What is a gelatin silver print?

A gelatin silver print is the most common type of black and white photograph and the most important photographic printing process of the 20th century. Though no one single person can be credited with the invention of the silver gelatin process, there are a number of important figures. One of the first people to introduce gelatin silver prints in the 1870s was the English photographer and physician, Richard Leach Maddox. It was then developed and improved throughout the 1880s by a fellow Englishman, Charles Harper Bennett. Gelatin silver prints were commonly used from the 1890s and were taken up by Kodak, the American technology company, in 1900.

A gelatin silver print is the product of a Developing Out Process (DOP) rather than a Printing Out Process (POP). A POP product entails that the photographic object changes once light strikes it. A DOP product on the other hand, is a latent image that doesn’t rely on light to change but will rather develop in a chemical bath, i.e.—the visible image will be brought out when the plate is submitted to chemical substances.

To produce a gelatin silver print, firstly you must coat paper with a light-sensitive suspension of silver salts in gelatin. The final print is the result of the metallic silver being fixed in the gelatin coating, through a series of chemical developing processes.

The basic aesthetic of a gelatin silver print is a smooth surface, because the gelatin sits on top of the paper, acting as a coat which holds together the image material. Such prints also allow for a great clarity of black and white, though both gelatin and silver are also present in the emulsion for all color photography.

Gelatin silver prints were the norm for photojournalism and a documentary style of photography throughout the 20th century. With the increase in the popularity of digital photography however, gelatin silver printing is becoming increasingly obsolete. It is now considered to be a historical process but is still used by a number of artists internationally.

For examples of gelatin silver prints see Helmut NewtonVioletta Sanchez, Paris 1979, 1979Vera Lutters Engine, Frankfurt Airport April 19 2001, 2001 and Venice Portfolio II, 2007.

Artworks for Sale

Glossary of prints and editions