Negative Attitude: The Library of Congress Turns the Light Out on Darkrooms
Franz Jantzen doesn’t need to explain what the Library of Congress has lost, now that its consumers no longer have the option of ordering silver gelatin reproductions of images in its collection. He’d rather show you.
He points me toward me a high-resolution digital print of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” one of the most iconic images of the Great Depression. Look at the range of grays, and you can see subtle differences in the textures of the children’s hair and clothes, and in the worried, hard-hewn face of their mother, Florence Owens Thompson. The amount of dirt caked on their fingers and faces is startling. But it’s an effect, he says, that can also be achieved in a darkroom.
Next to the digital print is a darkroom reproduction of the same picture, made using the black and white silver gelatin process. The degree of visible contrast is astounding. The blacks are much richer and darker, while the light grays mute the detail of the fabric—the effect is heavy, but that was the printing style of the 1930s. “A silver gelatin print has a fundamentally different look from any other kind of print,” he says.
From the end of the Great Depression until this year, anyone could order a silver gelatin reproduction, printed from negatives, of any image in the Library of Congress’ collection, most recently for about $100 a print. Not any more: After learning in August that his services would no longer be needed, Jantzen, one of the library’s last freelance darkroom printers, finished his final batch of photographs from the collection this month.
As a cost-cutting measure, the library’s duplication services no longer include darkroom-made prints. You can still order a digitally printed duplication. Or if you want “Migrant Mother” as wallpaper for your desktop, you can download it for free.
“Digital is the future of information management,” says Jennifer Gavin, the library’s acting director of communications. She says the library chose to stop offering silver gelatin reproductions because of customers’ preference for digital files, the difficulty of acquiring photographic supplies, and overall cost-effectiveness. Plus, many of the library’s new acquisitions are born digital, having never touched a piece of film or existed as a negative.
Jantzen, 47, has for years developed black and white photographs in the basement of his 16th Street Heights home; he’s had a contract with the Library of Congress since 2007. The work has been more pleasurable than lucrative. “I like printing for other people,” Jantzen says. “I enjoy bringing other negatives in as an aesthetic challenge.” Jantzen’s not concerned with economies of scale. He would “break out the chemistry,” he says, “even if it was only for one 8-by-10 print.”
The end of silver gelatin duplications wasn’t really a surprise. In 2009, Jantzen developed 202 prints for the Library of Congress—and only half that number in 2010. This year saw an even greater decline. Photo duplication has been part of the Library of Congress’ services since 1938, when funds from the Rockefeller Foundation helped establish the program. But for nearly 20 years, the library has digitized images from its archives, and thousands can be downloaded from the library’s website. Some are low-resolution, like a still from the Charlie Chaplin film A Dog’s Life that is available as a small JPG file of 102 kilobytes, or as a larger TIFF file of 12.9 megabytes. Other images have larger options, like a picture of the Wright Brothers’ experiment with flight at Kitty Hawk, the largest available file of which is a whopping 234.5 megabytes. Gavin says there’s nothing preventing consumers from taking a high-resolution file to an independent printer and having a silver gelatin duplicate made. Of course, you won’t be able to get a darkroom print made from the original negatives anymore, or even a duplicate negative, as has often been the case.
But that’s the way history goes. “The library needs to be thoughtful about providing the greatest number of services to the greatest number of people, with the most effective cost,” says Gavin. “Being cost-effective is not just good government practice. It is a necessity in these times. We are looking at a cut in the library’s budget in the coming fiscal year below our current spending levels.”
The Library of Congress isn’t the only government collection that’s gone digital. By day, Jantzen works at the Supreme Court as a collections manager of graphic arts. Just like the Library of Congress, the court outsourced darkroom reproductions for years, but when its contractor shut its doors several years ago, it began offering only digital options.
While the move to digital seems to be an inevitable solution for managing information, Jantzen sees a threat to a medium he loves. “If no one is requesting black and white images, then there is no longer a service. If there is no longer a service, then there is no longer a black and white [silver gelatin] image,” he says. “Digital has so completely replaced what has been done in the darkroom.”
For an image born from film, Jantzen doesn’t think digital is necessarily better. Hence, the difference you see in the two Dorothea Lange prints. When Jantzen talks about digital photography versus darkroom photography, it can be a conversation of semantics—about what’s a picture and what’s a photograph. If he made it in his basement, then it’s a photograph.
The debate over how to contextualize digital methodologies within photography isn’t new. Paul Roth, senior curator and director of photography and media arts at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, sees digital as just another stage in the evolution of photography. “Photography is a set of practices, more than material,” he says. Before becoming a curator, Roth was trained as a photographer, and he considers himself a full-blown film romantic. “That romance is an attachment to the medium and materials. Light changing silver sounds like alchemy. For anyone who went through photography in high school or college and saw an image emerge from the liquid…that’s very powerful,” he says.
As a curator, Roth has used the Library of Congress’ duplication services for several shows at the Corcoran, like the 1999 exhibition “Propaganda and Dreams,” which compared images from the New Deal-era Farm Security Administration to Soviet images from the same time period.
For consumers, Roth views the wholesale shift to digital as a refinement of the library’s democratic mandate. From a preservation standpoint, there are other consequences: “These [duplicate] black and white prints have gone into the world,” he says. “One hundred years from now will people be forging Walker Evans’ signature on the back? This is one way of clarifying an existing print market.” Unlike many digital prints, silver gelatin duplications can last hundreds of years—so it’s not inconceivable, Roth says, that down the line Library of Congress duplications may be passed off as originals.
Of course, museums collect objects, and Roth thinks the shift to digital photography doesn’t mean the end of silver prints, but rather a shift toward an alternative process.
The local gallerist George Hemphill isn’t weeping, either—even though he represents Jantzen’s fine-art work. In the realm of commercial galleries, he says, the physical implements of photography still telegraph authenticity. As silver gelatin prints become rarer, it forces artists who still work with film to make choices. “They might include the negative bracket so it can be identified as a photo. It has some cachet.”
Jantzen picked up his last batch of negatives—a hefty 27 orders—from the Library of Congress on October 7. “Usually I turn them around in a week,” he says. “I think I took longer per print because I thought that this might be the last time these negatives would go in an enlarger.”
Every time Jantzen enters his darkroom these days, he’s acutely aware of the process. Despite embracing the rather conservative harangue that photography ends with the silver gelatin print and that digital is an entirely different medium, in recent years he’s begun working digitally for his own art. “That’s where my energy is,” he says. “I‘ve had my own darkroom since I was 11, but in some respects it is no longer as relevant for me—maybe relevant is not the right word. But because the darkroom is no longer a way of thinking, anymore, it feels different to be in the darkroom. What I am doing in the darkroom is no longer current. It feels out of step.”
On Oct. 14, Jantzen shared an album on Facebook: shots of one of his final Library of Congress printing sessions. There was a portrait of Abraham Lincoln from 1864 (the same one used on the $5 bill); several images by Walker Evans; Gordon Parks’ portrait of Ella Watson; and Lange’s “Migrant Mother.” “I had my camera and a tripod,” Jantzen says. “I figured I would make some snaps.” I asked if they were digital photos. “All were digital images,” he responded. “Not photos. For me that is a necessary distinction. Word processing is not the evolution of type-setting.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
SLIDESHOW: Franz Jantzen develops some of his final prints for the Library of Congress.