A History of Photo Processes: Part 3

Woodburytype Photography

The Woodburytype process


Discussing the Woodburytype print, Mark Osterman of George Eastman House says that it’s “not made by light; it’s not made by chemicals; it’s molded.” And in case you don’t quite get it yet, he adds, “It’s made in a mold.” To paraphrase Réne Magritte, “Ceci n’est pas une photographe.” So what the hell is a non-photographic process doing in the Eastman House history of photographic processes? As Osterman explains the multistep process, it becomes clear that it is simply another progeny of the earlier pigment processes gum bichromate and carbon, resembling the layered peeling away of the carbon sheet, much like the late, lamented Polaroid 250 process. Accompanying text explains it like this:

The process involves exposing unpigmented, bichromated gelatin in contact with a negative. The gelatin hardens in proportion to the amount of light received. When the gelatin is washed, the unexposed portion dissolves, leaving behind a relief of the image. Under extremely high pressure, this relief is pressed into a sheet of soft lead, producing a mold of the image. This mold is then filled with pigmented gelatin and transferred to paper during printing.

So, it’s a print, like a woodcut or engraving or lithograph — or, as Osterman concludes, “The mold is made with photography, but the actual image itself we don’t call photography.” I immediately thought of the hundreds of images in Stieglitz’s landmark quarterly Camera Work, published in 53 issues between 1903 and 1917. Though they are all photogravure prints, each image in every copy was afforded the same meticulous attention as a photographic print. The Wikipedia essay on Camera Work references both Dorothy Norman (Stieglitz’s late-life acolyte and lover) and his biographer Richard Whelan, affirming that:

Stieglitz, always a perfectionist, personally tipped in each of the photogravures in every issue, touching up dust spots or scratches when necessary. This time-consuming and exhausting work assured only the highest standards in every copy, but sometimes delayed the mailing of the issues since Stieglitz would not allow anyone else to do it. The visual quality of the gravures was so high that when a set of prints failed to arrive for a Photo-Secession exhibition in Brussels, a selection of gravures from the magazine was hung instead. Most viewers assumed they were looking at the original photographs.

Jump ahead a century, and where do we find ourselves? Most photographers today have abandoned photochemical printing even if they continue to shoot on film. And they “print” on high-resolution inkjet and laser printers. So what exactly is a “photograph” nowadays? I still call my James Nachtwey digital prints “photographs.” Musing on this conundrum should help you contextualize the Eastman House Woodburytype video.


Finally in this series, we land on terrain that is most familiar to those of us who once took a still-photography course that centered on gelatin silver-nitrate film negative and printing. This course was a prerequisite in the USC cinema program several decades ago; we had to complete it before we were allowed to expose a 100’ daylight load of 16mm black-and-white film. I was force-fed some basic photo sensitometry in the course before I was allowed anywhere near a 16mm spring-wind B&H Filmo.

Even though most of us now make our movies in a post-celluloid, post-silver world (so the “death of film” pundits say), I still delight in the sensory recall of that analog world. As veteran camera assistant Clyde Bryan recently told me, “I just want to stick my nose inside the door of a Panaflex camera and breathe deeply.”

A decade ago, much was made about the “democratization” of moviemaking because of emerging high-def digital camcorders. The real democratization of image creation happened more than a century before that, with the introduction of the 100-exposure Kodak roll film camera in 1888. Todd Gustavson, Kodak Technology Curator at Eastman House, once again descends into the bowels of the museum to show us the original Kodak camera, serial number 6; Kodak was the first of hundreds of camera manufacturers that gave us our visual history in black-and-white and color throughout the 20th century. It was the magic of the gelatin silver emulsion that allowed a photographer to create images under the most extreme conditions and then develop and print the work months or years later. The intrepid Frank Hurley, photographer of the ill-fated Shackleton Antarctic Expedition, worked with both 35mm motion-picture film and large-format dry plates. (I wrote about Hurley in 2010.)

Osterman concludes the silver-nitrate episode, saying that Eastman House has recently declared the gelatin silver-nitrate emulsion process to be “historical.” As such, he is now teaching students how to coat their own negative plates and make light-sensitive photographic paper for positive prints. We have come nearly full circle from the days of Daguerre and Talbot almost two centuries ago; in the near future, photographers might be required to create the basic materials of their art.


A discussion of color photography is the subject of the penultimate video in the Eastman House series. True color became possible only when panchromatic film emulsion superseded blue-sensitive orthochromatic film (responsible for the cloudless skies of 19th century travel photography). The video includes a brief primer on the difference between additive color (such as autochrome plates) and subtractive color, including the development by Leopold Goldowski and Leopold Mannes of the “it’s really complicated” Kodachrome transparency process, a much loved process that recorded most amateur photography and documentaries on slides and motion-picture film.

It was a sad day in 2011 when the last lab that processed Kodachrome, Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas, closed.

Paul Simon’s 1973 lament “Kodachrome” had come true.

At the recent CES, Kodak announced it was reviving the Super 8 film format with a hybrid film/digital camera. Could this possibly lead to a revival of the Kodachrome process? Unlike the “Impossible Project” to revive Polaroid, this project will probably remain impossible.


It was all bound to end here! The last episode is titled “Digital Photography.” It opens with a recent interview with Steven Sasson, who, in 1975, as a Kodak engineer, made the first true digital camera. It was a bulky device for sure, almost as unwieldy as a wet-collodion 16×20 glass-plate camera from the 1860s.

The first digital camera

Sasson’s digital camera

Sasson and Todd Gustavson together collapse the three-decade timeline of the development of the digital camera, leading right up to today’s smart phones with 12-megapixel-plus sensors. Osterman talks with excitement about the ever-expanding horizon of digital photography, but one senses a whiff of regret about (perhaps even lament for) the passing of analog photography — not because of any regressive aesthetic, but because of the loss of the tangible, even artisanal immediacy of creating a photographic image from scratch. As Osterman says, “It’s not just about the image … it’s about the object itself, and you made that object.”


Part of the appeal might also be simply having a physical print of your photo rather than pixels in cyberspace, not to mention the defining marker of hypo-stained fingers that comes from photochemical darkroom work with slopping trays. Later, as I was reflecting on the “Impossible Project” revival of Polaroid film packs, I found an image that marries film and digital techniques:

Make a Polaroid print directly from your iPhone.


Eastman House’s montage of digital cameras reminded me of the book Todd Gustavson authored in 2009, Camera. It is a history of photography from the daguerreotype to digital, featuring more than 350 photographs of cameras from the Eastman House collection and photos made by those cameras.

Gustavson also hosts a walk through the collection at Eastman House, offering a glimpse of the many treasures housed there:

Oh, to be given free rein there for even a few hours.

NEXT: Revisiting The Artist Project at the Met: Season 5


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