In 2012, we're all photographers. With cameras hiding in all of our devices, we rarely leave the house without one. When we encounter photography in a museum, however, we often understand what we're seeing, visually, but the process behind the photograph remains a mystery. Have you ever glanced at the wall text of a photograph and wondered what all those words actually meant? With digital photography becoming the mode of choice, we are losing a latent understanding of the photographic medium. Even with some background in film photography, I find myself blissfully unaware of photographic mediums, techniques and terminology. No more! The next time I'm in a museum I'm going to be better prepared to understand what technique I am seeing. Keep reading to learn about a few terms that you're likely to encounter in a photography exhibit.
Gelatin silver print essentially means black and white photography, referring to a paper that was introduced to photographers in the 1880s. Over time, gelatin silver paper improved and it became the preferred method for fine art prints. In layman's terms, gelatin silver paper is made of light sensitive silver suspended on paper. When you encounter the early 20th century photos of Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams or even in 1971 in Untitled Film Still #21 by Cindy Sherman, you'll find yourself looking at gelatin silver prints. For a more in depth-discussion of the makeup, creation and conservation, check out Gawain Weaver's studies on gelatin silver prints (pdf).
Another term you may spot on a wall text is chromogenic color print, which basically means what you might guess, a color photograph. Chromogenic refers to the process of using a silver halide emulsion as well dye couplers to create images with color information. Chromogenic does not necessarily mean a color photograph, as black and white chromogenic film exists as well. If you've shot color photos on film, you've shot a chromogenic color print. That doesn't mean it's relegated only to the world of snapshots, however, Cindy Sherman creates them as well, just check out Untitled #44. For a better understanding of chromogenic prints, Gawain Weaver and Zach Long discuss Kodak's chromogenic color prints in their article, Chromogenic Characterization: A Study of Kodak Color Prints, 1942-2008.
Photogravure is a photomechanical technique that places photography in line with its predecessor, printmaking. Taking techniques from etching and applying those to print photographs, photogravure was widely used in the late 19th century to print images for publication. When made by hand, a copper plate is prepared with ground (bitumen dust) and the photographic image is transfered to the plate. The plate is then inked and printed just as any other intaglio print (i.e. engraving, etching, aquatint.) Later artists continued to use the method, included Alfred Stieglitz in the early 20th century, as well as Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1970s and 80s.
For more in-depth discussion of photography, Gawain Weaver's studies on photography and conservation are illuminating. I've just begun to scratch the surface on unfamiliar terms seen in museums. Have something puzzling you? Let me know for a future post!