Split-Toning: Background and Historical Antecedents
from the December 2000/January 2001 Issue of Camera
1999; Jonathan Bailey; split-toned "Diana" photograph
confess Ive rarely been completely satisfied with straight
black and white (gelatin silver) photography.
Over the past
25 years Ive employed numerous devices to extend the dialogue
with my images: I have gathered them into handmade books, collaged
them, grouped them together onto mats, and even made paintings with
them or based upon them. What I have endeavored to do is to make
each step in the photographic process another beginning point
to use each result as a further point of departure. My most recent
fascination ongoing since the early 90s
is with toning, most particularly split-toning.
To speak of
split-toning in an authoritative way is, if not dangerous, at least
problematic. Emmet Gowin who was so helpful when I was first
struggling with these processes recently said to me that
no one, chemist or otherwise, has ever explained to his satisfaction
exactly what these split-processes entail. (see his interview and
spit-toned images in Camera Arts, December/January 98-99).
Gowins understanding of split toning has come mainly through
direct experience. Indeed, much of what I will discuss here springs
from my own direct and very subjective observation.
to suggest a simple definition: split-tones refer to both warm and
cold tones simultaneously present in an image. Whereas conventional
toning (sepia, for example) will render a print a uniform chocolate
brown color, split-toning typically yields shades of reds and blues
- occasionally even greens and violets - and therein lies the difference.
The effects may range from subtle to extravagant. Generally speaking,
split-tones are the result of chemical toners used after normal
processing and fixing (more about this in the next issue).
is a generic, somewhat mercurial term which is used to describe
the deliberate attempt at tonal splits in the darkroom. However,
split effects have been with photography from the very beginning
and may well have formed an historical precedent for many modern
practitioners of these processes. The issue is therefore, perhaps,
one of intent. The question might better be: when were these visual
effects first specifically sought out and deliberately attempted?
Certainly, among the first of the published efforts was Olivia Parkers
beautiful book, Signs of Life, in 1978 (now out of print
and, sadly, difficult to find).
I was interested
to learn in my conversation with Gowin that he first started experimenting
with toners in the late 60s while he was learning 19th century
processes in school. I first began experimenting with split-toning
in 1993-94 while stalling for time to experiment with 19th century
processes such as albumen or platinum. I have a long and abiding
interest in photographs from the 19th century and I was hoping to
bring to my own work some of the soulfulness and richness I associate
with so many antique images.
come to appreciate with the antique images was how intimately intertwined
image and process can become that sense of inevitability
when an image is coupled successfully with the right
process. I was in search of something for my images which they seemed
to be asking for - something I thought I understood - but I was
delivered to something that took some time to fully appreciate.
However, I had no idea how profoundly satisfying working with these
old and esoteric processes would become.
images have historically demonstrated a range of subtle to exotic
coloration. Daguerreotypes, for example, readily split
in an area of intense exposure. While the effect is not, strictly
speaking, chemically induced (its actually solarization),
dags often exhibit a strikingly beautiful deep blue tonal split
that almost seems to jump from the surface of the plate. This almost
three-dimensionality I also associate with split-toning.
New York City, 1998; Jerry Spagnoli; daguerrotype
New York City,
1998; Jerry Spagnoli; daguerrotype
New York City,
1998; Jerry Spagnoli; daguerrotype
when toned (generally in gold-based toners) yield a wide range of
possible color variations, including, on occasion, tonal splits.
Whether or not this was ever done historically in a deliberate way
is open to debate.
Anonymous, Albumen print circa 1880
(Collection of The Kicken Gallery - Berlin, Germany)
papers became commercially available a great many of them would
tone with exotic results: among the more exotic were the bromide
papers of the 1880s and 90s. These were the first
of the gelatin-based factory-produced papers and they remained in
scattered use through the 1930 s. These images often possess
a striking blue-red split that makes them easily identifiable. And
too, commercially available printing out papers (POP), both vintage
and modern, will often split when toned (witness Atgets vintage
work and Linda Connors contemporary work).
Oyster and Pearl, Bromide print
(Collection of Richard and Christine Rydell)
Fritz Young as
"Pierrot," by R.C. Clifford, Bromide print circa 1895
(Collection of Richard and Christine Rydell)
Then there are
the tonal splits that occur naturally as a result of
inadequate fixing and/or washing and subsequent exposure to the
atmosphere. Many older silver prints display an apparent splitting
of their tones for exactly this reason - in effect, Gowin explains,
a selective hypo-alum sepia toning of the print. He noted as many
as one third of the prints in the recent Carleton Watkins exhibit
at New Yorks Metropolitan Museum showed signs of this effect.
Collection of J. Bailey - Image shows selective "sepia"
tones from exposure to environment.
can also be created from dual processing of hand coated papers:
for instance, a layer of platinum under (or over) a layer of gum
bichromate a common practice at the turn of the last century,
and a practice of which Steichen was a master. Its interesting
to note that some modern practitioners of 19th century processes
have resurrected this habit today.
Izzo; gum bichromate over Van
in all their various forms, have nearly always been chemically toned
as a way to heighten permanence color changes were largely
a collateral effect. Daguerreotypes hadnt been around more
than three or fours years before people realized that gold chloride
and hypo, upon heating with a flame, would gild the silver on the
plate and render a significantly more durable image. This archival
benefit has been the major historical role for toners. Its
just that more recently (say the past 50 years), toning practices
have been largely confined to archival enhancement - with any possible
visual effects being systematically avoided. My fascination with
toners is specifically about the visual effects that are possible.
It would seem
a somewhat eccentric appreciation of the history of photography,
or perhaps more accurately, the history of the photograph, might
be required to fully appreciate the attractions of split-toning.
I think its safe to suggest that all the photographers today
who use some form of split-toning in their work (including Gowin,
Thomas Joshua Cooper, Linda Conner, Lynn Davis, Linda Butler, Christopher
James and Craig Stevens) seem intimately connected to photographys
past in some uniquely personal way. Each of these photographers
seems to intuitively comprehend how the photographic process ultimately
impacts the images emotional impact. I believe this aesthetic
understanding flows directly out of a 19th century sensibility.
the serious work being done with these split-processes there remains
resistance and misunderstanding about the effects. Some of this
resistance lies in photographys history: For most of the 20th
century (especially the second half), photography in the United
States has felt an obligation to be straight, truthful, and unaffected.
Strand, Weston and Adams (to name only the most influential) vilified
pictorialism, abhorring any mark of hand or artful device
and we still labor heavily under their prejudices today.
Photography today is still very much linked to its content. Judy
Seigel, in her superb World Journal of Post-Factory Photography,
puts it thus:
painting was declared its own event, while
photography was declared a faithful copy of another, real event.
Of course the
issue of verisimilitude has haunted photography since its first
days - people just want to believe a photograph. But as Frederick
Sommer pointed out, there is an enormous difference between a
thing seen and a photograph of a thing seen. He
acknowledged the photograph is reality but noted it is a
photographic one. He further suggested a photograph is a thing seen
in its own right.
split-toning remains on the fringes of understanding and acceptance
in mainstream photographic circles. Perhaps part of the attraction
lies in at least a partial disengagement from the content of the
photograph: an appreciation of the transformation thats possible
when we take a photograph out of the realm of document and into
the realm of image. I have again and again found this transformation
most easily apprehended with antique images: with these images we
are frequently left knowing nothing of the photographers nor of
the circumstances in which they worked which leaves us to
contemplate the unencumbered evidence of the photograph itself
In the next
issue I will offer specific, hands-on, working formulas and
notes. The only prerequisite for their use will be a willingness
to suspend the desire to mastermind a preconceived result,
and the openness required to entrust oneself entirely to the materials
and to the processes themselves: to become a midwife to the images.