A couple weeks ago, Ron Mowrey, aka Photo Engineer, was kind enough to send me several sheets of his hand-coated silver chloride contact printing papers. Knowing I had been an Azo printer, Ron was interested to see how I thought his contact printing emulsions compared to Azo. I say "had been an Azo printer" because Azo has been defunct for a year now. I still had about 35 sheets of grade 3 Azo which I had been hoarding and now I had some negs that I wanted to print on this last little bit. So a printing session with Azo dovetailed right in to a session testing an Azo-like emulsion with the same negatives and print processing.
Ron's emulsion came in two grades, hard and soft. These were coated on three types of paper bases; baryta (traditional FB paper base), strathmore smooth, and watercolor. The actual sheet sizes were several inches larger each way than 8x10. This extra length and width is necessary to obtain the desired 8x10 emulsion coated area. Each sheet was marked showing wher the edges of the emulsion were. Due to the size of my printing frame, I had to trim each sheet, so the emulsion boundary marks ensured I got an entire 8x10 sheet of coated paper.
Two negatives were selected for the trials (scans below). I had printed the Cola sign before on grade 3 Azo so its print parameters were known. It was also a good candidate because it contains a full range of tones from black to white, and it has good subject surface textures (bricks, mortar, concrete, glass windows). Thus, it would be the primary trial negative. I also made several Azo prints of it in this printing session. The other neg, Snokomo door, had not been printed on Azo before. My gameplan with it was to get a fine Azo print, make several of them, then try it on Ron's paper. Thus, for the two negatives, I established a reference print on Azo grade 3, ones that I would display in a gallery or sell, then proceeded to try each one with Ron's paper using both emulsion grades and the three paper bases.
The print processing was done using the same solutions of developer, stop bath, fixer, toner, and hypo wash. The only departure I made from my usual Azo processing was using a hardening fixer. This was based on Ron's recommendation because he believed his emulsions were a little softer than the commercial products. I had a bag of Kodak Fixer available and that is what I used. Normally, I have used Ilford Rapid Fix. The developer was Michael A. Smith's Amidol formula (for Azo). Stop bath was my own home-brew using citric acid. Toning was three minutes in Kodak Rapid Selenium toner.
Let's jump the bottom line: I was able to make good prints on these home-made emulsions using hand-coated paper bases. Some scans are attached below. Please do not read too much into the scans because they are just scans, not the actual prints. Because of the limited supply of the test paper and my basic unfamiliarity with its characteristics, I did not tweak the prints to the same state as the Azo prints. But, I have full confidence that they could get there on these emulsions.
Now back to the technical nits. One surprise was the image emergence time and development time. In short, very fast. The emergence was about 2-3 seconds, and the total development time was 30 seconds. Azo G3 emerges in about 12 seconds and develops in 60 seconds using Smith's Amidol and other energetic developers. Ron believes this characteristic is due to a lack of keeping agent in the emulsion. Since these samples were all test sheets, he doesn't add the keeping agent due to its expense. Once I got past the initial surprise, I didn't have much of a problem with the rapid development time.
The paper speed was 1-1/2 stops faster than Azo G3 for the soft grade, and about 2 stops faster for the hard grade. The speed was more in line with the "old" Azo.
I thought the tonality of both grades was nearly identical to Azo, the "old" good-stuff Rochester Azo. This means "excellent". The baryta sheets were the closest of course. The strathmore and watercoler sheets could have been exposed a little less than I did because their surfaces reflect light differently than the glossy baryta base. My negatives worked best on the soft grade. I thought it was a joy to work with. The hard grade was a little more finicky, most likely because my negs really were more compatible to the soft grade. In short, the soft grade compared very favorably to the "old" grade 2 Azo, which is a whole lot better than that last batch of ruddy grade 2 was.
As far as the different paper bases were concerned, I wasn't sure if I would like the watercolor base. It certainly needs to printed slightly differently than a baryta base. But after printing it, I can see good use for it, and I'm sure there are those who would really like it. The strathmore base gave a nice matt-surface texture. The baryta base was a traditional glossy fiber-base finish.
Now for my plaintive plea. Isn't there someone out there that could put this emulsion into commercial production? It works! There are obvious quality control limits to making it and coating by hand. Photopaper coating is an area where machine processing ensures much higher quality than the home-brew can attain. I know it takes deep pockets to set up and run a coating facility, even a low-volume one. But its not technically difficult nor is it some "secret process". Where are the very wealthy Patrons of the Arts that could fund this and not even know they are losing the money? Where's the Guggenhein Foundation or the Gates Foundation? There's a market for this and more importantly, an art form that should be sustained. OK, no more soapbox.
Will Alex start making his own contact printing paper? Not in the foreseeable future. I don't have the space in my house to devote to it. I believe one needs a dedicated area to (1) process the emulsion and (2) coat the paper in a relatively clean area to minimize defects. If I could devote some area to the facilities necessary, yes, I could do it.
In summary, I was happy to perform these tests for Ron. He is on to something worthwhile with his emulsions. They work, and the contact printing emulsion compares very favorably to Azo in my opinion. My wish is that some bizillionaire would fund putting into comercial production so we could have a silver chloride contact printing paper available again. It may be very old technology and the market may be very small, but the prints still look better than any of the current papers.
Scans: from left to right;
Door, Strathmore, soft grade,
Door, baryta, hard grade,
Cola sign, strathmore, soft grade