When photography meant chemistry

Old Bottles, New Wine

Toronto. Before digital photography came along, a good photographer used chemical solutions. The chemistry was a necessity – and a good photographer had to understand the chemical processes necessary for a successful photograph.

In fact this skill was as important as knowing how to pose a subject – and quite likely even more important for a successful venture. In the early years, charlatans prevailed and it was necessary to tread lightly or you and your money soon parted company for nothing of value.

The earliest announced process by Louis Daguerre in 1839 used mercury fumes to develop the latent image captured in a camera on a sensitized silver-plated piece of copper. Paper processes demanded the use of a silver nitrate solution as a coating to sensitize the salt paper or glass negative. The black stains on the fingers of a person quickly identified him/her as a photographer!

The chemical called Metol by Agfa in Europe was discovered to be a developing agent back around the early 1890s. Kodak sold its version under the marketing name of Elon. Elon/Metol was usually combined with Hydroquinone (and a few other chemicals) to develop black and white paper and negatives using classic formulary.

The mercury or quicksilver shown here was bought out in Prince George BC by my father’s older brother Charlie. It wasn’t used for photography, but for gold mining. My uncle used to pan for gold nuggets in the far western streams about a century ago. The other two bottles are from a long defunct darkroom. The owner’s widow passed these and some other chemicals on to me for use or safe disposal.

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