well, there's a vast subject... yet very much on the decline. in theory, toning a black and white fiber base silver gelatin print adds a new layer of tones, for different reasons, either for look or permanence. so let's start with the archival purpose of toning, as a silver print is only as archival, meaning stable, as the silver halides within its emulsion. stable meaning the ability of the metal to be exposed to light, darkened with developer, fixed, and again exposed to light and humidity later as we look at it. so to achieve better stability, we trade up metals. the most common ,in order of permanence, being silver, selenium and gold. selenium and gold are direct toners, metals actually coating the silver. they contain a deeper black tone, they add richness to the silver image, even color it, depending on its dilution and length of time used. i love those, even if selenium has a strong smell that can give you a headache and stain everything, even if gold is rather expensive and exhausts itself after each print. i love them because, for one, selenium can be used to help a print, to give an image that extra richness if it cannot be achieved in the exposure. think thin neg printed on low grade to pull the most details, but when you hit with a high grade filter it just kills it. anyway, diluted for permanence, selenium should do very little to the emulsion, except protecting it from light, heat and humidity. selenium can split tone warmtone papers, separating the light and dark grays into reds and greens. it can look beautiful, some images just seem to be made for it. selenium can also give a beautiful purple, evenly throughout the image, discreet or deep. it can go to a brownish hue. it can be mixed with so many different other toners the possibilities are endless. gold is similar, it fits the silver like a glove and keeps it from deteriorating. on a silver print it can also just increase the d-max, it can give a print a bluish hue. certain dilutions go warmer. gold can be combined with other toners. once, by accident, i discovered that on the right mid-tones of an emulsion, with gold crystals diluted in water, those mid-tones turn neutral and all darker shades stay warm. lucky for me, i was at the time trying to figure out how to print a fashion story walter chin had shot about silver clothing and accessories. it looked as if the shiny silver had been painted on. this is back when an image for magazines or advertising was done in the darkroom, not in photoshop. years ago. selenium and gold are single bath toners, simple in practice, fairly easy to be consistent on many prints. yet when they are mixed with other toners though, the results can vary slightly from the smallest detail. that can be very frustrating when making an edition... because as a printer, as always, i need to reproduce what i do. i can't get a tone by luck, it's useless. i only do that with my own images and looking for a unique print. for the people i print for i need to find a repeatable formula, and whether the recipe includes a bleach, an activator or a toner, whether the print needs to be light or dark, testing can take many tries. when i come up with a print i like, and a tone that fits, i have to write down every little detail about it. and then try it again, and again, changing variables, i simplify as much as possible the process. and still, the next day atmospheric conditions have changed and i can't match. don't laugh, even the water has to be the exact same temperature for the wash, it has to be filtered the same way because of metal impurities. a print has to be washed before, in between and after for the exact same amount of time. tray contamination plays its part, as well as inconsistency from the companies that package the chemicals. just like seeing a print appear in the developer, it's not magic, but instead carefully orchestrated and tested over time. a darkroom is called a laboratory, it's a place where process research notes can take more space than most libraries. the notes can be general or client specific, out in the open or sworn to secrecy, written on a clean sheet of paper or in the back of a print... whatever. and since printing is an art form, most tricks of the different processes are stored in the brain of printers. for example, i met ruven afanador after he published sombra, when he needed prints to show, and the printer who had made the prints for the book had disappeared. i was given a box of 11x14's, with all sorts of intricate tones -if you know the book you'll understand- but not one single note. not even what type of paper had been used. so i started to do my own testing -yadda yadda yadda- and i was able to match the book on prints 16x20 or larger. toning is greatly affected by the type of developer -and fixer- used, so to re-do about 20 or 30 different tones someone may have gotten by chance -or not- was a challenge. but in the custom photo lab world it almost becomes just another project to figure out, another puzzle to solve. this is why it is so important to know what does what and how. i have to be able to recognize if the color is off because my print was too light, my first bath chemistry too strong, or the second bath too diluted. if i used the wrong surface -glossy and matte do tone differently, as do warmtone or not-, i have to recognize which step to adjust, and only change one thing at a time or the experiment is useless... most tones will change slightly over time -i am not including selenium, gold or bleach through silver bromide/iodide- most metal toners shift in color and density. an iron blue or a copper red are not stable, so if i use an old tone sample to match i have to be aware of that. i ask for color swatches to help me start a new tone, as it is very difficult to communicate color on a black and white print. sepia alone can be yellowish, deep brown, light beige, almost orange... and that's an easy one! blue may be brilliant or dull, copper can age as it does on the awning above my front door at home. the question is: why is the print getting toned? when timothy greenfield-sanders shot the ad campaign for ups, i had to come up with the new “brown”, and figure out what it could do for me... do i stain a light print or bleach a dark one? brown toner with selenium? i didn't know, but i was able to give options, and we went from there. remember the old calvin klein obsession ads that bruce weber shot? that was all done with toners in the darkroom. interview, paper magazine and vogue would often ask to add color to monochrome images. i've made platinum-looking prints on silver gelatin by mcdermott and mcgough, made prints look old, selectively toned part of images. red and blue prints for ralph lauren store windows, and the architecture images of anderson and low in a specific sepia. vik muniz still asks for toned prints. but nowadays it's rare that i'm asked to do any of it. i think because most artists and photographers are just not aware of the possibilities. it's a lost art. my technical index cards are getting dusty and i get nostalgic for the practice. well, not really. my point is it's a lost art. although, there is one artist who understands toning as an important part of photo history. hiroshi sugimoto pushes the envelope reproducing some of talbot's early paper negatives. i have worked on some of the small tests, and always offer my 2 cents on details, but the 30x40 editions are made by mike wood at griffin editions (he used to process film at lexington labs from about '98 to '04. and that was no small task, trust me). anyway, those are some of the most complicated and beautiful tones i've ever seen. and at that size, to match a dozen or so of the same image can bring one close to the edge of insanity. if you have the chance to see some of these originals, make the effort and go.
in the future, i think tones will be used for unique prints, as editions will be a thing of the past and a single print will be more valuable from a prolific artist. perhaps even book reproduction quality will be taken seriously -not just selectively- and those tones will find a place to be seen by a wider audience.
photo by len prince 1999 - sepia toned
it's been a long ride !