Photography’s Golden Legend; An Alternative Process Revived Page 2

A Process Revived
For the next 85 years, the chrysotype process was forgotten, while silver gelatin photography became a major industry. But during the last two decades of the 20th century a few photographers, notably George Tice and the late Irving Penn in the U.S.A., revived the platinotype and palladiotype by hand coating their own papers. In 1984, I collaborated with the photographic artist Pradip Malde to devise an improved method of printing-out in palladium and platinum. Gold attracted my attention next, but this was still nonviable. As a chemist, I believed that there must be a modern means of stabilizing gold salts within an iron-based sensitizer, so the gold salt could be incorporated in the paper to give an economic method of chrysotype. After several years of research a useful method emerged, based on a special compound to “complex” the gold. This was probably the first new method of printing in noble metal to be devised for a hundred years.

The year 1989 marked the 150th anniversary of the announcements of photography by Daguerre and Talbot, and the celebrations included the first exhibition of new chrysotype prints at the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, Bradford, UK. The work was reported in the photographic press, and technical details were published at a conference of the Royal Photographic Society in 1992 and in the technical literature. Great care is needed when recommending chemical procedures for use by non-chemists, to avoid unnecessary hazards, but eventually a safe working method was published as The Chrysotype Manual for workshop use by practitioners of alternative photography. The researches into the history of the medium were published separately as Gold in Photography.

Chrysotype gold prints are not golden—any more than silver prints are silvery—unless one gets the chemistry badly wrong. The color of a metal in bulk is not typical of the same metal powdered in a finely-divided “nanoparticle” state, where the particles are about the size of a virus.

They behave optically as a pigment, selectively absorbing light rather than reflecting it like the bulk metal. Nanoparticle gold is usually a deep burgundy red. It was known to the alchemists as “Purple of Cassius,” and it is still the best red pigment for decorating ceramics and stained glass, because gold is inert enough to be fired under a glaze at 1100? Celsius.

My ambition was to make this beautiful stable pigment available to the photographic printmaker. In so doing the results exceeded expectations: the nanoparticle gold images could take on various shades of red, pink, brown, magenta, and purple and, by careful control of the chemical conditions, even hues of gray, blue, and green. Now, different colors usually signal different chemical substances, so this whole gamut of color shown by a single, pure, elemental substance is amazing. The clue to this mystery lies in the size of the gold nanoparticles: the smaller ones absorb only the short wavelengths of light (e.g., the blue end of the spectrum) giving the appearance of the complementary color—red; and larger particles absorb long wavelengths, appearing blue. This explanation has recently been confirmed by high-resolution electron microscopy, under magnifications of more than 100,000.

In the 19th century, the chief claims for the highly-esteemed platinotype were that it was “simple, beautiful, and permanent.” The object has the integrity of a single layer of material, in common with those other works of art on paper, etchings, engravings, and watercolors, and unlike the complex, multilayered papers manufactured by the photographic industry. Fine cotton paper is a beautiful, permanent material, with a satisfying surface texture. The absence of any colloidal binder layer, such as gelatin or gum, gives the plain paper print a perfectly matte surface, which can be viewed from any angle without reflective glare.

Chrysotypes share these characteristics but, like the other alternative processes, can only be made by contact printing, so they require a negative the same size as the final print. Some photographic artists have now adopted a hybrid practice, in which a digital image file is output by an inkjet printer onto transparency film as a large format negative; for this, a downloadable workflow, Making Digital Negatives, is now available. This blend of old and modern technologies has injected new life into the current practices of alternative photography.

About The Author
Mike Ware graduated in chemistry at the University of Oxford (1962), where he subsequently obtained a doctorate by research in molecular spectroscopy (1965). He then followed an academic path, lecturing and researching in structural and inorganic chemistry at the University of Manchester (1964-’92); becoming a Chartered Chemist and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry (1982).

Dr. Ware is now independently committed to studying the science, history, and art of alternative photographic processes. A Kodak Photographic Bursary (1984) initially supported his research on printing in noble metals, which was recognized by the award of the Hood Medal of the Royal Photographic Society (1990), of which he was a Fellow, and by the Richard Farrand Memorial Award of the British Institute of Professional Photographers (1991).

The results of Dr. Ware’s research on improving historic processes, such as the platinotype, cyanotype, and chrysotype, and the invention of the new argyrotype process, have been published in both the technical and popular photographic literature. In November 1999, he was a Mellon Research Fellow at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, to study the archives of Sir John Herschel, in preparation for his third and fourth books: The Chrysotype Manual and Gold in Photography (2006), both published by ffotoffilm.

He has also exhibited personal photographic work widely in galleries in Europe and the U.S.A.; examples have been acquired for several national collections. He has conducted specialist workshops and master classes in alternative printing techniques throughout the country, and appeared on BBC Television in the Open University series “The Chemistry of Creativity” (1995)

Want To Learn More?

Books by Mike Ware (available from the Siderotype website):
Gold in Photography: The History and Art of Chrysotype (Brighton: ffotoffilm publishing, 2006)
The Chrysotype Manual: The Science and Practice of Photographic Printing in Gold (Brighton: ffotoffilm publishing, 2006)
Making Digital Negatives (Brighton:, 2009)

Where to Buy:
Both Gold in Photography and The Chrysotype Manual, as well as other books and downloads by Mike Ware, can be purchased directly from the publisher at:, with free postage to anywhere in the world. The direct link is:


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All the things that are really part of the photography will never be granted as something as nonsense because they contribute to the documentation of history. - Michael Courouleau