Waldo Howland was either a visionary or a stuborn traditionalist. I couldn’t say which, likely a bit of both – I loved him either way. Waldo was a team builder. In the 1970s he was writing his autobiography and found me working in the bowels of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, attempting to create order of the Museum’s collection of historic photography. He steered funds into my nascent department and bent my ear with the history of things marine – not a few of which he had experienced first hand. After the Second World War, as the crowd headed for plastic, Waldo’sConcordia Company created one of the most beloved wooden yachts of all time, the Concordia Yawl . Waldo also put a good deal of work on the plate of retro designer Pete Culler. If all this wasn’t enough, he brought the struggling Beetle Cat Boat line under Concordia’s wing, keeping it viable through some lean years, until the boat buying public came back to its senses. These were some of the embers, kept live, that were later to burst forth as the modern and healthy wooden boat movement.
In photography the same tide of consumerism that swamped wooden boats brought rapid change to photography. The 1960s was the first decade that saw more color than black and white. For the convenience of the consumer film sizes were reduced. 35mm became a standard. Larger film sizes were available but became professional products. There are undeniable advantages to smaller film, such as portability and spontaneity but they came at the cost of image quality. Color photography, with its’ warm, wet processing, necessitated a nonabsorbent paper base. Which brings us back to plastic.
For over 100 years photographs had been made on a base of durable, achivally processable, pure rag paper. That ended with color. And then to facilitate machine processing of black and white it too was offered on waterproof, resin (plastic) coated stock. Before long, gelatin silver emulsion on real paper was a premium product. Then in the late 1970s the Hunt Brothers cornered the silver market. The price shot up and Kodak reduced the silver content of its papers. Predictably, image quality went south. Prints from 1900 were looking better that those from 1979. Achieving really fine print quality was becoming very difficult. Agfa and Ilford did offer some excellent alternatives, but the gelatin silver print had its’ limitations. As with boats, progress was not bringing us forward, it was time for a look back.
Before there were standardized, manufactured products, photographers concocted their own paper. Very simply put, paper is coated with a light sensitive substance. From the dawn of the medium in the 1840s to this day, silver has been the basis of the vast majority of black and white prints. There are however other options. Platinum and palladium were used from the 1890s until about 1915. Superb photographers such as Henry Peter Emerson, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Alfred Steiglitz made platinum prints, which have with stood the test of time. But how were we contemporary workers to use these processes from long ago? You needed to be a chemist – which I am not. My friend John Rudiak was and he helped me at a time when answers were scarce. John and Sprint Systems of Photography founder Paul Krot worked out a system, which Sprint offered for a while in the late 1970s.
It was Richard Sullivan who’s Bostick and Sullivan smoothed out enough of the many bugs so that reasonably consistent results could be obtained. Bostick and Sullivan has become a cornerstone in what has evolved into the alternative processes movement. For me the platinotype, a mix of platinum and palladium became the medium of choice for my landscape work. This century old system does demand a negative of special characteristics and it must be the size of the final print. Previously, these enlarged negatives had been made by adapting lithographic or other specialty films. These films could be made to work, but were expensisive, and often inconsistent. Enter the computer. Computer generated enlarged negatives can be adjusted to perfection. Now excellent prints can be made using vintage materials – the best of both worlds.
In both boats and photography, historic materials combined with craftsmanship and technology are proving to be the way of the future.