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Print & Film Washing

There’s always been a lot of dubious instruction, commentary, and folklore about washing fiber base prints: fast or slow water flow, feed from the top, hypo heavier than water? - constant agitation, no agitation, bubbles, no bubbles. No aspect of photography has been discussed with such vehemence. (Imagine if painters could come to blows over oil or tempera paint, or canvas vs panels to paint on?)

I corresponded with David Vestal for years back in the 1970’s and 80’s. He had no patience for this, and he also wrote a lot of magazine articles on the subject.

The fact is that print washing is very much like washing clothes. Clothing detergents are alkaline to “open up” the cloth fibers and allow the dirt to lift. Most really tough stains – tomato sauce, red wine – are acid based. Acid shrinks the fibers and imbeds itself. Clothing stained with acid-based stains need to be pre-soaked. With time, the fibers open, and the stain “leaches” out. Non-acid stains don’t need pre-soaking. Soap and mechanical agitation separates the “dirt” from the cloth, then it’s rinsed. That’s it.

So, print washing . . .

First, some paper emulsions are pre-hardened; Ilford Multigrade for one. (There may be others, Multigrade is the only one I’m familiar with. If you know of others, email me eh?) Multigrade doesn’t require an acid fixer. If you fix Multigrade prints in an alkaline fixer, then hypo clear, you can wash out the fixer by tray washing in 10 minutes. It doesn’t have to leach out, you just mechanically separate it. I’ve tested this at least a dozens times with HT-2, and have prints 20 and 30 years old that were washed this way. It works. Please don’t send death threats . . .

Papers that aren’t pre-hardened, like Foma Variant, cannot be alkaline fixed. The emulsion will soften excessively and emulsion particles will lift from the edges of the paper. Variant sometimes does that with acid fixing too, but slightly. So papers like Variant need to be acid fixed with a hardening fixer. And just like a wine stain, you “leach” out the acid fixer. No problem – hypo clearing agent (or equivalent), then soak the prints in the washer. Just soak and change the water every hour or so. You’ll have no HT-2 stain in about 2-3 hours – that magical condition: the archival wash!

Water from a cistern or a well? David Vestal also told me once that some water quality could soften paper emulsions, and even stain prints. He mentioned it in his review of the Versalab washer: “Something in my well water softens the print emulsion too much if I don't use a hardening fixer -- the picture tends to peel off the paper. Things are not as simple as most instruction books imply.” Potential apocalypse? No, just test it. If this happens, use a hardening fixer.

Vestal in one long-ago print washing article, made a washer using a plastic waste basket and thread to hold the prints in place. The holes for the thread leaked the water out. It wasn’t very elegant, but it did the same job as a $600 Versalab washer.

I once made – and sold – a washer made from an aquarium, 2 slotted pieces of PVC pipe, and Plexiglas separators. I still have the smaller one - I use it for 5x7 contact prints. You fill it, put the prints in, wait an hour, take out the prints, change the water, and put the prints back. After doing this 3 times there’s no stain from HT-2. You can also just do it twice – use a 2 hour soak time . . .

If you have a Versalab, or Zone VI, Darkroom Aids – any of those things; print washing is more convenient: (1) fill it, put the prints in, wait an hour; (2) run the water moderately to change the volume (about 20 minutes or so); (3) repeat. You’ll have no stain from HT-2.

You can run the water continuously if you want to, but it just wastes water. You’re essentially presoaking a wine stain out of a shirt.(When I compare print washing to clothes washing, all this archival talk seems less mythological – and somewhat less preposterous.)

And the water in any washer tank needn’t be completely exchanged (it never is unless you completely empty it and refill it). All that’s necessary is to displace it sufficiently to eventually reduce the hypo in solution to a reasonable minimum. What’s a reasonable minimum? For me, it’s what I described above: an hour soak, 20 minutes of moderate water flow, then another soak.

Film Washing. The film emulsion is what needs to be washed, not the clear base. The clear base is like a polyester or nylon shirt – it doesn’t absorb anything. The emulsion shows no HT-2 stain after (4) 3 minute water changes. Just change the water – no need to run it continuously. For pre-hardened film, you can fix with alkaline fixer and it’s washed in 5 or 6 minutes.

The Heavy Fixer Legend. Sorry Fred Picker – hypo isn’t heavier than water. There’s no more fixer in the bottom of a fixer bottle than at the top. Like any photographic chemical in water, sodium thiosulfate goes into solution. Hypo certainly doesn’t settle in the bottom of the tank. In any print washer, acid fixer leaches from the print and goes into solution. Changing the water does the same thing as running the rinse cycle when you wash clothes: the soap never completely rinses out – it’s just at a reasonable minimum. Print (or film) washers that fill from the top and drain from the bottom exchange the tank volume in a little less time, but they don’t wash the prints better. I don’t like bottom-feeding washers because the feed hose can pop off and drain the tank if you’re not there to watch it.

Waterproof (RC) Papers. No, RC papers are not proof that the devil himself is afoot, though I do conduct an exorcism in my darkroom every year or so. RC papers are very convenient for proofing. That’s what I use them for. I want to proof a stack of negatives in 45 minutes, not hours. You can wash RC prints in 2 minutes. Agitate the prints and change the water about 4 times. RC papers aren’t archival. When you have your retrospective exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in the year 2360, the curators will need to make new proofs.

What does ‘archival’ mean? I don’t know. I’ve never known. I’ve heard this talk since the 1970’s and I guess it means ‘lasts a long time.’ I have prints from my art college and RIT years (1977-81) that are in good condition today. If you wash prints (and film) properly, I guess they’ll easily outlive you and your children; maybe your grandchildren. (If you actually care about that, then you may need serious help.)

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