as a manufacturer, it was necessary to have only the finance, and some knowledge and experimental experience of the handful of basic principles of emulsion preparation so far established. This list was now joined by a new member, which would eventually dominate the world b&w photographic market, Alfred Hugh Harman, the originator of Ilford Ltd. His plate manufacturing operation at the time of its inauguration is typical of the cottage industry level of photographic material manufacturing of the time, and worthy of some description.
The Britannia Works Company’s factory at llford, 1888: an engraving which appeared in the British Journal of Photography, June 29. A Coating Rooms; B POP Stores; C POP Emulsion & cutting; D covered passage with ice-well beneath; E Covered way to emulsion room; F Engine room; G Lamp room; H Stores: I Glass washing; J Glass drying; K Glass examining; L Magdela cottages; M Private road: N Grove Terrace (later Uphall Road); O One of the original 3-storey houses. The far gate opened onto a lane, later an internal way between the technical service building and central engineering department, leading into Roden Street. The yard inside the gates was afterwards covered over. Napier Cottages, not shown were to the right of Magdela Cottages (L); Clyde Cottages were further to the right. The engraving involved the use of artistic licence, presumably to show the rural setting of the factory.
Emulsion making and coating was done in the basement of Harman’s house, in Cranbrook Road, Ilford, and remaining operations were performed on the ground floor. The staff comprised two men and three boys, the lighter work being performed by the boys, which included washing the glass for the plates, which was obtained from Young & Marten, ironmongers in Stratford, London. Harman made the emulsion himself, probably for reasons of secrecy, and indeed none of his formulae exist now (although notes from his later works manager may contain an original recipe). Plates were coated individually by pouring emulsion onto the centre of each from a teapot, tilting the plate to give even coverage, and then placing it on a levelled chilled plate glass to set it. The plates were racked up, dried with warm air, then packed and labelled in dozens. Harman delivered his finished product to London himself by pony and cart. From this craft-oriented beginning Harman’s business expanded exponentially. Of the many companies that entered the field of making plates and papers, some soon failed, and others were absorbed by the more successful companies. Very few survived into the second half of the 20th century, and Ilford Limited was to take over many that stayed the course. A family of other gelatin emulsion based paper types were actively researched around the 1880 period:
Gelatin silver chloride paper
Invented by the Viennese Dr l.M. Eder, and his brother in law G. Pizighelli. who published details in 1881. Until that time the only silver chloride materials known had been those similar to Talbot’s calotype material, based on the use of an excess of silver nitrate, and development with gallic acid.
Silver chloride as a sensitive material in gelatin emulsion making had been mainly disregarded to this date as it gave slow emulsions which were of little use in negative making as they fogged easily. However the poor performance was simply because suitable chemical developers had not been matched to the emulsions. Eder and Pizzighelli researched methods by which silver chloride prints of various colours, including red, yellow, violet and brown could be obtained with variations in development, and this offered a lot more choice than the straightforward uniform grey of the bromide print. In addition, the chloride paper was considerably slower than bromide paper, which was advantageous for the contact printing uses which predominated. However, chloride papers were little used until the later advent of the superior ‘Velox’.
Printing Out Paper (POP)
The first published formula for a printing-out silver chloride paper using gelatin binder was published bv Capt. Sir William de W. Abney in 1882, and was the logical successor to albumen paper, requiring daylight exposure to produce a burnt sienna-tinted image. The emulsion was mixed containing an excess of silver nitrate, which acted as a reservoir of silver, reinforcing the printed-out image. As with albumen paper, its process normally involved washing to remove excess silver nitrate, followed by gold toning, or gold and platinum, to produce a stable purplish image. Liesegang of Dusseldorf were the first company to take it to market in 1886, with the name ‘Aristotypie’. Another POP paper researched by Joseph Barker of London was offered for sale in 1885 but failed to make any impact, before being taken up by Emil Obernetier in Germany. Eventually, in 1891 the Britannia Works, soon to be Ilford Limited, manufactured Barker’s paper, and coined the marketing abbreviation POP which has stuck ever since.
Eastman Kodak quickly came in with ‘Solio’ paper in 1892, and were still marketing its successor, ‘Studio Proof Paper’ in the 1980’s. Self-toning versions of POP, containing gold salts, were available by the early years of the 20th century, and became the most popular in use. Papers using collodion as a binder ran alongside POP papers as replacements for albumen during the 1880s, and were produced mainly in the form of collodio-chloride paper, of low sensitivity and used for printing out. Toning with gold, or double toning with gold and platinum was also normally practiced, and surviving prints are very stable. Never as popular in use as gelatin paper, they were largely superceded by the 1890s, although lingering on as a minority product from some manufacturers – Leto, one of the Ilford subsidiaries, was still marketing ‘Seltona’, a self-toning collodio-chloride paper until the early years of the second world war.
(POP still hangs on in there in 2004 – Kentmere are now the sole producers in the world (maybe the universe?), and although production has been dogged by technical problems in recent years, stock should be available this year. Recent emulsion failures led their R&D department to attempt to track down the gremlin and a new variable has entered the complex state of POP emulsion technology – barometric pressure! Time and temperature, fair enough, chemical purity, OK, but the way the wind’s blowing??)
[POP might have been hanging on, but it dropped like a stone 2 years later, when Harman, the new owners of the Ilford brand, acquired the company. After using the antiquated works to make a last couple of batches of POP, the Kentmere equipment went the way of all old iron. Harman Ltd certainly wasn’t entertaining putting silver nitrate laden emulsions down their coating alley, so there POP technology was left to rest. At the time of writing, 2016, it seems unlikely that any of the few remaining coating operations left globally will chance their arm on such a (chemically) dirty process.]
Another piece of the jigsaw was the gelatin chloro-bromide paper, also devised by Dr Eder, who published a description in 1883, soon to be made by the Brittania works and marketed by their agent Marion & Co. with the name ‘Alpha’. It was later manufactured in Germany by Liesegang under the name ‘Tula’ and by the Neue Photographic Co in Berlin as ‘Lenta’. Ilford later marketed an enhanced product as ‘Chlorona’ in 1933, to be phased out after the introduction of ‘Plastika’ in 1939. Plastika was a long lived product, and ran until the 1960s. A final graded chloro-bromide called ‘Ilfomar’ came from Ilford’s French factory in 1973, and sank without trace within a couple of years.
Chloro-bromide paper, generally speaking, has characteristics intermediate between bromide and chloride. With a speed slower than bromide, but faster than chloride, it will produce a warm-brown tone that can be influenced considerably by exposure and development. Bear in mind ‘fast’ in emulsion speed is relative to the emulsions of the time, and average exposures with ‘Alpha’ in contact printing were of the order of 2.5-3 minutes at 6 inches from a gas flame. A considerable amount of research went into producing the high speed chloro-bromide papers such as ‘Record-Rapid’ of our day.
The Gaslight papers era
‘Gaslight’ as a term was more an expression than a definition, and has changed its meaning as time has gone by. At the outset of their availability it indicated high speed, in that a chloride or chloro-bromide gelatin paper could be exposed by gaslight in the darkroom, as opposed to printing-out in a frame outdoors. The expression ‘gaslight’ was still in use even by the 1960s, although by this time it was an indication of the slowness of the paper. The papers of this type remaining in manufacture are now termed ‘contact’ papers.
There was a general feeling in the air by 1895 that albumen had ‘had it’, and although the newer alternative collodion and gelatino-chloride papers offered up problems of their own, there was a tendency to move away from albumen. One of the new papers to come on the market was ‘Velox’ (from the Latin for swift or quick), claiming to be ‘500 times quicker than albumen’, and with qualities not influenced by weather or daylight quality. This was from the Nepara Chemical Co. of New York, and invention was claimed by the company’s chemist, Leo Baekeland, although his work was probably unconscious plagiarism of that done by Eder and Pizzighelli earlier.
The first Velox paper was coated on baryta paper with a faint pink tint, and gave prints visually similar to the purple-brown albumen papers of that time. The innovative feature was that, unlike bromide paper, it could be handled in subdued daylight or weak gaslight before exposure and during development. The photographer was released from working in ruby red illumination, and could fill his printing frames in dim light, expose the paper to daylight or a full gas jet for a few seconds, and develop the print at once.
The possibilities of the paper were immediately appreciated, and many other manufacturers quickly released their own versions, too myriad to review in detail, but including such fascinating names as Cyko, Dekko, Rotox, Vinco, Kruxo, Dixie and Argo. Kodak bought the rights to ‘Velox’ itself for a vast sum in 1899. As the photo process of the day was almost exclusively based around contact printing processes the time was right for this material. The innovation of gaslight paper, perhaps more than ;iny other innovation in materials, brought darkroom photography to the masses.
By the early years of this century tin.’ choice was wide – a trawl through 1903 literature revealed 34 makes of gaslight paper, without taking into account all surface variations. Gaslight and slower contact papers continued to have a significant market share right into the second half of this century, gradually becoming eclipsed by the move towards the use of enlargers, although Kodak were still marketing ‘Velox’ as late as 1988! For certain purposes these contact papers were still used until recently – the USA used vast quantities for mass-production of public relation prints from same-size master negatives. This market has now switched to faster RC papers after machinery modification.
Towards the present day
Various influences gradually shaped the ranges of paper as the century progressed, particularly the availability of smaller camera formats which stimulated the evolution of the enlarger, in turn creating a market for faster paper materials. Although the concept of the enlarger was patented as far back as 1838 by Alexander Wolcott, the time for it to be adopted was a long while coming. The origin of the enlarger was the adaptation of the lantern slide projector for enlargement purposes, but the instruments of the early years of this century were gas or oil-fired and did not lend themselves to use in enclosed darkrooms. The general availability of mains electricity by the twenties allowed more compact fume-free instruments to be produced, and after a short period when horizontal electric powered enlargers were prevalent, the enlarger went vertical and became essentially the device it is today. In 1921 ‘Brown’s Patent Vertical Enlarging and Reducing Apparatus’ was advertised, which may be the first example of a professional vertical enlarger. The scene was now set for the evolution of fast enlarging papers, and most niches were explored in the 20s and early 30s, especially as there was considerable competition. Taking up the evolution of the manufacturer, in the UK alone in 1900 there were about 20 manufacturers, the principal ones being Barnet, Wellington, Kosmos, Illingwo rth’s, Rajar, Criterion, and of course, Kodak, Kentmere and Ilford. A considerable amount of horse trading and changing horses in mid-stream would proceed among photographic material manufacturers in the UK as the 20th century unfolded, but an early broadside setting the pace came from the direction of the USA. George Eastman intended to set up manufacturing in the UK, and in December 1902 proposed a merger between Kodak and Ilford. Harmans factory, the Brittania Works, had gone public in 1891, and was re-named Ilford Limited in 1900. This was in the face of objections from Ilford Urban District Council who maintained that though the company was the largest employer in the area, they did not have the God-given right to commandier the town name. The projected takeover was seen by some members of Ilford’s board of directors as an engulfing rather than a merging, bearing in mind that Kodak’s issued share capital was ten times that of Ilford at that time. The takeover was recommended particularly by one director, the founder Alfred Harman, who had recently rejoined Ilford’s board of directors after a period in the wilderness working on emulsion research. Ilford’s board was divided, some muttering that Harman’s interest was primarily in disposing of his large shareholding at a favourable price. The financial press did not mince words: ‘The Ilford-Kodak Raid’ [Investors Guardian), ‘Ilford’s Climbdown’ (Daily Mail), ‘if the present directors are so puerile as to wish to sacrifice a splendid business because an American company threatens to bully them, by all means let them resign and we will put in their place some Englishmen with some backbone, which they appear to lack.’ (Sick of Americans’, Financial Times}. And indeed, that took place, with the report in 1903 of an appointed independent committee of five Ilford shareholders. Four of the directors resigned or were relocated, and the directors’ fees were reduced. The new board, (still including one Alfred Harman) rejected the overtures from Kodak, recommended all British photographic manufacturers combine to meet outside competition, and preserved a central plank of the thriving independent UK photo industry that endures to this day.
(N.B. Anyone who is sufficiently Ilford nerd-orientated to seek further can find copious early Ilford history in ‘Silver by the Ton’ a book written by two retired Ilford chemists, and published in 1979. There are usually secondhand copies to be had on Amazon, & generally at reasonable prices.
SBTT triumphally concludes the Ilford story at it’s centenary, and just at the point before everything really started to go pear-shaped, starting with the Bunker Hunt silver scam of 1980, when an attempt to corner the world silver market saw the price of silver shoot from about $5 to $50 a US ounce. The subsequent 27 years if committed to paper would not look like such an untrammelled record of success.
Remnants of the presence of Ilford Ltd in the town of Ilford are now hard to locate. Alfred Harman’s original house is possibly still standing, but the entire factory site is now occupied by a large branch of Sainsbury. A pub called ‘The Papermakers Arms’, once used as a drinking hole by Ilford Ltd personnel is still there, although the name refers to paper mills on the Roden river rather than than to the pioneering coaters whose work led to Ilfobrom and Multigrade.
The twentieth century
The First World War provided a boost for most photographic manufacturers, and most companies’ profits soared during the conflict. Reduced manpower stimulated tighter efficiency, and the demand for such new products as aerial film pushed emulsion R&D forwards. At around this time awareness must have grown among the considerable number of manufacturers of the potential of emulsion technology, and also the cost of reaching that distant goal.
To push forward emulsion research to a high level of sophistication would be difficult among competing small companies, and wasteful of resources. Consequently, after the war there was a concerted drive to bond British manufacturers together with a view to sharing research and development issues and providing financial support to participating companies. Ilford Ltd provided the core of this movement and over about 10 years, in a series of complex financial exchanges, acquired majority shareholdings of most of the independent manufacturers in the UK. One of the first steps in this new era of co-operation was the formation of ‘Selo’, a company set up by Ilford, Imperial and Gem in 1920 to research and manufacture films. This range was then sold to the other companies in the group who sold it under their own labels. Apart from this, Ilford acquired controlling interest in the Imperial Dry Plate Company, which had itself acquired the Gem Dry Plate Company, and this was followed by Illingworths, APEM (which included Marion, Paget and Rajar) and finally in 1929 Wellington & Ward. ‘Fluorescent Materials’, a company producing X-Ray film material, completed the roster.
Kentmere, then as now, thanks to tight managerial and financial controls, preserved its autonomy and continued as the only small privately-owned photographic coating operation in the UK. As a company it is unusual in that it has always maintained a fierce independence, which possibly has something to do with its origins. Whereas other photographic paper manufacturers originated in the Victorian age as plate producers, Kentmere was set up in the Edwardian era by two Windermere chemists, purely to produce photographic papers.
One illustration that may give an idea of the economic climate of the early days is from when the Kentmere factory was first operated. The entire plant was installed in 1906 by a firm of London engineers, V. L. Scott & Co, for a total price of £970.00. Difficulties when starting up any new factory are to be expected, but an early one was in connection with storing the coated printing-out paper. This needed special cold storage facilities, and although this store had been on the ‘shopping list’, Scotts had failed to install it. Asked about the omission, Scotts replied that they had fitted out several photographic paper factories, and as they had all failed within a matter of months, they thought they would save Kentmere some needless expense!
Kentmere’s survival into the 21’st century must also have had much to do with its adaptation to conditions which would have floored other managements. During WW1 Kentmere was instructed to close down paper production, and was left wondering how to survive. By an excellent piece of lateral thinking they went into jam production! The kettles used for emulsion preparation were ideally suited to bulk jam-making, and Cumbria had a bumper damson season in 1914. So successful was the venture that it continued through the War and for some years afterwards, and it is recorded that in 1919 one company was anxious to order 100,000 jars. When WW2 broke out, they were even contacted by old customers, anxious to find out if they were going to make any more of the jam.
Other film and paper manufacturers had UK agencies, including Gevaert. Agfa (Aktien Gesellschaft Fur Anilin Fabrikation) although active in chemical production from the turn of the century does not appear to have entered the paper market, until the production of ‘Brovira’ in the 1930s.
The early decades of the 20th century were a time of great proliferation in papers, and all sorts of materials unique to their time were instigated.
Postcard papers, ie with postcard base markings, were immensely popular, and all manufacturers produced them in many variations of type & surface. Kentmere hit on ‘Gaslight Ivorettes’, ‘dainty sensitized pearly-white boards’, which were of a high base weight so that the finished print did not need mounting. Silver iodide paper was produced as a speciality by a few companies, including Gevaert, which was very slow and gave a green image.
Some marvellous brand names were devised, such as the extra rough ‘Tiger Tongue’ paper from Barnet, and the Kosmos ‘Novex’, presumably touted for its properties of stress-free usage. The Bromoil process came into vogue in the 1920s, and specialised bromoil papers were produced by all manufacturers.
Warm-tones had always been popular in gaslight papers, but with fast bromide papers this had to be achieved using toning methods. So, fast chloro-bromide papers were thoroughly researched, and by the late 30s virtually all surviving manufacturers were offering an enlarging paper yielding warm tones by direct development. These included Ilford’s ‘Plastika’, a famous exhibition paper in it’s day.
World War II
The wartime needs for photographic materials were well mapped out, and most photographic production (75%) was channelled into war requirements. Agfa materials were naturally immediately unavailable in the UK on the announcement of war, while those from Gevaert ceased after Belgium was over-run. In war-time Britain printing materials were virtually unobtainable for private use, although poignant press announcements kept memories alive. Several irrevocable and perhaps slightly unfortunate foundations had been laid down prior to this; Kodak had made dramatic inroads into cracking chromogenic negative and positive processes, while Ilford were consolidating their lead in monochrome materials with new higher speed film emulsions, and researching the first ‘Multigrade’ printing system, to be launched in 1940. Consequently when wartime production quotas were shared out, understandably Ilford was told to keep its head down and get on with monochrome material production, while Kodak was able to accelerate its colour research program. This retarded Ilford’s lead in colour so that it was never able to compete fully in colour technology after the war. But that’s another story, best told in Jack Coote’s fascinating book ‘A History of Colour Photography’. War contracts kept all existing paper manufacturers going through the war, and forced some changes. Ilford discontinued POP and Seltona printing-out papers, cut back on plate manufacture, and introduced streamlined production, including night shifts. After WW2, great effort went into picking up the pieces. The dip coating of material, which ran at about 12 feet per minute was clearly becoming uneconomical, and Ilford devised new methods including air knife and slot coating which could be made to run at up to 1000 feet per minute. Ilford now used a single brand-name. As all companies under the Ilford umbrella were by now fully integrated, the old brand-names Imperial, Gem, Illingworth and Selo were dropped, apart from the continued use of Selo in ‘Selochrome’ film. The trend towards larger manufacturing units continued in peace time. Barnet, which joined with the camera maker Ensign, and Letchworth based Kosmos disappeared in the 1950’s. Criterion as a brand name survived into the 1960s, and from then on the UK was left with the same handful of familiar names we know today.
The great choice of papers was diminished, to some extent, but some noteworthy products emerged in the 1950s; Kodak in the UK produced the famous ‘Bromesko’ range of chloro-bromide papers, from standard Bromesko yielding moderately warm tones, to the very warm ‘Royal Bromesko’ in white, cream or ivory. This lived on in one unique Kodak paper, the American Ektalure paper which regrettably was discontinued bt the turn of the millenium.
Gevaert produced the unique ‘Gevalux’; working on the principle of velvet as a light absorber. The velvet surface of the paper was made of tightly packed fibres, having the effect of trapping light in the shadow areas, and consequently increasing the brightness ratio to about 40:1, considerably more so than that of ordinary matt papers, and approaching the brilliance of glossy paper. This material was expensive to produce, and with a high retail price the usage was limited, and it was quietly dropped in the early ’60s. When the two continental giants Agfa and Gevaert merged in the mid ’60s it was on the basis that Gevaert concentrated on graphic arts products, while Agfa pursued the photographic market. All the original Gevaert paper recipes were dropped, and under the banner of Agfa-Gevaert the classic trinity of Brovira (cold tone bromide) Portriga (very warm chlorobromide) and Record (‘commercial’ bright-based chlorobromide) were promoted. Later enhancements in speed led to Portriga-Rapid and Record-Rapid, and all these papers acquired cult status as being ‘state of the art’ exhibition papers.
Most photographic material manufacturers also produce materials for graphic arts purposes, and frequently these turn out to have useful features when applied to pictorial photography. A footnote in photo paper history has to be the old Kodak Kodalith LP paper. This was a very thin, non-supercoated semi-matt graphic arts paper on fibre base, which gave superb results when ‘lithed’ for half tones in dilute developer, and in feel strangely echoed the older albumen and POP papers. Fibre-base Kodalith was dropped sometime in the mid 1970s, and though other papers when ‘lithed’ come close, nothing has ever quite captured its effect.
Meanwhile, from the late ’60s onwards, Ilford proceeded along a carefully measured program of research and innovation that has hardly faltered to this day. Early Multigrade was not a success; the time was not yet right, users were not equipped with filter-drawered enlargers to handle it, and the quality was insufficiently consistent. After the 1940 launch it was withdrawn by the end of the war, slid back into the range in 1954, and stayed there without attracting much notice until it was dropped again in the mid-60s, along with the warm-tone Plastika, which had been Ilford’s chloro-bromide since 1940. (An ill-fated replacement chloro-bromide called ‘Ilfomar’ was briefly marketed in the 1970’s). Ilford’s new thrust in paper product was ‘Ilfobrom’, launched in 1967, and this was a rich neutral tone commercial paper in a wide range of grades (0-5) and for the first time from any manufacturer, in consistently matched speeds across the grades, with even grade spacing. The only modification required was doubling exposure time on switching to grade 5. Ilfobrom was pure magic as a product, and assured Ilford of increasing market share through the sixties and early seventies, paving the way for the resin-coated equivalent, Ilfospeed, and the eventual return of Multigrade in RC form which led & shaped the market from then on.
The late 1970s onwards saw the rapid dominance of resin-coated papers, followed by the changeover to variable contrast papers led by Ilford in both fibre and RC in the 1980s. At some point in the early 1990s the inevitable happened, and fibre-base papers began to be marketed at a higher price than the initially more expensive resin-coated papers. The 1990s have seen most ranges of graded paper being discontinued, or at least trimmed back as the demand has receded. The principal manufacturers now offer only a small range of VC fibre papers, and the smaller independent manufacturers, including Forte, MACO and Kentmere are relied on to provide a good range of traditional emulsions and surfaces. The fibre-base papers are now produced primarily for quality printing, and as such are tending to have more quality built in, as exemplified in the trend to use triple weight or premium weight base material.
A source of unusual and ocassionally excellent papers has been for a long time found outside the big manufacturers, from smaller independent coating operations in other parts of the world. This includes companies from former Iron Curtain countries, such as the Hungarian company Forte, and the far East, as represented by Oriental. Financial traumas are no infrequent occurrence in this business, and the dismantling of the communist system around 1990 brought down most of the East European coating operations as they faced trading on an even platform with other producers. As the market for silver-based papers reduced, earlier continental coating operations such as Tura (Germany) and Guilleminot (FranceJ switched to buying in and re-packaging other manufacturers products before calling it a day. Forte are one of the few survivors, and it may be significant to their success that they possess the capability to produce films as well as handle paper production, a principle of strength that goes right back to the early days. Silver-based photographic paper production in 2004 is a very mature technology, with most gaps researched and plugged, and further serious research is unlikely. Within developed countries it is at the same time being rapidly replaced with digital imaging and printing in many of its areas of application, and soon we will probably be relying upon export sales outside Europe and Northern America to support the large scale manufacturing operations that now exist. Will we have to look to a return to ‘cottage industry’ style manufacturing to obtain supplies of traditional materials? Whatever happens, the changes in photographic materials in the next 15 years, let alone 150 years, may be so radical that it would be foolhardy to attempt their prediction.
Martin Reed 1998, revised a bit 2004, yet a bit more in 2016.
Mike Gristwood, Ilford Ltd; Penny Martin while at The National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, Bradford; and John Barker of Kentmere Ltd. One of the principal written references is: Silver by The Ton, The History of Ilford Ltd, 1979, Robert J. Hercock and George A. Jones.
This article was originally published in slightly different form in ‘Ag Photographic’ magazine, Volume 10. 1998.