A great all around source for antique photographic paper is this page over at The Unblinking Eye.
Photographic paper, whether vintage or new, are basically characterized by 4 different traits: Emulsion type, weight, surface, and contrast. Most papers are either bromide based (these tend to be faster, enlarging papers), chlorobromide (speeds range on these papers from enlarging to contact printing), and chloride (mainly contact printing). The Unblinking Eye also lists a few Iodide based papers, which were the slowest papers of all, and could even be printed by daylight.
Weight simply refers to the heaviness of the paper stock. Double weight was considered to be the thickest paper, single weight the thinnest, and medium weight in between.
Surface refers to the type of finish the paper has on it – if the paper is shiny, it has a glossy finish, if dull, a matte finish. Glossy surfaces tend to yield the sharpest images; matte a softer image. There are a range of specific surface types besides just glossy and matte. For example, here’s an example of what Kodak referred to as a “tweed” finish:
Contrast refers to the gradation of black and white in an image. Before the 1950s, paper came in specific grades – for example, Kodak graded their papers on a scale of 0 to 6 (depending on what time period you’re looking at – I have a Kodak book from the early 90s that grade paper between -1 to +5). 0 would be the paper with the least amount of contrast, to normally be used with an excessively contrasty negative, and 6, the paper with the most amount of contrast, would be used to compensate for a soft negative. The most common grades of photographic paper are 2, 3, and 4. Mainly 2 and 3, though.
In time – during the 1950s – variable contrast papers became available and widely used to this day. These papers had the benefit of not having to accumulate different grades of paper for different negatives. Instead, you used a filter system with your enlarger to adjust the contrast of the final print.
Antique and vintage photographic papers can still be used to make prints. Just because the expiration date on some paper is from 1964 doesn’t mean that it’s automatically useless. By all means, try making a few prints before deciding whether or not a pack of paper is useless. Here are some tips:
Old photo paper, especially if it has a matte finish, can be difficult to tell what side has the emulsion coating on it. I’ve found that old paper tends to become a little warped with time – one side will be concave, and one convex. In my experience, the concave side is the one with the emulsion coating (that’s the side that should be exposed to the image).
When testing out a new old pack of paper, try a sheet from in the middle of the pack. It’s less likely to be fogged than a sheet from the top of the stack.
Don’t assume (like I did) that just because a paper is old, it’s gotten slower. I tried making contact prints with papers labeled as being for “enlarging or fast contact prints.” I overexposed the contact prints every time because I kept underestimating the speed of the paper.
Use enlarging paper for making enlargements, and contact paper for making contact prints.
If using a contact printer, use a 15 watt lightbulb or dimmer. Kodak recommends a 15 watt light bulb for Velox paper, but you might have more control over your exposures using a 7 or 4 watt lightbulb. (The exception to this is if you’re using Kodak Velox – that requires a stronger light source – Kodak recommends a 60 watt bulb).
Also, if using a contact printer, keep in mind that some film is thinner than others. A contact print on the same paper using TMax versus orthochromatic film will have different exposure times, since orthochromatic film tends to be thinner.
Old paper may still produce an image, even though some flaws may appear on the print. If you’re going to be experimenting with old papers, embrace the flaws! They are awesome!
If you have an old pack of paper that you can’t coax an acceptable print out of, keep in mind that you can always still produce lumen prints even with the most fogged paper. Lumen prints are a piece of cake to make, and only require a brief bath in diluted fixer to complete (or a simple pass through the scanner if you don’t feel like messing with chems and want to save the image before it fades). The older and funkier the paper, the better the lumen prints.
See the following pages for specific information about different brands of photographic paper.