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The House   | October 1902

Letters on Photography, creating your own authentic vintage developer

The house is running a serial on authentic vintage photography. No not digital photography. It is photography where you create your own solutions to develop photographs from single frame film. This episode builds on last month's feature framing photos and adjusting the camera.

Illustrated correspondence to Penelope


Photography was quite popular around 1902. By that time, photography had been around for several decades, and the technology had advanced to the point where it was relatively accessible to the general public. The introduction of the Kodak camera in 1888 made photography more accessible to amateur photographers, and the number of people taking photographs increased significantly. Photography was also becoming more widely used in various fields such as science, journalism and art.

In 1902 the Kodak Brownie camera was introduced, which was a low-cost and easy-to-use camera, this made photography even more accessible to people from all walks of life. The Brownie was very popular and helped to increase the number of amateur photographers.

The development of new photographic techniques such as the halftone process, which allowed photographs to be printed in newspapers and magazines, helped to further popularize photography. The halftone process made it possible to reproduce photographs in books, magazines, and newspapers, making them more widely available to the public.

Photographic Developer

Dear Ethel,

In commencing this letter I will assume that you have been on a what I trust has been a delightful photographic expedition, that you have made some successful exposures; also that you are about to enter upon that most interesting and fascinating of all departments of photography, namely, development. Now here, my dear, you are liable to get very much puzzled and perplexed. You will say, perhaps, "Development, oh, that is all very well, but what am I to do, what am I to use?" This, that, and the other developers are recommended. Probably you have already spent much time over them, and have become hopelessly involved. I entirely sympathise with you.

Doubtless you will have encountered the names of Pyrogallic acid (commonly called Pyro, Hydrokinone, or Quinol, as it is sometimes named), Metol, Amidol, Eikonogen, Ortol, and Rodinal. Then, in addition to these, there are quite a number of new ones, such as Audrol, and a few others which I will not trouble you with.

Beside all these there are the concentrated solutions of certain firms to which are given fancy names; but divest your mind of them all, and, if you will be content to make a start at the beginning, I think you will agree with me later on that you have done a wise thing. For this reason, I am going to give you an old-established favourite, which, after all said and done has never yet been beaten as an all-round developer&and that is Pyro.

I will be perfectly frank with you, and say that the on only disadvantage of this developer is that it stains your fingers. But you can get over this by wearing rubber finger stalls or thin rubber gloves. Of course, if you were a man, I could tell you to do what I know some of my gentlemen friends do—that is, use a dilute acid for removing the stains; but, of course, you must not think of doing that, as it would spoil your pretty fingers. But if you use the rubber stalls or gloves the difficulty will disappear.

Developer Solution

You will require three solutions, to be marked A, B, and C respectively. For these you will require three glass-stoppered bottles, which should be of 10oz. capacity. You will also require a graduated measuring glass—say, up to 10ozs., or half-a-pint.

Into this measuring-glass pour 8ozs. of water, then put into that water (which should be hot) 1oz. or 480 grains of Potassium Metabisulphite You will find this will take a long time to dissolve if put in cold water, but if you put it in hot water and use a glass stirring-rod—which, by the way, be very careful to wash after it has been in any one solution—you will find that it will dissolve readily.

Now take out the cork of your pyro bottle, and pour the solution into the pyro, which will dissolve almost instantly. Swirl the solution round, then pour it back into the graduated measure, and make up to about qiozs. Perhaps you will say. why not 10ozs. The shortage represents the difference between the avoirdupois weight and the apothecaries’ weight. Then from the graduated measure pour it into your 10oz. glass-stoppered bottle, and you have what is known as your reducing agent.

Now you can develop a negative with this solution only, but it would take such a long time and be such a wearisome process that you must resort to what is known as an accelerator, and this will be solution B.

In this case, get 1oz. of sulphite of soda, the crystals of which should be quite clear, and free from a white powdery covering. This also dissolve in 8ozs. of hot water, stir with the glass rod as before, and then add 1oz. or 480 grains of carbonate of soda. Please be careful to remember not bi-carbonate of soda such as the cook uses. When this is dissolved, make up to 9.25ozs. as before, and put into another glass stoppered bottle.

Solution C consists of what is called a 10% of bromide of potassium—practically 1oz. of bromide dissolved in, roughly speaking, 9.25ozs. of water. Now label each of these bottles very carefully [A] Reducer; [B] Accelerator; [C] Restrainer. Here let me say that some people use carbonate of potash for the accelerator, others recommend ammonia, and there is little or nothing to choose between the soda and the potash, but ammonia is objectionable for two reasons. One is that it is always of uncertain strength, and the other is that if you are working in a small room the fumes are very liable to be troublesome.

Label three 10oz. bottles:
[a] Reducer
[b] Accelerator
[c] Restrainer

You will understand the objects of these solutions if I put it to you in the way it was once explained to me by a very particular friend who was kind enough to instruct me as I am trying to teach you. If you consider the negative to be made as a vehicle to be drawn, then the reducer represents the horses, the accelerator the whip, and the restrainer the brake, and you are in control as the coachman, or must I say coachlady?

A very great deal depends upon the proportions of these solutions. You can have too much accelerator, you can have too little; you can have too much restrainer, you can have too little; you can have too much reducer, and you can be short of it. You will find as you get on that upon the proportions you adopt much of your success will depend.

Now let me state the solutions for you in proper order, and then I will leave the rest for next month.

Developer Solution

Solution [A]

Water, 8oz.; Pot.
Met., 1oz. or 480 grains.
Pyro, 1oz.
Make up to 9.25oz. of water.

Solution [B]

Carbonate of soda, 1oz.
Sulphite of soda, 1oz.
9.25oz. of water.

Solution [C]

Bromide of potassium, 1oz.
9.25oz. of water.

I will only just add that as developer is very cheap do not be sparing with your solution. You can cover a half-plate with 2oz. or 2½oz., but it is much safer and much better to use 3oz. Although a quarter-plate can be covered with less than 2ozs., I invariably use two. The reason of this I will tell you in my next letter.

I may draw your attention, if you are a Kodakist, to the clever new developing machine mentioned in another column.

Good-bye, once more
—your loving friend,

More from this series

Photography was quite popular around 1902 and its popularity was increasing as technology was advancing and becoming more accessible. It was widely used by amateurs and professionals alike and was becoming an important means of visual communication and art.

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