An Introduction to Lith Printing

From the very first time I saw an image emerge, in the developer tray in my dad’s makeshift darkroom, I have been mesmerized by the process of darkroom printing. Consequently I never managed to convert to digital, as, at least in my mind, it lacks a convincing and satisfying way of transferring images to paper.

Most if the tools I use are ancient technology, Ilford HP5 film, Ilfotec Developer and a large stash of, now long discontinued, Forte Polywarmtone fiber based, printing paper. This once beloved paper of Hungarian origin, is slowly losing its usefulness for conventional darkroom printing, because of the inevitable fog that comes with its age. It is however still exceptionally well suited for Lith-printing. My main battle axes in the taking stage are a Contax RTS III, and a Rolleiflex SL66.

Lith-printing is a form of printing on black and white paper, that came in vogue in the 70s and 80s, and was used, with considerable effect by e.g. Anton Corbijn, in his signature portraiture of celebrities like Miles Davis, Clint Eastwood and Nick Cave. Around the turn of the century the process was returned to the attention of the darkroom community by Dr. Tim Rudman. The book Rudman wrote on the subject is a labor of love, and both a tremendous effort to demystify the subject, as well as a way of sharing all his accumulated knowledge, in true academic fashion.

The “secret” to Lith-printing is developing a 2-stop overexposed sheet of black and white paper in heavily diluted Lith developer, a developer originally used in the graphic industry to develop litho-film, hence the name of the process. The idea of the process is not to develop this sheet of paper to completion, which would merely result in a heavily overexposed black and white image, but to “pull” it from the developer in the appropriate moment and arrest development by transferring the sheet to stop bath. In doing so one can use the property that defines Lith printing, the fenomena of “infectious development.” When development is started the process starts very slow due to the heavy  dilution of the developer used. It is not uncommon to stare at a blank piece of paper for 5-10 minutes, in the developer tray, before a faint image starts to appear. At a certain point though the darkest parts of the image start to suddenly turn over to full black. In small black dots at first, but if left in the developer, the black spots, through the aforementioned “infectious development” will cause adjacent silver in the paper to turn to black too. This process is accelerating in the final stages of development, and it is up to the printer to, quickly, transfer the sheet to to stop bath, when the desired level of blacks is reached, in order to arrest this ever accelerating progression to blacks.

The result of this effort is an image, in which the blacks are conveyed in very gritty, stark, graphic fashion, but the highlights are rendered in very subtle and soft shades of beige, yellow or even pink. It is exactly this combination of soft, delicate, highlights and graphic, gritty, shadows on the same sheet of paper that gives this process its allure. Which parts of the negative fall in the first or the lather category, is in large part, up to the printer, and thus the same negative can produce wildly different renditions. Mainly soft highlights with occasional gritty blacks, or reversely, dark, graphics images with occasional soft highlights. And everything in between. Unfortunately not every photographic paper is suitable for Lith-printing, and demise of a number of producers has starkly reduced the number of lithable papers. However there are some left, notably from the Czech producer Foma, and there is still a considerable amount of old paper sold on eBay and such, that can be used, particularly because a modest amount of fog will not show itself in the diluted developer used.

If you want to taste more images produced by this method, I suggest you have look at Star Trak by Anton Corbijn, or the more recent work of Susan de Witt.

Anyone looking for more info on Lith-printing should have a look at “The Masters Lith Printing Course by Tim Rudman,”or you can contact me. The latter is also applicable to any models tempted to by eternalized on a tangible, baryta-based, Lith-print.

JJ Helder

JJ Helder shoots black and white film and prints on old-fashioned baryta-paper.

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