Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Can Traditional Chemical-based Photography Be Sustainable?

Can Darkroom Chemicals Be This Safe?

The Issues at Hand

With a vast array of environmental issues facing Generation X, film and chemical-based photography education has been careening toward the-bucket-of-obsolescence. With the advent of digital technology, the struggle to keep the film-based roots of photography alive has been tough in the least.

Even so, there may still be hope for traditional methods in today’s era of silicon image domination. Now, safer more environmentally friendly darkroom chemicals may provide salvation for those who still hold tooth-and-nail to the film-based roots of photography.

Year after year, for over the past decade, digital technology has progressively transformed the photo industry with great haste. For better or for worst, institutions of photographic learning have responded to this rapid shift in technology by shifting with it.

As it stands, many colleges, high schools, and photography specific educational organizations have eliminated there dark rooms and replaced them with cutting edge, modern digital equipment. Following in the wake of institutions many personal dark rooms have been replaced with digital equipment as well.

While digital photography has its many major advantages over its film-based roots, many would argue that the two mediums will never truly be interchangeable. As a result, many photographers still practice traditional methods—but the numbers are diminishing now exponentially.

Even though many photographers still feel adamant that film based photography has an important roll to play in teaching the rudimental concepts of photography, it has been rapidly failing in the contemporary fight for a cleaner environment.

Driving the modern wave of digital photography in the debate of environmental concern is its presumed, lower impact on the environment. While this may seem to be a give-in at first glance, as you look at the two mediums in-depth side-by-side you will realize that this is not as accurate as it appears. But nevertheless, the initial deception of film vs. digital serves as a great ruse that should teach us the invaluable lesion, to delve deeper into the breadth and depth of environmental issues.

While stipulations to toxicity and allergenic hazards have been known for more than a century of photographic history, these stipulations may no longer be as relevant as they were in the past.

As it stands, large photo-chemical companies have known about safer alternative developing agents for the last twenty years. One such agent is ascorbic acid, which is known by many in the photo industry to be the holy grail of photo chemistry. With the ability to produce finer grain, while at the same time having zero toxicity, it's bizarre at best that large photo companies didn't jump on the opportunity to perfect this new chemistry a long time ago. However, there is a logical explanation for this that I will get to later on.

Companies such as Fuji, Agfa, Paterson, and Illford, have, in the past, produced developers using ascorbic acid, although not necessarily with the underlying intent of safety as with Silvergrain. Ascorbic acid is the chemical name for vitamin C and while the compound used in photographic chemicals has no nutritional content, it is completely non toxic and has no known adverse affects on humans or the natural environment.

What’s in Those Chemicals?

There are a variety of chemical compounds commonly used in photographic developers that are known and or presumed to have adverse affects in human and or the environment. Some of the most predominantly used and controversial chemicals are Metol, hydroquinone, EDTA, DTPA, and NTA.


The chemical compound Metol has been known for quite some time to cause a dermatitis condition of the skin known as Metol poisoning. Only after years of direct exposure does this typically occur; though when skin does become sensitized it is usually for good. The compound Metol is also known to cause eye and respiratory tract irritation with unknown long term effects. In addition to the human health concerns, Metol is extremely harmful to aquatic organisms.


The most commonly used chemical in photographic chemistry is the compound hydroquinone. Found in nearly all developers on the market to this day, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) acknowledges hydroquinone as a mutagen, to cause Cumulative Corneal damage, adverse central nervous system effects, and is a suspect Teratogen. Hydroquinone is also known to have carcinogenic effects in animals and suspect for its carcinogenicity to humans. Symptoms of exposure include: eye irritation, conjunctivitis, keratitis, excitement, colored urine, nausea, dizziness, suffocation, rapid breathing, muscle twitches, delirium, and collapse. Hydroquinone, like Metol is highly toxic to aquatic organisms, this being a primary reason to check local ordinances about how and where to dispose of traditional darkroom chemistry.


EDTA, short for ethylene diamine tetraacetic acid, is also a common agent in photographic film and print developers. EDTA is a chelating agent which means it is used in the reversible binding of a ligand and a metal ion. While EDTA does not have any known adverse affects on humans, it bio-degrades very slowly under normal environmental conditions.

In addition to its use in photo chemistry, it can be found as an additive in many foods and is accepted by the FDA to be fit for human consumption in small quantities. For this, the salt from EDTA is one of the most predominant anthropogenic compounds found in water sources throughout the world. While not proven harmful to aquatic organisms or humans in small quantities, EDTA is still not “readily bio-degradable”.

DTPA is an alternative to EDTA in photo chemistry and is alternately used as a chelating agent for removing harmful radioactive material from the human body. EDTA and DTPA are not used for the chelating process in photo chemistry though. In photo chemistry EDTA or DTPA are used as oxidizing agents.

NTA is a similar compound used typically much like EDTA or DTPA as a chelating agent, but used in photographic developers as an oxidizing agent. NTA is not proven, but thought to be a gastrointestinal or liver toxicant. As crazy as this all sounds, many of the commonly used developing agents have all or a good arrangement of some of these chemical compounds as well as a wide variety of other potentially harmful proprietary ingredients.

There May Be Hope

The company Silvergrain has produced the first marketed print developer to make the claim of being ultra low in toxicity and non-allergenic. Not only did they make this grandiose claim to human and environmental safety but they have in turn also claimed that their new print developer—Tektol—has unsurpassed shelf life, keeping qualities, is virtually inexhaustible, and is as fast if not faster than most commonly used print developers on the market.

In addition to these selling points, Silvergrain has published the most comprehensive list of known harmful or potentially harmful chemical compounds that are NOT used in their products.

The managing director of Silvergrain’s distribution company, Digitaltruth Photo LTD, Jon Mided stated, “the design goal behind Silvergrain chemicals was to remove as many of the toxins as possible from each solution, without sacrificing ANY image quality or functionality.” While the claims seem to be a bit far fetched, colleges all over the country are hailing the Silvergrain’s print developer, Tektol, with raving reviews.

The Silvergrain Story

So, why is it now, twenty years later, in the year 2007, that an ultra low toxicity and non-allergenic ascorbic acid based print developer has finally been perfected and put on the market?

The answer is simple. Chemists began researching these alternatives at the birth of the digital movement. During this time though, photo-chemical companies quickly shifted their primary focus to the next best thing, digital technology, leaving the chemistry research in the dust.

Not for good though. Japanese chemist and avid photographer, Ryuji Suzuki sought to perfect these promising, but imperfect formulae. The alternative developing agent currently being sold by Digitaltruth Photo LTD is based on ascorbic acid.

This is where Ryuji Suzuki’s story began. While ascorbic acid has been a known effective developing agent for years, there was great need for more research and additional tweaking for these new chemicals to compete with the existing chemicals in such a heavily saturated market.

Has Suzuki succeeded? You tell me. I have tested the chemicals personally and have been thoroughly impressed. Student Mike Logan at Unity College, America’s environmental college, made it clear that Silvergrain Tektol is, “an ideal solution for individuals or institutions who are also environmentally conscious but who still enjoy the hands on nature of black and white photography.”

After working with the developer for a few weeks, I can assertively conclude that the developer truly lived up to expectations—and in many ways exceeded them. What is truly unique about this developer is its remarkable ability to produce exactingly comparable results while, at the same time, eliminating the most comprehensive list of chemicals known to be human health and or environmental health hazards. This is the fist major breakthrough in the film industry in over a decade. So you may now, want to think twice before saying film is dead and expand environmental awareness to your photography practices. Darkroom-based photo education does not have to fold due to environmental concerns and Silvergrain has only reinforced this premise.


paul sheridan said...

Great posting...

What can you tell me about DISPOSAL of the used developer?
I ran a large college darkroom in NYC until 2006 (and have passed on this link to my successor...), and we used Sprint chems, dumping used ones down the drain with quantities of water--and we were closely monitored by colleges HAZMAt offices--we could NOT dump fixer down the drains, not because of the fixer, but the silver contained in used fixer, which would interfere with proper processing at sewage treatment plants.

But now I am here in Maine, with a septic tank, and am pretty sure I should not be dumping "traditional" chems into drains--but what about Silvergrain?

What does Unity use for chemical disposal? Are you on a septic system or something else?

Thanks, again!

Berin said...

According to Silvergrain's site, your intuition would be correct. The septic tank ecology is pretty fragile and you can't use just any toilet paper. It is safer than sprint for sewage, but very little is safe for septic tanks.

The best thing is to check with the municipalities for proper disposal.