The Hidden Costs of Photography

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday January 12, 2023

What if we were to examine, as historian Katherine Mintie does in her insightful essay in Mining Photography: The Ecological Footprint of Image Production, “the material networks and the production of photographic goods . . . to recognize the labor of those who are often marginalized in photographic histories—women, the enslaved, the working class, and even animals”? The outsized appreciation given to individual photographers, many of them white and male in the story of photography’s origins as Mintie points out, neglects the key role of trade networks, resource depletion, and labor struggles in supporting the physical and discursive apparatuses of image creation and circulation. So states Eva Diaz, Associate Professor of Contemporary Art at Pratt Institute, in her review of the catalog and exhibition of that name, in the current issue of ApertureAbove: Optics Division of the Metabolic Studio (Lauren Bon, Tristan Duke und Richard Nielsen), Lake Bed Developing Process, 2013; below: Unknown photographer, Silver bars in the Kodak vault, 1945. Gelatin-silver paper, Kodak Historical Collection #003, Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation, University of Rochester, Eastman Kodak Company

Mintie asks some very big questions—some that probably never occurred to photographers looking for the best possible exhibition prints on silver gelatin papers. Today, if you have your own darkroom, the cost of a single 20 x 30-inch Ilford Multigrade Art 300 sheet runs about nine dollars. If you want large prints, a roll of 48-inch paper is more than a thousand. But what costs came before the seemingly innocent purchase of this enlarging paper in the past? How many chicken eggs were never consumed as food? 

Likewise, how many head of cattle, whose bones and hides went into making the gelatin component of this photo paper? How much fossil fuel did it take to ship silver from South America to factories in Europe and the US? Today, Hahnemühle, which currently produces Ilford’s silver gelatin enlarging papers, states that the product is vegan, but this is something new, leaving about 140 years of high-impact environmental degradation in the wake of photographic production at every level of artistic and commercial value.

This is just one example of many covered in Mining Photography: The Ecological Footprint of Image Production, recently presented by the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Hamburg, Germany. 

The raw materials of analogue image production in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries started out using copper, coal, silver, and paper. The practice of photography now relies, in the age of the smartphone, on rare earths and metals like coltan, cobalt, and europium. Mining Photography focuses on the history of key raw materials utilized in photography and establishes a connection between the history of their extraction, their disposal, and climate change, deeply implicating the human proponents of this medium.

It's not surprising, to me at least, that Diaz doesn't mention the toxic dye transfer process—favored by photographers such as William Eggleston and Joel Meyerowitz among others; the high cost and limited availability of this process makes its hybrid form something of a mystique in contemporary art. You can read the entire essay at Aperture, which presented the photos included here. Above left: John Cooper, Woman miner, 1860s. Carte de visite, Trinity College Library, Cambridge