Platinum Photography

Of all forms of photography, the most luminous, archival and rare

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Hauser nudes

V. Tony Hauser
"Male/Female Nude II"
Platinum metals 9.75" x 8.5"
#2 in a set of 2 images
Edition of 15

Although difficult and costly to create, platinum prints are the sine qua non of photographic art. Over the years, the only obstacle to widespread enjoyment of platinum has been lack of access to this rare process. Once experienced, it is usually a visual revelation! And it is the visual value, the tremendous tonal range, that makes platinum prints so extraordinary.

Unlike the silver print process, platinum lies on the paper surface, while silver lies in a gelatin or albumen emulsion that coats the paper. As a result, since no gelatin emulsion is used, the final platinum image is absolutely matte with a deposit of platinum (and/or palladium, its sister element which is also used in most platinum photographs) absorbed slightly into the paper. In 1873, thirty-four years after Louis Daguerre in Paris and William Henry Fox Talbot in London presented the discovery of photography to the world, the platinum process of printing photographs was patented.

Since that time, platinum's use in photography has had an almost unbroken continuity to the present day—being interrupted only by the World Wars. At the outbreak of World War I, platinum abruptly could no longer be obtained. Russia had almost 90 percent of the world's supply; and what little platinum was available went into strategic needs of the war.

When peace was won, and as the world returned to normal, platinum was prominently resurrected by Alfred Stieglitz, who printed mostly on platinum and palladium papers. Platinum was also preferred by his young protégés Paul Strand and Clarence White. Edward Weston used platinum and palladium papers throughout his early, greatest period; Edward S. Curtis, Irving Penn, Manuel Alvarez Bravo and most of the greats in the history of photography have all produced perfect, beautiful images in platinum.

However, after World War II, few photographers immediately resumed the use of platinum, largely because commercially made, platinum-coated paper was not available. This meant that the photographer had to hand-coat the paper and, frankly, not many were willing to do so! In this part of the world, however, Laura Gilpin was among the few post-World War II photographers who did maintain the use of platinum, hand-coating her papers and creating images of the Southwest that would become legendary.

Although platinum was again obtainable after World War I, its price remained extremely high. The war thus also stimulated experimentation with palladium photography. By the early 1900s it was understood that platinum was one of a family of "platinum metals": the closely-related elements platinum, palladium, iridium, osmium and rhodium share many similar physical and chemical properties. Palladium, less expensive than platinum and in better supply, was employed by intransigent platinum printers for their work, with superb results. Certain compounds of palladium were found to be nearly indistinguishable substitutes for platinum. Palladium, however, can produce a slightly more "warm" image, with a bit more contrast; and, in fact, photographers learned to mix platinum and palladium together in varying proportions, to achieve even finer results than with either substance used alone.

Two aspects that make the platinum print so special, so loved by photographers and so treasured by collectors and investors are beauty and permanence. The unique beauty of a fine platinum print involves a broad scale of tones from black to white. The delicate, rich platinum tones range from warm black, to reddish brown, to expanded mid-tone grays that are unobtainable in silver prints. In the deepest shadows the platinum print still presents information; the platinum whites are delicate and the depth of the image is alive and three-dimensional.

Platinum prints are not only exceptionally beautiful, they are among the most permanent objects invented by human beings! The platinum metals (platinum and palladium) are more stable than gold. Incredibly, a platinum image, properly made, can last thousands of years. It is as enduring as steel or stone and will even outlive the fine paper it is printed upon.

Throughout its history, photography has used many methods of expression, such as daguerreotype, albumen, carbon, gravure, and most commonly, silver emulsions. But for master photographers, platinum has always held a special place. In spite of its enormous extra labor and cost, platinum is often preferred for the photographer's most personal, special and rare images. Alfred Stieglitz referred to platinum as "the prince of media." Frederick Evans, one of the best platinum printers in history (whose prints of medieval cathedrals in Britain and the Continent are still regarded as quintessential), refused to use anything else and gave up photography when his beloved platinum became unavailable due to the war. His friend, George Bernard Shaw, wrote that platinum is "on the extreme margin of photographic subtlety." Contemporary Santa Fe photographer Joan Meyers(Salton Sea series, Santiago, Saint of Two Worlds series) agrees, and works almost exclusively in platinum/palladium. She chooses platinum both for the joy of it—because it is a "hands-on" process, and for the inherent qualities of platinum—notably its ability to hold the detail that is all-important in her documentary photographs.

In recent decades—with the appreciation of photography as an art, and its accelerating value as an investment to collectors—platinum is again in a renaissance among fine photographers.

Image and text excerpted from a history of platinum photography by
John Stevenson of the John Stevenson Gallery remote in New York City.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 7

Related Pages

Alternative Process Photography article
Collecting Photography of the Southwest article
E.S. Curtis: The Shadow Catcher article
The 150th Anniversary of Photography article

Glossary of Photography Terms article
New Mexico: Photographer's Eden article
Photography in New Mexico article
Works on / of Paper article

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