Art of Silver
- Tony Morrison looks back on a lifetime with a camera
the photographs on Nonesuch Silver Prints stem from a life-long fascination with
photography beginning in the 1950s. It was a challenging, post-Second World War
Britain with import restrictions. Cameras and film were hard to find and I know
for a fact, our family budget was tight. I had to find the very simplest way of
making a photograph.
a fifteen year old with a leaning towards science I was asking questions. How
did cinema film work? - I had been given some broken frames by the projectionist
of a local cinema - Or how did those old family photos come to be in our album?
What was the science behind the images? And most importantly, how could I do the
in our small country town we had at least three 'Photographic Chemists' or shops.
The Photographic Chemists were a legacy of the Victorian era, not only serving
pills and potions for the ailing but also keeping stocks of photo paper, chemicals
for photography and a few pre-used cameras.
the time I was studying at university most post-war import restrictions had been
lifted; these Photographic Chemist shops were on the wane and being replaced by
specialist stores resembling Aladdin's Caves of photo gear. But - back to the
our Photographic Chemists I found all the essential ingredients for making pictures
from scratch, just as the Victorians did in the early 1800s. In the course of
a few months my parents' bathroom shelf was complete with bottles of nitric acid,
hydrochloric acid otherwise known as 'spirits of salts', sodium hyposuphite aka
'hypo', gallic acid, 'metol' - said to be nasty for the hands, 'pyro' - short
for pyrogallol, potassium ferricyanide - Yes.... cyanide, silver nitrate, iodine
crystals and eventually much more. Oh
And a very stained, once white laboratory
coat - which soon matched my fingers and the bathtub, by then turning a gentle
all the ingredients for a Witches' brew I set out to record my home and countryside.
Now, writing in 2015 I often wonder how a schoolboy or for that matter anybody
would be treated today if he asked for some of this stuff at a pharmacy or online.
Green bottles with ribbed sides were kept for the more noxious chemicals. Some
of my bottles had glass stoppers as cork from tree bark simply disintegrated.
know-how needed for making everything to create photographs was published in Victorian
times and I could find plenty of old books on the shelves of the Town Library.
Most photo books and magazines of the 1800s were filled with formulas or recipes.
very popular source was The Watkins Manual written and published by Alfred
Watkins, a wealthy enthusiast who owned several businesses including a flour mill
in Hereford in the West Midlands of England. Like many Victorian photographers,
his interest started as a hobby but he moved on and left the world with a comprehensive
DIY for early photography. The first Watkins Manual was published in 1890
and went into eleven editions. The cover is of the Third Edition published in
little book of 152 pages is only 175cm x 120cm and is packed with photo information.
Advertisements for the equipment he invented and marketed are at the end. It also
includes a precise record of some products of the era and their manufacturers,
for example Ilford Plates and Papers of All Dealers Ilford Limited London
E, and Wratten's London Plates. Later I came across both names, time
and time again as the firms had survived.
Watkins was also very thoughtful amateur archaeologist and became famous for his
work on straight path alignments between spiritual places on the English landscape.
He called them Ley Lines and in the 1970s, while working on my book Pathways
to the Gods, I met many followers - but that, as they say is another
story. You can look for Alfred Watkins and The Old Straight Track|
as We know It
photography we know either in pixels or silver began not in some concrete and
glass security controlled hi-tech lab in California or Cambridge but within the
somewhat austere walls of a 13th century abbey.
Lacock with its Abbey takes its name from the old English word Lacuc meaning 'streamlet';
it is some 32 miles from the city of Bristol in the west of England and the River
Avon is nearby. The Abbey stood at the centre of the extensive Lacock estate that
included the village and surrounding land.
As a student at the University of Bristol I joined the Photo Society's outings
for a 'pie and pint' lunch in the Lacock village pub The Red Lion. These
annual trips were a welcome change from our relentless round of science tutorials.
about 1825 anyone searching for a light sensitive substance knew that compounds
of silver such as silver with chlorine reacted and could record simple images
on paper - hence my purchase of silver nitrate and hydrochloric acid.
breakthrough in photography is usually attributed to William Henry Fox Talbot.
He was the only son of William Davenport Talbot of Lacock Abbey, an Army Officer
saddled with debts. Henry was born in 1800 not at Lacock but in his mother's family
home in Melbury Sampford in Dorset, a neighbouring county and only 30 miles from
my home. Henry came into a world of affluence with excellent political and scientific
mother was Lady Elizabeth Fox-Strangways, daughter of the second Earl of Ilchester,
another landowner and also a Member of Parliament. The
family estate with fine gardens and avenues of trees surrounded the impressive
Melbury House built in 1545.
House glows from sunlight falling on its beautiful golden brown Ham Hill stone
taken from Ham Hill across the county boundary in Somerset, another of the landmarks
I used when cycling.
Henry Fox Talbot
Henry Fox Talbot was educated at Harrow School, where he was known to have experimented
with chemistry, apparently sometime resulting in explosions. He went on to Trinity
College, Cambridge where he studied Classics and won a prize for Greek verse.
For two years in his early thirties he was a Member of Parliament. By the time
he was thirty-five his father was dead and his mother remarried.
was thanks to his mother who turned around the fortunes of the Lacock estate that
he was able to live in the Abbey and be comfortably placed financially to be an
inventor. As such he preferred to use the name Henry Talbot, or simply H F Talbot
on letters, though more formally, including for his patents, he included the name
was not the only Eureka moment in photography but for Henry Talbot it was, when
in 1835 he saved an image of the latticed Oriel Window in the Abbey's south gallery.
Latticed windows were made with multiple panes held together in frames, often
squares or diamonds of malleable, rust resistant metal.
original image or as now known the 'negative' made in August 1835 is small and
faded and a copy is displayed at the Fox Talbot Museum in Lacock. Sadly a bit
too far to travel for many photographers - even those on a pilgrimage.
second image in New York and Online
Henry Talbot made a second image and that is conserved in the Metropolitan Museum
of Art in New York, and available for anyone to see online - links below. The
Museum says it is the oldest photograph in their collection with a date of 1835
and it is credited to William Henry Fox Talbot.
how did Henry Talbot do it?
the one hand he had the practical experience of the Camera Obscura a device loved
by early Victorians. But while pictures from a Camera Obscura could be seen on
a wall or table they could not be saved. Some Camerae Obscurae were set in specially
built rooms or buildings. Inside a Camera Obscura where it was dark a view of
the outside was directed to a wall or screen by light rays entering through a
small hole in a wall or roof. Often the holes were known as 'pin-holes' as for
the optical properties they had to be very small.
Camera Obscura - the name Camera lives on
optics of the simplest Camera Obscura meant that the image would be upside down
- and even worse the image was mirrored left to right. So for the viewers who
may have paid for the experience the scene was turned the right way up and corrected
right to left using a mirror. Magic! The tills soon rang.
on the left is the Clifton Observatory in Bristol a Camera Obscura built in 1828
from a derelict mill.
Talbot set up several of the tiny Camaræ Obscuræ in the Abbey which
the family nicknamed 'mouse-traps'. Inside these little boxes Henry Talbot laid
paper sensitised with a silver compound in the path of light rays from the window.
far so good - a miniature Camera Obscura - sensitised paper and hey presto, albeit
after a long exposure to light, an image was created. The next stage and most
valuable, was to 'fix' the image so it could be kept in daylight, and that meant
stopping the reaction within the silver compound. Henry Talbot found a way.
original image a little more than 2.5cms square was a 'negative', as the bright
light from the glass panes left dark patches and a lighter window frame. Henry
Talbot then repeated the process. He took the 'negative' and pressed it against
another piece of sensitised paper and left it in sunlight. The second piece of
paper was then treated with salt to stabilise the 'positive' image.
his experiments moved on successfully Henry Talbot was very aware that he had
cracked the problem and he knew other inventors would be looking to do the same.
A spot of industrial espionage was always possible and so he found himself in
a Catch 22 situation. To get the kudos as discoverer he had to make his process
available to the scientific world and that meant 'publishing' in a reputable scientific
journal. Clearly the secret would then be out.
processes were emerging in Europe and in January 1839 Henry Talbot heard of a
process invented by Louis Daguerre in France who published in the same month.
Henry was prompted to pluck up courage and present his work in a written description
to the prestigious Royal Society in London on Thursday 31st January 1839.
H Fox Talbot Esq - he wrote of the achievement.
account of photogenic drawing or, the process of which natural objects may be
made to delineate themselves, without the aid of the artist's pencil............In
the summer of 1835 I made in this way a great number of representations of my
house in the country; which is well suited to the purpose, from its ancient &
remarkable architecture. And this building I believe to be the first that was
ever yet known to have drawn its own picture.'
to read or dowload the PDF for the full account
you have time it is worth reading, more from the point of what is missing than
what it contains. Henry Fox Talbot made no reference to the chemistry for fear
of giving away too much so the academicians were none too pleased. The omissions
have given rise to endless haggling over who could claim being first to invent
a usable photographic process. My bet is on Henry.
here on it was a race between the inventors to perfect and commercialise the process
usually using silver compounds but not always. Metals such as chromium, copper
and mercury came into other equations. Daguerre used a highly polished silver
surface usually on a copper plate, but the process was sufficiently complicated
that making multiple copies was not commercially viable.
two years Henry Talbot had fine-tuned his discovery and in early 1841 he patented
what he named the Calotype Process.
Patent 8842 in the name of William Henry Fox Talbot of Lacock Abbey
gives a very detailed description.
Invention of "Improvements in Obtaining Pictures, or Representations of Objects"
'Candles and fires' may need a re-think in present Health and Safety conscious
times. But have a go. Here's the Patent
to read or download PDF Patent 8842
paper sensitised with solutions of Potassium iodide and silver nitrate and additionally
sensitised with a gallic acid compound of silver, Henry Talbot reduced the time
needed for exposure to light. The exposed or 'latent' image in the paper was enhanced
with gallic acid and once the image was stabilised the process was repeated on
fresh paper to get a positive 'print'.
Talbot made photographers pay a fee to use his patented process. Do I hear moans
about how software is charged today? But eventually a burgeoning band of photographers
rebelled and there was a court action in 1854. Henry won his claim to be the inventor
but lost his claim against the photographer who infringed his patent.
in my bathroom-darkroom with a pin-hole camera
my bathroom-darkroom and thinking of that Victorian race I sloshed about with
my home-sensitised paper. I made it with the best white writing paper in the house
brushed with a solution of silver chloride and then silver bromide. I even tried
stabilising the surface with egg white. Then I used 'metol' for development without
any daylight - just a candle. I dreamed little of patent infringements but more
of trying more exciting chemicals including platinum and gold. It was a bit akin
to Photo Lego adding a gold part but my post-WW2 Britain Wish List budget couldn't
of the techie info was in the Ilford Manual of Photography an absolute 'must'
for any photographer in the 1950s.
I began messing about with silver my intention had been to retrace Henry Talbot's
steps and make a pin-hole box and then a positive print. I had some success even
with a pin-hole camera and using a commercial Kodak paper but eventually the slowness
and uncertainty of the process turned me to ready-made film with its clear flexible
base coated with a silver-based light sensitive layer. I wanted to get on with
taking photographs and stop playing with chemistry. I returned to some of it later.
film was first introduced in the 1890s and those sold in my favourite high street
Photographic Chemist were made mostly by Kodak, Ilford or Dufay, by then household
names. As first steps in film picture making I exposed several rolls in an old
camera that belonged to my mother.
was a 1930s box camera. Box cameras were Victorian inventions based on the Camera
Obscura and as the name suggests they were not much more than a box with a hole
in one side. The original pin-hole idea was upgraded by the addition of a very
simple lens and instead of an open hole or patch covering the lens the light was
allowed to enter by opening a shutter. The Box camera was aimed at the mass market
and was inexpensive and reliable.
shutter on the Comet was opened and closed by a lever with a click of about 1/30th
of a second. Inside the box the sensitised film was rolled past the rear wall
or film 'plane' permitting me to make several pictures on one roll. The Comet
has a small external and light-proofed key to wind the film from a spool at the
bottom to another spool in the top.
My film choice was Ilford Selochrome 120 'Ortho' which gave me eight pictures
each 6cms by 9cms quoted as 2¼ inches by 3¼ inches. In most box
cameras the 1/30th of a second is not enough to freeze movement so someone walking
appears blurred. Also the lenses are not much good in dull light so the best that
can be said is the exposure given to the film is a compromise.
get the image from film to paper was a process that had not changed in principle
since Henry Talbot's day. Ortho film was not sensitive to reddish light so I could
develop in open dishes in a darkened room. I then washed the negative image in
water before fixing it in a solution of hypo so it could be viewed in daylight.
Even in the 1950s the fixers were similar to those of a hundred years earlier
- with variations naturally, and price increases. When my negatives were dry I
used a wooden frame to clamp the negative to sensitised paper to make prints of
the same size.
printing frame was an Ensign, made in Britain. The simplest paper I could get
was Printing Out Paper (POP) such as Kodak Velox WSG 2 aka White Smooth
Glossy - normal contrast, single weight (not thick paper). In the 1950s this packet
of 25 sheets cost one shilling and eight pence or the equivalent of 8.5 pence
in decimal British money.
the left - I took a a single sheet of the Velox paper - sixty years old and
exposed to subdued sunlight for 1.5 hours with a coin shading the centre. This
was the colour change without any development. Out of the packet the old paper
curled but the glossy surface was just as it would have been when fresh
Usually I exposed the frame, loaded with negative and paper, to good light for
some minutes - the exact number of minutes I learnt from experience. The back
of the frame was part-hinged so I could lift it and check the density of the image
without disturbing the register (placing) of the negative and paper.
OK, I developed the paper in a solution made from a Kodak powder - for bluish
black tones Kodak suggested D 158 and for a neutral black it was Special Developer
D 163 and for colder black it was D 163 with 'Kodak Anti Fog' - all serious gobbledegook
but it worked. Mostly I used plain D !63.
an intermediate wash I 'fixed' the paper using a solution of hypo to stop any
further reaction in the silver.
Now for the critical bit - in each process I had to wash the prints with a thorough
sluicing in water to eliminate all the chemicals. If the washing was too short
and chemicals were left in the prints they often turned brown even in an album.
I moved on I used Panchromatic film which was sensitive to all lights and had
to be developed in total darkness. Once I got the hang of the development times
I tried printing in the same frame but with a more sensitive paper exposed briefly
to artificial light, and then developed and fixed.
and an Old Bridge
is a picture I took on the Comet in Somerset, England in 1953. The shortcomings
of the low cost Box camera are obvious - the picture is not sharply focused at
the edges though the centre is OK. In the dull light of winter and misty rain
the fixed opening of the lens and the fixed 1/30th of a second combination was
well beyond the film's limit.
it is a record of the River Tone in flood and of a very old bridge that became
my test site and the negative is perfect even after more than sixty years in a
drawer. By this time I had made an enlarger or device that would project an image
onto a larger sheet of sensitised paper and be processed as before.
I received a gift from an elderly aunt of a 1920s Kodak Autograph camera which
used 'Post Card' size roll-film.
The Kodak Ball Bearing Shutter with various patents from 1910 could be set for
clear skies, brilliant skies and moving objects. It could even be kept 'open'
by using finger pressure through a cable control. The adjustment is made by a
small lever at the top.
the bottom, another lever set the size of the opening ['aperture'] controlled
by an iris diaphragm - just visible as the central ring. Behind that is the lens.
it was on the camera I took a photo depressing the release here on the left of
the picture - or with my right forefinger.
a spot of parental ingenuity and care I converted the camera to use the same film
as the Comet.
after just two rolls of film in which I saw the advantages of controlling the
shutter my mind was set on something even more sophiticated and as another present
I was given a German folding camera, a Baldix, one of the first models to come
into post war Britain.
film for the Baldix was the same size as I had been using in the Comet but each
roll gave twelve pictures. The lens and shutter combination could be adjusted
to most conditions with a flash synchronisation added. And most useful to me was
that it folded with a light tight cloth bellows between the lens mounting and
the body, so it was flat. It was easy to carry and for three and a half years
the Baldix came everywhere.
Baldix saw me through my schooldays with an entry into the local Camera Club,
whose members were largely well-heeled senior townsfolk who owned the crème
de la crème of gear.
the Baldix had a 'top' shutter speed of 1/300th of a second so I could use it
for sports pictures - here a school race in 1954
I joined up with a friend from our village, David Cole, and together we experimented
with colour. It was expensive so the experiments were short lived and instead
we tried the dozens of black and white film / developer /printing paper/ developer
combinations. 'How do you rate Ilford's latest with the new one from Kodak'
and so forth. David went on with a scholarship to work for Kodak - he says he
still prefers Ilford film.
So fifty rolls later
my university years when - and I have to be honest - I spent more time expanding
my interest in photography than studying, I moved on to better gear and a small
but very adequate darkroom.
Cash flow from occasional work for student sports clubs, graduates at graduation
and the student newspaper gave me the chance to buy two new British made cameras
in quick succession, first a Microcord soon which I soon traded in for a Microflex
made by the same company - MPP [Micro Precision Products].
Both cameras were Twin Lens Reflex with effectively a second camera working through
the top lens to a screen under a hood - here in the picture folded down. Now I
could see and manually focus on an image before pressing the shutter The Microflex
has been around the world with me a couple of times- it still works and is wonderful
many of these cameras were made as the post-war import restrictions were lifted
and high quality German equivalents appeared. But the Microflex was built with
a Taylor Taylor Hobson lens. TTH was a British lens maker of world renown.
about the same time I bought a light-meter so I coud set the lens acording to
the light and the sensititivity of the film. The Weston Master lll was about 9.5
cms long and worked without a battery. Light entered behind the meter and affected
a light sensitive cell which in turn gave a reading on the meter. The disc with
the arrow was used for calibrating the correct exposure. It may sound awkward
but after a few tests my mind, film and light seemed to work together.
bathroom-darkroom of the 1950s filled with so many caustic chemicals was emptied
over half a century ago and for many years the chemicals I used were pre-prepared
and carried in my luggage - again I wonder how that would be appreciated at an
airport check-in today. Most memorably on my Around
the World university expedition May & Baker, a pharmaceutical company
in Dagenham, Essex, supplied me with their internationally famous developer Promicrol
and Amfix, their Ultra Rapid Fixer.
occasionally I had black and white film processed by professional laboratories
- overseas by Photo Sphinx in Beirut in 1962 and throughout the 1960s when in
Lima, Peru by Walter O Runcie. Othewise in South America I relied on Casa Kavlin
in La Paz. In London my printing was in either a simple home darkroom or at Roy
Reemer's where an elderly woman, the receptionist, did the 'spotting' to get rid
of dust marks on the prints. I always had a good welcome 'Hello Tony ... where've
you been this time? And I still have a a clutch of Roy Reemer prints as good
today as they were then. My old friend David Cole had a darkroom and also I could
rely on the work of Robert 'Bob' Horner in Kensington, West London. Good printers
and their art were a vital part of the 1960s photo scene.
now the question
silver in this digital age when remarkable software converts colour digital to
black and white and the marvel of giclée printing offers superb
prints on a variety of paper and other surfaces?
answer I need to offer a few examples from my world of silver-based photography
but first something special from Henry Talbot.
Calotype from 1844
is one of Henry Talbot's Calotype photographs which is kept in The National Maritime
Museum, Greenwich, England.
is the Steamship Great Britain, an iron ship created by the genius engineer
Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Henry Talbot took the picture probably in May 1844 in
Bristol at the Floating Harbour where the ship was being completed after the official
launch attended by Prince Albert, Consort of Queen Victoria.
picture here is of a paper print made by Henry Talbot's process and the detail
of the original paper negative shows well.
can see surprising detail of the ship in darker areas and typical paper negative
mottling in lighter areas from 'see through' or the faint image of the paper negative.
It is now over 170 years old and has survived because once carefully processed
- and the point is - silver hardly changes.
naval historians this picture has been a mine of information about the Great
Britain and for Bristol people it gives a very clear idea of the Floating
Harbour of the era including a pebbly foreshore and background of wooded hills.
Both are missing today.
more about the Great Britain see Nonesuch Expeditions
very early efforts like this, the silver process evolved very quickly and the
quality of the image improved. Silver offered challenges for the photographer
to achieve a fine gradation where the specks of silver were hardly visible, or
to join the 1960s rush for the grains to be visible. 'They must stand out like
golf balls' - pictures had to be 'gritty' with a powerful image.
advanced printing on silver sensitised paper superb tonal ranges and hues were
possible with gold toning, selenium toning, bromoil or the traditional sepia but
with true depth of colour. Other processes such as platinum or gum bichromate
were still being tried by some of my fellow Camera Club enthusiasts. I tried one
oddball treatment known as Brometching to get a print that could have been a century
are some of the variations
This was shot on a British made Microcord camera using Ilford FP3 a film with
medium speed [rated 29º].
Microcord had a 77.5 mm F3.5 Ross Xpres lens and I used a one  dioptre close-up
was superb in average lighting and gave a great range of tones. Look to the shine
top right on the enlargement.
photo came from a vacation project for a local egg producer soon after the 'British
Lion' marking had been introduced. The Lion was a symbol for British production
with a code and freshness.
In the mid 1950s Kodak introduced Royal X Pan film which was reckoned to be the
World's fastest film - meaning it could be used in very low lighting.
downside of RXP was the near visible granularity of the silver sensitised layer
this graininess was grabbed by enthusiasts and led to a genre of pictures with
striking 'grainy blacks' and whites. This was on my Microflex camera at a University
Drama Society production of Camino Real.
I am including this print as it is my only surviving example of an old silver
process known as Brometching.
In the process of print making the image took up the uneven surface of the paper
so giving an aged effect.
Here the paper was Kodak Bromesko with a surface known as Ivory Fine lustre, lightly
dappled and used because Bromesko yielded a soft brown image. The original negative
was made on the Baldix camera using Kodak Plus X a medium speed film and exposed
at 1/50th second at F 5.6 (F numbers were the way a lens was calibrated to allow
more or less light to pass). In the camera I used a used a green-yellow filter
to enhance the clouds.
Brometching process was the epitome of Witches' brewing - the print was over exposed
in the enlarger which meant it was almost black in the developer stage which was
also extended. Then after rinsing away the developer, the etching was done in
a solution of salt, sulphuric acid and potassium permanganate. The image appeared
slowly through the dark print and Hey Presto! - a Victorian classic was ready
to be fixed in hypo and washed. This is the Wellington Monument in Somerset -
completed in 1854 - the cars are a giveaway!
these pictures are from silver negatives or silver prints in our collection and
kept from damp they will last for centuries. Silver has been a name in image making
since 1825 and will retain a timeless, lasting quality loved by collectors worldwide.
- with enormous thanks to Henry Talbot for a wonderful contribution to my life
and to Alfred Watkins for some of his straight line thinking
Talbot was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society on March 17th 1831 for his work
in mathematics and light. He published nine academic papers. The formal letter
of election was addressed to Henry Fox Talbot Esq.
H Fox Talbot FRS, Longman Green published a book about his silver process in 1844.
The Pencil of Nature is available online with illustrations from The Gutenberg
or H F Talbot's letters are available as transcipts online from De Montfort University,
Talbot died on 17th September 1877 in his study at Lacock Abbey and was buried
the south wall of the Chancel of St Cyriac's church with foundations in the 11th
century a memorial says
' In memory of William Henry Fox TALBOT,
only child of William Davenport TALBOT born 11/2/1800 & died 17/9/1877
Talbot left a modest sum of less than £12,000 British Pounds