Safety Aspects of Photography CONTENT | SEARCH
35mm SLR camera B+W Enlarger (Paterson)
A Short History of Photography, Cedric Green
Photography now looks back at over 150 years of development. The lens-based medium has taken the world by storm and fundamentally changed the way we picture things.
Over the years a multitude of chemicals and emulsions with photographic uses and light sensitive properties were discovered - ranging from relatively harmless silver halide compounds to extremely hazardous substances; various heavy metal salts and even uranium and other radioactive agents were found in the toolkits of early photographers.
The transition to digital processes is now nearly complete, and traditional film photography has become a niche market. Darkroom processes are still taught at art schools to convey a sense of historical continuity to today's tech-savvy students.
Alternative or Historical PhotographyPotassium Bichromate, the widely used staple ingredient of Alternative Photography
is highly toxic and is known to cause cancer
The rise of the digital age has also brought about a movement that tries to reconnect with early photographic means, chemicals and methods known as Alternative or Historical Photography, and many of these authentic processes yield outstanding photographic images.
Unfortunately, most of the historical processes are in a special league of toxicity. While many of the harmful substances of printmaking are in the toxicological class of 'toxins' (known more to cause medium or long term health effects, but not necessarily presenting immediate danger) many of the agents utilized in Alternative Photography are outright 'poisons' capable of harming or killing a person through ingestion or vapor inhalation.
A few decades ago there was still a debate if the widely used 'bichromate' (sodium or potassium bichromate, chromic acid, also known as 'dichromate') was toxic but now there is undisputed evidence that the chromium salts are highly toxic and are classed as 'poisons'; chromium salts have also be found to be highly carcinogenic. The casual attitude in the use of this highly reactive chemical amongst some users, schools, and photographers is of concern. Hazardous materials such as this should only be used with the most stringent precautions, and in our view, safer alternatives should be sought out as much as possible, especially in an educational setting.
Cyanotype or Blueprinting
The popular process of Cyanotype is widely believed to be a fascinating and harmless photographic curiosity. The method had its widest application in engineering in the production of proverbial 'Blueprints' well into the 20th century. Various books and websites helped popularize the method amongst artists, hobbyists, and in art schools in recent years, and brought about a Renaissance.
The English botanist Anna Atkins, born 1799, is regarded as the first female photographer. She also pioneered the art of the photogram. 'Cyanotype: Algae' (Wikipedia)
Food for thought: The hidden dangers of Cyanotype
The deep blue prints made in Cyanotype are very alluring, but on reflection, the chemical hazards that are present (both in the process and in the prints) may outweigh the aesthetic benefits.
The key compound needed in Cyanotype chemistry - potassium ferrocyanide - is falsely thought of as safe. Many think of this common iron salt as harmless because it can safely be ingested. The US food agency (FDA) declared the chemical safe in the 30s, based on knowledge available at the time. Yet on contact with UV light or acids, or heated to mid-summer temperatures the compound can break down and release hydrogen cyanide gas (HCN) that can be as toxic as nerve gas. Ferrocyanide has even been implicated in terrorism.
Ferrocyanide is not to be confused with the iron cyanide molecule of its relative Prussian Blue (or the printing ink Cyan) which has a very stable and much more inert chemical structure. The nontoxic compound is used in ink, paint, and pigment making, and in certain medications. Only experts can fully explain the subtle but highly significant differences between the various blue cyanides that are used for these different applications.
The professional use of small amounts of ferrocyanide in the food industry and for medical applications may not be of concern. However, it is questionable if amateurs should be advised to use dry ferrocyanide powders or bottled cyanotype formulations as a staple ingredient in their practice. Making photographic prints and decorated fabrics with the Cyanotype process, and the reactive chemistry it entails, carries very significant risks.
The EPA reported a case where an unsuspecting amateur photographer made printed quilts treated with cyanotype chemicals as a hobby, and then suffered permanent facial injuries as a result of what was believed to be possible exposure to cyanide vapors and/or chromium compounds. The EPA warns: '...the hexacyanoferrates used in cyanotype, blue print, and in Prussian blue pigment should be considered true cyanides.' (see pdf below)
In 1993 Merle Spandorfer wrote : '...Merle Spandorfer herself contracted breast cancer after practicing Historical Photography.'
From a prudent perspective it would seem advisable to avoid Historic photographic processes altogether, or to practice the medium with the strictest safety training and following very thorough precautions and safety routines.
EPA Environmental H&S Guide for Art Departments and Schools,
prepared by Pratt Institute (waste management guide)
'The most important information you can have about these processes is in this area, it could stop you becoming sensitized to the chemicals, getting sick or even save your life.
Theodore Hogan makes a very relevant comment about experimenting with the limits of the materials in 'The New Photography', that illustrates the point well, 'Just remember that you may exhaust your limits long before the materials reveal theirs'. 'Ignorance of how to safely handle the chemicals used in various printing techniques can put you out of the picture'. The chemical might still be on the shelf when you are in the grave!
So a correct understanding of these materials, processes and environments to handle them in is essential.
Almost all photographic chemicals can irritate the eyes, nose, throat and skin. Exposure to some chemicals such as cyanides and solvents (Turps and mineral spirits) may cause headaches, weakness, dizziness, and a sense of confusion. Prolonged exposure with chromate's may result in skin ulcers. Other chemicals can produce severe skin and lung burns, and if they get in your eyes, blindness (hydrochloric acid, oxalic acid, potash, silver nitrate).'
A safer approach to B+W darkroom work
The most common form of darkroom photography - B+W silver gelatine based processing and printing - is not entirely without health concerns, but can be practiced with relative safety if some key safety measures are observed.
The most common concern related to B+W photography are respiratory in nature, shallow breathing and asthma can be caused from the mists given off by the chemicals. Ensure good air flow in the darkroom through the use of fans / extraction systems / open windows and take fresh air breaks during processing.
Also avoid leaving solutions uncovered. Part of the magic of B+W processing lies in watching the image emerge in the development tray, whilst rocking the tray or agitating the print with tongs. Actually, the image will appear just as well if left in the bath all by itself - it might just take a minute longer.
To protect your health and your lungs best cover all baths with transparent sheets of plexiglass or make hinged lids for each tray. There is a precedent for this approach: in commercial print processing development machines are used that are also fully enclosed, and that emit very little harmful vapors.
This method will substantially reduce the exposure to airborne fumes that may otherwise impede your breathing or even damage your lungs. Working with an enclosed chemistry will significantly reduce your exposure to airborne fumes that might otherwise impede your breathing, and in the long run damage your lung capacity.