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Working With Pyrogallol Developers

By: Gordon Hutchings

Although pyrogallol (pyro) is the oldest b&w developer and was dominate in the 19th century, it was mostly ignored in the 20th century except for a few photographers mostly on the west coast. About 30 years ago, John Wimberly and I created a resurrection of this developer.

For some time these formulas had to be made in each photographers darkroom. However the formulas proved so popular that several commercial sources are available for both John Wimberly's WD2D and my PMK.

Why would anyone want to use a pyro developer in preference to conventional developers? There cannot be a universal answer to this question. To determine the usefulness of any developer we have to ground ourselves in our prints. Take a good hard look at your prints. Are you satisfied with them, technically? If the answer is yes, you need go no further. Some photographic expressions or styles may not benefit from a different developer.

If you are shooting "fine art" photographs, particularly "west coast" style landscapes or portraits and weddings then you may want to push your technique a little harder and try a pyro developer. Particularly if you are not satisfied with highlight separation and a general crispness to the prints.

About 30 years ago, when I first began to teach workshops in pyro, a San Francisco portrait and wedding photography actually offered me money if I would keep the PMK formula a secret. Whether it was a real offer or not, I am not sure, but his desire to keep a distance between himself and other bay area photographers was clear.

What he saw in his wedding pictures was a lovely separation of the white on white tones of typical wedding pictures. Wedding dresses, cakes, table cloths, snow scenes or what have you in the white department separate beautifully with ordinary printing skills. No heroic efforts and stomping all over the prints are necessary.

In addition to the highlights printing effortlessly, the mid-tones have a platinum like luster and the shadows are deep and illuminated easily.

This is all because of a set of characteristics of film that is developed in a staining pyro developer. In a staining pyro developer like PMK the oxidation products of the silver halide reduction stain and harden the film gelatin immediately at the silver halide development centers. The tanned gelatin has a yellowish green stain color and the color density as well as the neutral density of the stain both increase with increased exposure. The total density of the negative is the combined density of the reduced silver plus the neutral density of the stain.

This is where it gets interesting. As the negative gains in density the increasing stain color value acts as a mask to variable contrast paper and tells the paper to soften contrast. Thus we can print highlights that go on forever. Instead of highlights just running off the scale, they are softened enough to print. Since this takes place during the printing process we can watch and control each subtle nuance and print highlights with separation right to the edge of pure paper white.

Because the contrast is softened in the highlights during printing we can print the lower values of the print to a full contrast without losing the highlights. The result is a meaty looking print with delicate highlights thats easy to print. Wonderful!

Stained pyro negatives can also be used for graded paper, AZO (if you have any), platinum printing and other processes that require a contrasty negative. Because the yellow or green stain is opaque to the blue light of these processes the effective contrast is dramatically increased. Just look at a typical murky looking pyro negative through a blue filter and the visual contrast is startling.

In addition to all this great printing ability, pyro negatives also provide a sharpened acuity to the prints. This is caused by increased edge effects. Because of the hardening of the gelatin, migration of fresh developer and oxidation products in and out of the development centers is greatly restricted. This causes increased density of the higher contrast edge and lower density on the less contrast side causing a slight "edge" to the margins of contrast differences. This gives the print a subtle "etched" look of increased acuity.

All of these pyro effects will allow the photographer to think and see in new ways. Since it is almost impossible to burn out highlights (at least with old fashioned "chunky grain" film which is highly recommended if you are going to use pyro) if you can see it you can photograph it and rely on pyro to give you a good negative. Things like backlit glacier polish, backlit summer grass, naked light bulbs and shadow details are all routine.

Recently I created a new pyro developer MaxPyro ©. This new developer is intended to give full emulsion speed with minimum base fog. Ease of development by all techniques including JOBO™ and stainless steel hangers. This developer is available in prepared form from Bostick & Sullivan.

I hope this brief article gives the reader a few clues about pyro developer and the possibility of application to your own photography. In the introduction to my book, Morley Baer said it best: "PMK puts force behind subtleties and nuances and makes available to all photographers the opportunity to speak with conviction".

Good luck to you in your photographic efforts.