Shadows and Light: The Paper Negative

Exhibited and Sold By
Contemporary Works / Vintage Works, Ltd.

258 Inverness Circle
Chalfont, Pennsylvania   18914   USA

Contact Alex Novak and Marthe Smith

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Phone +1-215-822-5662

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By Alex Novak

One of the earliest of the photography technologies was the paper negative. Its eventual evolution into more modern photography systems came relatively easily: more and more clarity came with advances. First better fixing methods, then waxing and other methods to make the paper translucent, and then medium changes (from paper to glass and then to a nitrous cellulose base and then plastics, and now finally digital medium).

But there is nothing quite like the earliest stages, when the paper negative itself took on a look and feel that made the 19th century photography community want to exhibit the negatives themselves--and they often did.

That joy at looking at a paper negative can still be felt today. As auction expert Philippe Garner told me after the Jammes sale, "It is easy to get enthused. When you are looking at the paper negative up to the light, the light brings the thing to life. The highlights on a positive print can only be as bright as the papers themselves, which in the 19th century were never that white. You had to manipulate the highlights by contrast or other forms of stealth. But the negative seen against the light has that extraordinary light source itself for viewing, which is very magical."

Ferdinand Tillard--Bayeux: Portail Sud de la Cathedrale
Ferdinand Tillard--Bayeux: Portail Sud de la Cathedrale

Paper negatives have always been an "insider" obsession. Dealers have always recognized them for what they are: unique art objects. Museums and collectors have been slower to pick up on this, but now the trend is in full swing, especially after dealer Hans Kraus, Jr.'s exhibition two years ago and the Sotheby's Paris Jammes auction sale.

Collector Michael Mattis thinks, "That, among many other 'firsts', the Jammes auctions mark the long-awaited arrival of the waxed-paper negative as a fully valued component of the 19th century photography market."

He must be right because the world record for a paper negative fell four times during this sale. The six-figure paper negative is now a reality. Glass had already made it to that level with last year's Lewis Carroll sale. But there are still a lot of very good and still reasonably priced paper and glass negatives available: just take a look at the images in this Special Exhibit. Some are even rare pairs of positives with their negatives.

The glass plates are rare early examples, and such plates have also fetched high five and six figures at the recent Lewis Carroll sale in London and the Jammes sale in Paris. No wonder, these plates are so fragile that few important ones survive today.