ILFORD MULTIGRADE ART 300


If you don't believe that photography can be art, stop reading right now. Art is not a question of medium, or technique, or materials, or the time it takes to create something. It is a question of art.

Perhaps the most famous example of art because the artist said it was art is Fountain by Marcel Duchamp/ R. Mutt (1917),  but an even more convincing example, at least for me, is Picasso's Bull's Head (Tete de Taureau, 1942), made from a bicycle saddle and handlebars. You work with what you've got, with what you can find, with what you can beg, borrow or steal...


Zombie car by Frances Schultz, from the series Vehicles as Ruins. There's more about the background to the series here. For hand colouring, Art 300 was a revelation. Frances now uses nothing else. The negative was on Ilford XP1, probably shot with a Nikkormat with (as far as she recalls) a 90/2.5 Vivitar Series 1.


Sometimes, something comes along that is so right for you, so suitable for what you want to do, that it is (almost) all you want to use. Multigrade Art 300 is a case in point. If Ilford discontinued every other paper they make, right now, it wouldn't matter. At least, not to us. At least, not this week, or this month, or maybe this year. Maybe ever. That's the real point. Every artist chooses the materials he or she needs to get a particular look.  Frances would find it very hard to live without Art 300. I could probably get by with Multigrade Warmtone, but I prefer Art 300. 


Waterfall, Julian Alps. I shot this on Ilford HP5 Plus using a Nikon F and a 200/3 Vivitar Series 1 with a Soviet-era orange filter. The paper matches the rugged landscape. It may seem odd to describe a paper as "rugged" but this one is; or at least, it can be with the right subject.


It's a strange paper. Unique, in fact. The base is pure rag, and there's no baryta coating: the barium sulphate that makes silver halide photographic papers so smooth. The emulsion is coated straight onto the rag base, specially made for Ilford by Hannemuehle, founded in 1584. Because of the absence of the baryta layer, the resolution is lower than with conventional papers, but for most of the applications for which anyone is likely to use Art 300, this is irrelevant. For big prints, the negative is likely to run out of resolution before the paper does, and for smaller prints, the mood and composition are likely to be more important than the ultimate line-pairs-per-millimetre resolution. 

On the other hand, there is a disadvantage. It's a swine to reproduce from, because of the uneven surface. It looks gorgeous in an original print, which is why Frances refuses to mount Art 300 prints under glass, but when you try to photograph or scan the print, there's a sort of "sparkle" that's akin to the flashback you get when you try to photograph oil paintings: tiny bright highlights that come from the unevenness of the surface. These also flatten the apparent contrast in reproduction.  You can get around it to some extent by polarizing both the light source and the camera lens if you are using a copy stand, but even at that, it's only "to some extent". Also, I think that I lose at least some of this texture by scanning the prints with an 85 dpi de-screen dialed in, but I'm not sure: I may just be seeing what I want to see.  Bear this in mind when you look at the pictures that illustrate this article.


Tunnel, Pszczyna, Poland. Frances shot this on Ilford Delta 3200 loaded into a tripod mounted Voigtländer R-series (or possibly a Leica M-series) with an 18mm Zeiss Distagon. The graffiti/street art is frankly other-worldly, and the unique texture of the paper complements its uniqueness.


The paper is even more attractive if you can touch it. There's a sensuality to it, the feeling that textile experts call "hand": a combination of texture and flexibility. Of course this leads to the risk of damage, especially if grubby or greasy fingers are run across the image area. Even so, Frances encourages people to touch the borders of her prints, to rub them between finger and thumb. And if by mischance, a print on display is spoiled: well, we effectively carry our own insurance. As she says, "I can always re-make a print. It may not be identical -- in fact, it won't be -- but it will still be the same. I'd rather not re-make it, but if being able to see and touch the paper is part of the art, well, I don't want people to see anything less than the best I can do."

Most of the prints she makes on Art 300 are hand coloured, but not all of them. The thing is that once you've tried it, there's no real substitute; and this is a warning. This stuff is quite seriously expensive, so if you do try it, be warned that you may get hooked. On the other hand, it gives a look that is unachievable any other way, and if that's the look you need or want, well, that's what it costs.

What about processing? It's just like any other fibre-base paper. Development to completion (about 2 minutes: Frances prefers Multigrade Warmtone); a brief rinse in short stop (she uses Ilfostop) to prolong fixer life; conventional fixing (Frances uses two baths of Ilfofix at film strength, with 30 seconds in each, though 2 minutes in a single bath works equally well); a 5 minute wash in running water; 10 minutes in wash aid (Frances uses Ilford Wash-Aid, or you can make your own from 2% sodium sulphite plus 0.2% EDTA as a sequestering agent); another 5 minutes in a Nova archival washer or a Paterson flat-bed washer (or any other any reliable running-water washer); then dried between blotters. Again, other drying methods will work but we find that blotters work best. 



Frances. I shot this with a Dreamagon soft focus lens on a Nikon F (I remembered it as a Thambar on a Leica but it says Dreamagon on the negative sleeve). It's one of my favourite portraits of Frances, and as she says, "It's the way I see myself in dreams: every age and no age." One of the great attractions of Art 300 is its timelessness: unless you know the paper, you just can't tell when the print was made. The texture here is perhaps a little clearer than usual, because there is no actual texture in the image itself to disguise it.


Art 300 isn't as tough as an RC paper, but it's no more delicate than any other FB paper. Frances quite happily uses Nova "spider bite" clips, though carefully, and with big prints she sometimes uses two clips per print. Or, above 12x16 inch (the biggest our Nova tank will take), trays. 

That's it. Art 300 won't suit everyone, but then, nothing does. It's quite expensive, but then, some things are. There are really only two risks. One is that you won't like it, in which case, you are out the price of one box of paper. The other is that you will, in which case you may have considerable difficulty in going back to anything else.


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Words copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2017. Pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks and Frances Schultz 2017