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For anyone who has ever printed their own images in a darkroom or just knows that several chemical "baths" are used in developing an image, the terms "paper" and "negative" just seem like they shouldn't be combined. After all, paper dissolves in liquid - right? Not so with paper negatives. Paper negative doesn't refer to standard paper like you would use to write a letter. A paper negative is a negative created on photo-sensitive paper instead of a standard negative film.

This first paper negative process was actually created by William Talbot back in the 1830's and was dubbed the calotype. This was about the same time as the Daguerreotype but because Talbot patented his process, photographers (always looking for the cheap route) flocked to the royalty-free Daguerreotype and the calotype faded into the background. As photography technology improved, some photographers realized that paper negatives similar to the calotype could be created using standard photographic print paper and a contact printing process.

Today paper negatives are used mostly black and white and created with pinhole type cameras. These are cameras that are essentially a dark box with a pinhole on one side that serves as the lens. Paper negatives require much longer exposures than "normal" photography. You must place the camera on rock-steady support for this type of photography. Also, be prepared to have to experiment to obtain the correct exposure. There are no built in lightmeters on pinhole cameras. (As an example, Pinhole Resource suggests "We suggest trial and error, although to give you an idea Tri-X film in a 3" camera with a 1/3mm pinhole exposes in 6-9 seconds in full sun.")

To begin, simply replace the film in your pinhole camera with an unexposed sheet of photographic paper (be sure to do this in very dark conditions). Then begin your exposure as normal. Once you have finished the exposure you will need to do the darkroom work.

The process for printing a paper negative is essentially a contact printing process. To develop the paper negative follow the same process you would for a print just exposed in the darkroom - all the way through to the water bath. At this point you can dry the negative or do a "wet print". I would suggest drying the negative first if you wish to make multiple images from one negative.

    Wet Print
  • Leave the paper negative in the water bath
  • Add the unexposed photo paper you wish to print in the water bath
  • Remove both pieces from the water bath
  • Lay the unexposed paper down with the emulsion side facing up
  • Place the paper negative, face down, onto the unexposed paper
  • Place a have piece of plexiglass on top of the papers
  • Press/squeeze all the excess water out to ensure a good contact with no air bubbles
  • Expose via your enlarger lamp for a couple of seconds (again, you will need to experiment - every negative is different)
  • Process and dry the new image as you would any print
    Dry Print
  • Dry the paper negative
  • Lay a piece of unexposed paper down with the emulsion side facing up
  • Place the paper negative, face down, onto the unexposed paper
  • Place a have piece of plexiglass on top of the papers
  • Press/squeeze to ensure a good contact with no air bubbles
  • Expose via your enlarger lamp for a couple of seconds (again, you will need to experiment - every negative is different)
  • Process and dry the new image as you would any print

If your prints are too dark, try a shorter exposure time. If your prints are too light, try a longer exposure time. Also, remember that paper negatives are not as sensitive as "normal" negative film. There will be a different look to your paper negative prints than "normal" prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has an exhibit on paper negative photography that will give you an excellent look at a variety of paper negative images. You can access their site by clicking here.
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