Parkinson's Disease - the photographer's disease?? : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

Hello all,

I was reading Mary Alinder's bio of Adams and saw something that caught my eye. She said Parkinson's was the photographers disease. Apperantly a number of prominent photogs have had it. We all know exposure to any kind of chemicals is bad. I've even heard the chems affect male sperm.

Question is, Has anyone heard of any documented information linking photo chems and this disease(s)?

Thanks again, Jeff.

-- Jeff Hall (, April 23, 2001


"We all know exposure to any kind of chemicals is bad."

Yes, one should especially avoid dihydrogen oxide. Symptoms of excessive exposure include frequent urination, bloating, and an overall feeling of wetness.

-- Steven Hupp (, April 23, 2001.

There were Peggy Bourke-White and Edward Weston -- I don't know of any others. Two cases don't make a syndrome, and making such a statement doesn't make it factual. I enjoyed the book too, but it is definitely written on the "sensational" side.

-- Doc. (, April 23, 2001.


I'm a physician and also like to think of myself as a photographer. My medical specialty is Neurology which, of course, places Parkinson's dz within my area of interest. Although exposure to several toxins is known to produce movement disorders resembling Parkinson's dz in humans, there is no evidence to suggest that traditional photographic chemicals (when used in the traditional manner!)cause a Parkinson's syndrome. Many people from all walks of life suffer from Parkinson's dz and Parkinsonian syndromes. Hope that helps.


-- Patrick Matthiessen (, April 23, 2001.

There have been two attorneys here in the town where I live that have had Parkinson's disease. Does this mean that court rooms are toxic?

-- Ken Burns (, April 23, 2001.

I have two elderly friends that were photographers their entire life and they have various neurological disorders. One of the men has paripheral neuropothy(?). Not sure what the other specific diagnosis was. He lives in Germany. As a result, I do not put my hands in the chemistry, as was so prevelant in years past and I am making sure that I have a working venelation system in my new darkroom. My JOBO has been a Godsend.

Sure makes you wonder what exposure to certain chemicals can do given the right set of circumstances.

-- Michael Kadillak (, April 23, 2001.

"We all know exposure to any kind of chemicals is bad". I stay away from sodium chloride. (except on most of my food)And then I like acetic acid when accompanied by pickles, especially on my hamburgers. Promulgating myths doesn't help anyone. Parkinsons affects more than just photographers and many who have never done photography at all. We have a lot more to fear from our own governments than all the photo chemicals put together. If you want to worry, better start a campaign against carrots. EVERY person who ate carrots in 1880 is now dead. Makes as much sense as photographers & Parkinsons disease.

-- Dan Smith (, April 23, 2001.

Didn't you see the article "Shooting Past Eighty" in Vanity Fair a couple months back?

The stuff under your sink is more hazardous than the stuff in most darkrooms. I am not suggesting you snort powdered pyro or guzzle selenium, but put things in perspective.

Adams spent the last 10-15 years of his life in the darkroom making more prints than I will ever make in my life. He lived to be 82 and died of heart failure (although cancer was through out his body). I really don't think I have anything to worry about.

O. Winston Link died in front of a train station at 87. Aaron Siskind ate his last pastrami sandwhich at 87 and his buddy Harry Callahan challenged us till he was 87. Frederick Sommer made it to 93 and he looked better than some of those dead chickens he shot. Imogen Cunningham made it to 93 and did a book on nonegenarians. Brett Weston was 82 when he passed away. Cole had a stroke a while back but he's still giving workshops at 82. Alfred Stiegliz may have been the "Grand Old Man" but he made it to 82. Bernice Abbot did pretty good for herself (and Atget as well) at 93. Andre Kertesz made it to 91. Eliot Porter toted his Linhof till he was 89 and Josef Sudek took 66 years to reuinte with his left arm.

I like my odds.

-- Sean yates (, April 23, 2001.

There is a web page on photographic chemistry that speculates that amidol and pyro may have led to Westons "early" death. First of all, thats all it is, speculation. Second of all, 72 years of age was hardly an "early" age to die in the 1950's!

IMO, the important thing is how to react to the potential danger of photo chemicals without overreacting. Certainly, things like pyro and amidol and some of the other less mainstream chemicals are potentially dangerous if mishandled or ingested, and should be treated with respect (gloves, masks, venitlation etc, which Weston probably didnt use any of). they are known to be unhealthy if mistreated but theres still no evidence of them causing Parkinson's.

So answer to your question is a definite "no", although that doesnt mean a link wont be found in the future. proper handling should negate any potential risk.

My two best friend's mothers have or had Parkinson's disease. But there is no evidence that being a friend of mine causes Parkinson's. ;-)

My father was a professional photographer for many years, back in the days when few of today's precautions were taken. We had a darkroom in our basement and I dont even remember there being any ventilation! (and no I'm not recommending that). He did color, B&W, and dealt with many different chemicals of the time. He lived to be 76 and died of heart disease, having never developed any exposure related ilness.

-- Wayne (, April 23, 2001.

I'm sorry, that should have been "Josef Sudek took 56 years to reunite with his right arm."

-- Sean yates (, April 23, 2001.

After some twenty and so years breathing B&W chemistry, I've made a decision: never drink Coke any longer. Changed for beer and wine. I'm also willing to live just seventy or eighty years.

Cesar B.

-- Cesar Barreto (, April 23, 2001.

Hello all,

Some said that weston edward parkinson was linked to his use of the pyrogallol developper. But nothing really prove it. that's sure that it is better to avoid to much contact with developer. But I could name other photographer who use such developper for all their life and they don't have amy problem.


-- christian Nze (, April 24, 2001.

Sorry to be a party pooper, but some of the responses above take flippancy to the point of foolishness. If you don't understand the toxicity of the chemicals you are dealing with, then you shouldn't be using them. There is an unproven link between repeated exposure to pyrogallol and Parkinson's disease, as well as kidney and liver damage, but it is clear that it is easily absorbed through contact with the skin. Pyrogallol, glacial acetic acid, selenium are all toxic and/or caustic, and all photographic chemicals need to be treated with respect.

-- fw (, April 24, 2001.

It is my web page (article on mixing developers) that speculates that Weston may have been affected by the chemicals he worked with. I admit it is speculation, but perhaps not entirely unwarranted (I state "it is possible", not that it is a fact). I note the photograph of him by Adams that shows his fingernails completely black with chemical stains. Fact is, he never used gloves.

-- Ed Buffaloe (, April 24, 2001.

I posted the following in in 1997:

"Why do great photographers live so long?

"Sure, a few died young on the job (Capa, Bischof, Chim, Burrows) and a few only lived to their late 60s or early 70s (EWeston, Bourke- White, WEvans, White, Lange) but most of the greats have far outlived the average life-expectancy of their time--especially those who died more than a half-century ago. To wit:

Wm.H.Jackson, 99; Alfred Eisenstaedt, 96; Edward Steichen, 94; Berenice Abbott, 93; Imogen Cunningham, 93; Alma Lavenson, 92; Eliot Porter, 93; Jacques-Henri Lartigue, 92; Andre Kertesz, 91; Aaron Siskind, 90?; Frederick Evans, 89; Horace Bristol, 88; August Sander, 88; Harold Edgerton, 87; Paul Strand, 86; Man Ray, 86; Brassai, 85; Alvin Langdon Coburn, 84; Edward S. Curtis, 84; Alfred Stieglitz, 82; Ansel Adams, 82; Brett Weston, 82?; Peter Henry Emerson, 80; Gjon Mili, 80; Josef Sudek, 80....

"Some, of course, are still going (strong?): as of late 1997, Manuel Alvarez Bravo is 95, Cartier-Bresson is 89, Yousuf Karsh is 89, Wright Morris is 87, Harry Callahan and Gordon Parks are both 85. And some, I can't find out if they're still around but if they're gone it's only been in the last couple of years: Ruth Bernhard (b. 1905); Frederick Sommer (b. 1905); Andreas Feininger (b. 1906), and Horst P. Horst (b. 1906). (Feel free to clarify or add others--or to correct if my numbers are wrong.)

"Why is this? Is it simply that the drive to create gives one reason to keep living, just as many other great artists (Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright, Michelangelo, Monet, O'Keeffe) have lived into their late 80s or 90s? Frankly, I was hoping to conclude that breathing the fumes from darkroom chemicals is actually GOOD for you, so of course I got quite excited last year when scientists discovered that selenium can increase human longevity--but some of those on the list above didn't do their own darkroom work (or didn't tone their prints) so I guess that's not it...."

{End of 1997 post, on into the present:}

In the intervening four years, naturally, some of the "still going strong" on my 1997 list have moved on, including Morris, Callahan, Sommer, Feininger, and Horst, but as far as I know Bravo, Karsh, HCB, Parks, and Bernhard are hanging in there, well into their 90s.

The chemical-illness connection is certainly a reasonable question, but as Sean Yates notes above, in terms of longevity it's not a bad line of work to be in...


-- Micah (, April 24, 2001.

...Before someone else picks my nit, I think Gordon Parks was born in 1912, so he's not "well into his 90s." And is Karsh still around? (Once people stop photographing, you often don't hear much more about them until you read their obituary! There's a lesson in there somewhere....).


-- Micah (, April 24, 2001.

I agree with FW above (except for the "unproven link" to Parkinson's part-where is the link, other than Edward Weston and a very small minority of others??). Thats what I was trying to point out, and perhaps did poorly, thats its easy to scoff at exaggerated risks and go the other extreme, and be too cavalier about chemical exposure.

Ed, I think I actually saw that quote on mrjones's page, but it appears to have been lifted directly from yours. ;-)

-- Wayne (, April 24, 2001.

I agree 100-percent on the risk and hope my post about longevity won't be misconstrued as implying there's nothing to worry about. I stopped using stop bath in the darkroom 10 years ago because I figured anything that ripped so fiercely into my sinuses couldn't be good for a person, especially over the long term (I print only--don't develop negs--so water works fine for me).

Re: the black fingernails, that's from Amidol, isn't it? I know that Brett Weston, who was not above pretension, seemed to flash them as a badge of honor: in some pictures of BW he seems to be positioning that left(?) hand in a way that people can see the black nails and presumably ask about how they got that way. ("Well, darling, I'm a photographer, see...") Brett's dad, on the other hand, probably didn't know better--or was too poor/frugal to spend money on gloves.


-- Micah (, April 24, 2001.

From Mary Alinder's biography of Ansel Adams: "One of Ansel's last wishes was that after he died, tissue samples should be taken to determine what effects the years of photographic chemistry had had on his body; he was sure that some of the more toxic chemicals, such as selenium, had preembalmed him. [After Ansel died] Dr. Morrison complied with Ansel's request, but months later we learned that nothing of significance had been found."


-- Micah (, April 24, 2001.

I think we need to clarify this once and for all. Ed and/or FW, exactly what is the "link", proven or unproven, that ties photochemistry to EW's Parkinson's disease and/or death? the fact that he used chemicals and that he suffered from/died of a disease that we dont understand is simply NOT evidence OR a link.

I dont think there is any scientific evidence whatsoever. If there is, please show us what it is. I think the link is a rumour and nothing more. If there was evidence linking photo chemicals to Parkinson's. someone would be able to provide a long list of photographers with Parkinson's, and they havent (that still wouldnt prove it but at least then there would be a link). Can anyone name even 5? 4? 3?

That said, I still choose to not use pyro because of its toxicity, even though its probably safe if handled properly. I'm accident prone and would rather not take the chance. ;-)

-- Wayne (, April 24, 2001.

The posting about the longevity of photographers got me to thinking. If photographers tend to live longer (except for PJs that get killed in the the line of duty) because they don't do something inherently dangerous like work with machinery or are exposed to more hazardous substances like asbestos or toxic chemicals (refinery, fireman) or lifestyle (drinking, smoking, overeating) they'll likely die of an disease like Parkinsonism which tends to affect the aged more.

My mother-in-law passed on at 72 and had Parkinson's. She didn't die from it but it was part of why she died. She got so befuddled that she couldn't take care of herself and the home she had to be put in neglected her to death. She wouldn't eat and couldn't fight off a small infection. Anyway, to the best of my knowledge she wasn't exposed to any photochemicals. I believe her mother had Parkinsons and has siblings that are now developing the signs so it probably has a genetic component.



-- Duane K (, April 24, 2001.

Proof needs to be much more concrete than instances. In fact, there is some interesting research in the psychology of judgments demonstrating that we often use the ease with which instances come to mind as a basis for judgments. So, for example, if we are asked for three instances when we behaved assertively (which is pretty easy to do), we rate ourselves as more assertive. However, if we are asked to come up with 12 examples of assertive behavior (which is pretty difficult to do), we rate ourselves as less assertive even though we came up with more instances of a particular behavior (almost as though we were saying to ourselves 'Man, that was hard - if it was that difficult, I guess I'm not a very assertive person). Its often referred to as the availability heuristic i.e., we often seem to make judgments based on the ease with which information comes to mind i.e., is available.

I think thats exactly what's happenning here. Coming up with a few examples of famous photographers who died of Parkinsons (or come to think of it cancer, leukemia or some ghastly thing or the other) is pretty easy to do, from which one makes a judgment that there is a causal link between being a photographer and disease X.

Duane raises another excellent point - what is referred to as a treatment effect. So, it is not sufficient to show that the percentage of photographers who suffer from Parkinsons is statistically greater than the average percentage in the population (although even that bit of evidence doesn't seem to be forthcoming). One needs to be able to control for the fact that they live longer to begin with and are therefore, more susceptible to the diseases that afflict the elderly. More convincing, of course, would be some triangulating evidence from pathology etc.

Again, this is not meant to be a suggestion to drink pyro or make selenium bongs. There is no doubt that we do use some chemicals that are hazardous and should be treated with appropriate caution (a caution that doesn't seem to be exercise with other household products like bleach, pesticides etc but thats another story).

OK, I'll shut up now.... Cheers, DJ.

-- N Dhananjay (, April 24, 2001.

I didn't bother to look up the context of (biographer) Mary Alinder's reference to Parkinson's as "the photographers' disease" (as the original poster put it). But before we get all exercised about how many people really think there might be a connection between photography and Parkinson's, it might be worth asking whether that was HER designation (she's a medical professional, quite intelligent despite being married to a photographer) or whether that was more Ansel's perspective (by the time Alinder met Ansel, he was a superstitious and idiosyncratic old guy whose unscientific theories about Parkinson's would have doubtless been shaped primarily by watching two of his most influential contemporaries--Bourke-White and Edward Weston--die of the disease).

Whatever the case, I'm pretty sure that this discussion has been the first in this forum to elicit the phrase "selenium bongs."


-- Micah (, April 24, 2001.

Wayne ; I can't find a reference to support a link between pyro and Parkinson's disease, but I would refer you to pages 60 - 64 of The Book of Pyro which discusses the toxicity of this chemical, with supporting references, in some detail. In particular, long term exposure does appear to cause kidney damage.

Anyway, it's time for some sex on the beach - sorry, I mean some negative spotting.....

-- fw (, April 24, 2001.

WOW!!! The LF FORUM is now into epidemiology and psychology. And why not? it all ties together. The LFF may even teach enough English to straighten our syntax and learn to say that 'we dip hands in chemicals' and not in 'chemistry'. Perhaps it may even help us appreciate that everything on earth, -no exceptions except for physical phenomena is a chemical. I cringe at the perversion of the use of the word 'chemical' as for example in a 'chemical-free world'. That is a vaccuum. Aside from those quibbles my thanks to the historians, the physician, the psychologist, and the long list of amateur epidemiologists, ......on short leave from the darkroom.

-- Julio Fernandez (, April 24, 2001.

Anecdote isn't proof. My grandfather smoked vast quantities of tobacco throughout his liftime, and lived to a ripe old age.

As others have hinted, you need to do a proper study of a population of photographers before you can identify to causal links. The Swedish pro photographers' association did a reasonable a couple of years ago. Apart from things which should properly be classed as accidents (e.g. burns from dropping a Winchester of glacial acetic acid) they found only two good correlations: allergic reactions to some developers, particularly metol, and bad backs from humping too much gear around in a shoulder bag.

-- Struan Gray (, April 25, 2001.

In response to an earlier post, I never asserted a definitive link between pyro and Parkinson's disease, I merely suggested the possibility. Pyro can cause kidney and liver damage and is almost certainly carcinogenic. It is not a great stretch to assume it might cause neurological disorders as well. But I am not a physician and do not claim to speak definitively. To put my much-quoted statement in its proper context, I go on to say: "But it is easy to over-react: simple kitchen gloves and eye-wear are adequate protection when handling pyro solutions. An occasional few drops of dilute solution on the skin can be flushed with water and are no cause for alarm. Long-term exposure is another matter..."

-- Ed Buffaloe (, April 25, 2001.

"We all know exposure to any kind of chemicals is bad. I've even heard the chems affect male sperm."

Is there any other kind of sperm?

-- Sean yates (, April 25, 2001.

THANK YOU for explaining the Weston's black fingernails... I thought that Edward had painted his black as some sort of personal statement, and that Brett was just keeping up the tradition! Boy do I feel like an ass...

-- Mark Minard (, April 27, 2001.

Hi fellow professionel photographers, I have thoroughly enjoyed this line and although being only 39 yrs old, I am wondering what my future will bring in relation to all this, as I print my platinum prints myself 'from scratch' and although I have ventilation, and a fuming cupboard, sometimes the fumes seems pretty serious, and Im not sure if my slight dizzyness after a long day and nights work, may be from bodily exhaustion or fume exhaustion... And regarding the 'male sperm', as a woman, I am sure hazardous chemicals has effects on the reproductive system too. Some of my fellow women professional photographers put their childlessness down to prolonged exposure to darkroom chemicals. Still we all have to die of something, and I think its important to highlight, that we are some of the lucky people in the world, who have found our 'metier' or 'vocation', which we live 100 % for, and surely this positivity will help prolong our lives !

May you all live long and prosper !!! Yours Ms. S

-- Sissle (, May 07, 2001.

I think everyone owes it to themselves to understand the risks they might be taking in doing any sort of work. To that end I suggest photographic print makers check out the book "Overexposure: Health Hazards in Photography" by Shaw and Rossol. This book covers materials and chemistry used in b/w, color,non-silver,and printmaking (ink) processes. It outlines specific hazards and suggests safe working methods. In most cases I think one will find that the materials they are working with can be used quite safely, eliminating any doubts about reproductive health, PK, cancer etc.

-- Erik Gould (, May 07, 2001.

"check out the book "Overexposure: Health Hazards in Photography" by Shaw and Rossol."

Of course that book says to avoid even using pyro and amidol, two of Weston's favorites, which could bring us almost back to square one again. ;-) I dont use either, but I decided not to (with the option of changing my mind at any time) before reading that book. I dont recall what they say about glycin, which I have been using a little, but I dont think its quite in the same category as the above.

-- Wayne (, May 07, 2001.

Okay, I'm not going to get into this discussion that much, but the National Press Photographers Assoc. had a publication a few years ago called "Making Darkrooms Saferooms" that was an overview of chemical safety and health hazards. There were a number of articles about ongoing studies (at that time) in relation to illnesses and darkroom chemistry, especially those from color chemistry. Studies dealing with kidney damage etc. This is a great book if you're involved with commercial photography and trying to avoid contact dermatitis or dealing with ventilation issues.

-- DK Thompson (, May 07, 2001.

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