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Michael A. Smith

In his book, Examples, when discussing the photograph, Tenaya Creek, Dogwood, Rain, Ansel Adams wrote, "Many years ago I made a print of this negative on a contact paper that, when fully toned in selenium, had a marvelous color. It is one of the most satisfactory prints I have ever made, and I have not been able to duplicate it with contemporary enlarging papers. The paper I used might have been Agfa Convira or Kodak Azo. Both were coated with silver-chloride emulsions, which tone faster and give more color than the predominant bromide or chloro-bromide emulsions of today." These statements make me wonder why Adams didn't use Azo more often. Surely he saw that it was a finer paper than the enlarging papers he was using.

For those of you who missed my article on Azo in the May/June 1996 issue of this magazine, Azo is the silver chloride contact printing paper with the incredibly long scale. I continue to receive calls from photographers telling me how thrilled they are with Azo. As I was writing this, an e-mail came in with a typical comment. "I can plainly see the wonders of Azo. I have, for example, contact printed an 8 x 10 full tonal scale negative on several conventional enlarging papers. All require dodging and burning. The same negative on Azo prints wonderfully with no additional manipulation. This is truly wonderful."

And I continue to receive calls from others asking if Azo is still available. Azo is still available in Grade 2 and Grade 3, though no longer in Grade 1 or 4. (But if you are exposing and developing your negatives properly, you don't need Grade 1 or 4, right?) It comes in 8 x 0 and 20 x 24 and also, I recently learned, in several other sizes.

Current sizes and availability:

  8 x 10 20 x 24
Grade 2 S.W. 25/100/500 50
Grade 3 S.W. 100/500 50  

Azo is also made in the following sizes: 23/4 x 41/2 (Grade 2 only), 3 x 43/4 (Grade 2 only), 31/2 x 5 (Grade 2 only), 4 x 5 (Grade 2 and 3), 5 x 7 (Grade 2 only), and 81/2 x 11 (Grade 2 and 3). Except for 81/2 x 11, Grade 2, which comes in 250 sheet boxes, all of the other sizes and grades come only in 500-sheet boxes.

Last year Kodak planned to eliminate, in 8x10, 25-sheet packages of Grade 2 and 100-sheet boxes of both Grade 2 and Grade 3. They also planned to eliminate the 20 x 24 size in both grades. I spoke with Kodak about this and explained that such a decision would really mean the end of the product since few besides my wife, the photographer Paula Chamlee, and myself would buy 500-sheet boxes. As for the elimination of 20 x 24 (except for a minimum order of 10,000 square feet), that would be the end for all those working in 7 x 17, 8 x 20, 12 x 20, 11 x 14, and whatever other odd sizes are out there. Paula and I would (gulp) go into serious debt and buy minimum quantities, enough to last us forever, but would anyone else? And if not enough of the product were sold, the next directive would be to discontinue Azo altogether.

I lobbied Kodak hard for a reversal of this decision. I sent prints on Azo to compare with the best prints I was able to make on the Kodak Polyfiber paper Kodak had given me to test some years ago. The Kodak Black and White Product Manager, Terry McArdle, saw the difference at once. He even found differences that I had overlooked. He was so impressed that, in turn, he lobbied his fellow Kodak workers for a reversal of the decision. McArdle explained that one problem was that someone had to "step up to the plate," and support this product.

Enter Freestyle Sales, a company I had never dealt with before. I was told they supported "traditional" photography and gave them a call. They agreed to support Azo by stocking all sizes, including Grade 3 20 x 24, which had been a special order for many years. Now it is possible to order as little as one box in that grade and size.

For now, Azo is saved. But if too little is sold, it will be cut back, and, all too soon, discontinued. To encourage the use of Azo, Freestyle and Kodak will be offering, for a limited time only, a promotional price on 25-sheet packages of Grade 2 to new users. If you haven't tried it already, this is your opportunity to do so. You will not be disappointed. Follow printing directions from my previous article on Azo. That article can also be found on my web site at www.michaelandpaula.com.

To answer two of the most frequently asked questions that were not covered in my previous article:

What are the keeping properties of Azo?

Azo has tremendous keeping properties. In the mid-1980s a friend gave me a box of 81/2 x 11 Grade 4. It was ten years out of date and had been stored unrefrigerated in the hot, humid conditions of New Orleans. The storage conditions had been so bad that the box had water stains on it and was swollen from the dampness. When I used it, however, the paper was perfect. Now, fifteen years later, the paper is still fine. Although it has lost a little bit of contrast, it is now a perfect Grade 31/2.

And not too long ago I received a call from a photographer who had found a box of Azo that was so old that it predated the yellow packaging and was in a green box. He found the paper to be not only usable, but not fogged and capable of making fine prints. It had also been stored unrefrigerated.

Must I develop Azo in Amidol? Amidol is so expensive.

Any developer works well with Azo. I use Amidol from habit and because I find it exceptionally easy to use with a water bath. I occasionally use Dektol when I need just a bit more contrast than Amidol will give. Incidentally, using more Amidol (the chemical) in the developing solution to increase contrast does not work. It gives Azo an ugly bluish cast. Although I have not tried the following developers myself, one photographer reported that Agfa Neutol WA gives excellent results with Azo, and another loves the tones he gets with Clayton Ultra Cold Tone. So if you can't find Amidol or find that it is too expensive, try another developer. Do not let the absence of Amidol keep you from using this superior paper.

Good luck with using Azo. Once you make contact prints on it you will never want to go back to using any other paper.

That was the end of this article, but a couple of days after I had finished it, Paula and I received an e-mail from Gordon Hutchings, photographer and author of The Book of Pyro. Last fall, Paula and I met Gordon for the first time. He wrote:

"Thank you for the generous time you spent showing me your photos in Steve Simmon's office a few weeks ago. They were beautiful. Since that time I have been nagged in my sleep by the unique quality of the Azo prints. Finally I gave in and grumbled, "Well I went through this before" (that was some 30 years ago when I knew even less then than I do now). I dug and dug until I finally came up with some old Azo prints I made at that time. Hmmm, yes, even with a non-pyro neg they look pretty good. So, I dug and dug and came up with some 30 year old Azo paper! Expiration date 1980 and not refrigerated, kept on a back shelf in a closet where temp reaches 90 plus in summer. Oh well, I printed some with my pyro negatives and I was blown away. Despite all that I have learned in 30 years, I couldn't match the look with even my expensive Bergger cloro-brom paper, Agfa, Forte, MG, Oriental-anything. The Azo prints were alive and the local separation was wonderful. Green grass had almost the separation of an infrared photo. All this on ancient 20 year out-of-date paper. Grade two seemed to handle almost everything. The partial pack of grade 3 was a little splotchy. It was on top and probably reached 100 degrees on some hot days."

A day later he added:

"Incidently, there was nothing wrong with the Grade 3 Azo after all. I took a closer look at the 8 x 10 neg and discovered that it was one of the batch that I shot with out-of-date FP4 and they were all "orange peely". Tried the paper with another neg and it was perfect. Good grief, the film was only about six months out of date and no good, while the paper was 30 years old and printed perfectly!

I forgot to add a note for the shaggy dog story. What finally induced me to try Azo, in addition to the nagging thoughts about your and Paula's prints was looking at a small collection of original Edward Weston prints done on chloride contact paper. I don't know which one; he used several. I marveled at the quality and tonality. I grumbled that even with the amazing precision of modern equipment (of which he had none) I cannot match the quality of this particular batch of prints today. I'm stubborn, but between Edward Weston and you and Paula, I finally gave in.

How exciting! I am filled with a great desire to take my 8x10 and photograph deeply and intimately and see what I can reveal with this paper. I will start with small close-in objects. It is a frustration that I didn't know I had. I knew subconsciously that I couldn't get what I wanted; now I think I can. A whole new avenue is open. How strange. I have been preparing myself for something and didn't know what. I stopped using the 5 x 7, a really nice outfit, and dug out the 8 x 10 and put away the modern super plasmats and dusted off the vintage lenses, mostly Dagors. I have been shooting the 8 x 10 for several months now and all my friends think I am crazy to carry the 8 x 10 again. I couldn't help myself. I am also retorgrading in other ways also, sort of going back to my roots in seeing. I think Azo was the missing piece of the puzzle and I now feel ready to shoot. How strange, we think we are in charge of our lives and that may be the biggest misconception ever."

Thank you, Gordon.

© 2000 Michael A. Smith

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