By Heinz Richter
As small as Leica is as a company when compared to the Canons and Nikons of the industry, they remain as a major player in the manufacture of 35mm film cameras. Many loyal customers remain that have not totally succumbed to the siren song of digital photography and many of them still enjoy making their own prints in a good old fashioned darkroom instead of a digital printer. That has led me to publish this article that I wrote a while ago.
Old photographic wisdom tells us that we have to use a two bath fixer to make black & white photographs last. This is accompanied by lengthy washing to allow all traces of fixer to be removed. While any of this does not present any nominal problems with resin coated papers, sufficient fixing and washing does become more problematic with fiber base papers. Washing times of one or more hours are not unusual. A lot of darkroom enthusiasts shy away from fiber base papers because of the lengthy developing process. This brings up the request for viable alternatives.
In March 1980, an article by Ralph Steiner, published by the Graphic Arts Research Center at RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) offered such an alternative. This method was further researched, and verified by Ilford.
Both research papers suggest to replace standard fixers with fast working fixers like Kodak Rapid Fix. Further more, it is suggested to use these fixers at film strength. Mr. Steiner states that sufficient fixing is achieved within only thirty seconds. This is then accompanied by a wash of only 5 to 10 minutes.
After a five minute wash, a FASTFIX leaves one tenth as much hypo as does the standard Kodak fixing advise. And a FASTFIX print which is washed five minutes has in it one fourth as much hypo as a LONGFIXED print which was washed thirty minutes.
Since film strength rapid fix achieves sufficient fixing in only 30 seconds, the paper is submerged only very briefly, leaving the fixer little time to soak into the fibers of the paper. Subsequently, only a short wash time is necessary to remove these fixer traces from the paper. Mr. Steiner writes:
Should you think to compensate for your LONGFIXING by LONGWASHING, just give up on that idea. I tried washing a LONGFIXED print for two days! In two days of washing I finally got a LONGFIXED print down to around the residual hypo of a FASTFIXED print which had twelve minutes washing. Both washings were uncrowded and thorough.
The old order changeth, giving place to new. Great and venerable Ansel’s advise to fix three times contains the virtue of thorough fixing, but we now know that the earth is not flat, and that a print is healthier and longer lived if fixed in pristine-fresh hypo – of double strength – the ammonia kind – for a breathless twenty or thirty seconds.
Sounds too good to be true? Nearly everyone I know is skeptical of this method, especially for archival permanence of our papers, including myself. Besides, do we really want to go against the advise of Ansel Adams? Not that I doubt the methods described by Mr. Steiner and by Ilford. But I do like to give myself a little bit more assurance. I have modified the above method by fixing for 1 to 1½ minutes with film strength rapid fix. After a short rinse in running water, the prints are soaked for at least three minutes in a hypo clearing solution and then washed for 30 minutes. This has worked flawlessly for many years.
Recent research has also shown that small trace amounts of hypo will actually help to prevent the break down of the photographic image in the emulsion due to environmental influences. This leads us to rethink methods of archival processing. Total elimination of any traces of hypo has always seemed to be necessary for the archival permanence of our black & white photographs. If indeed small trace amounts of residual hypo are beneficial, both of the above fixing and washing methods are perfectly viable. However, considering the substantial reduction of time needed to arrive at a well fixed and well washed print, makes Mr. Steiner’s method a very valid alternative.