Platinum Printing: An Alternative Photographic Process for Artistic Expression

By Bob Herbst

 

The platinum photographic printing process dates back to the middle of the 19th century.  Various people experimented with the materials and in 1873 William Willis filed a patent in Britain on the process.  He later presented a paper on the process and his accomplishments at the Camera Club Conference in 1888.   From that point until the 1920s, the platinum printing process was widely practiced.  Frederick H. Evans was one of the more famous platinum photographers of this period.  He is best known for his platinum prints of cathedrals in England.  When platinum materials were no longer available, Mr. Evans quit photography altogether out of his disgust for the silver based papers that replaced platinum.  Many other early 20th century photographers such as Paul Strand, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Edward Weston, and Alfred Stieglitz also printed in platinum.

 

Most people are familiar with the traditional black and white photograph from family photo albums, portraits, senior pictures, etc.  The paper for these prints is made using a light sensitive form of silver applied to the surface of a piece of paper as an emulsion.  The platinum printing process also results in a monochromatic image.  But the paper for platinum prints is made using a light sensitive form of platinum and palladium metals applied to the paper as a coating. 

 

Platinum prints are known for their subtle tonal renderings, an inner luminescence, and ability to represent a greater scale of light than is possible in traditional silver gelatin papers.  Platinum prints have a different “feel” to them and sometimes appear more as a drawing than a photograph.  The images have more depth because the coating solution soaks deep into the paper.  A traditional silver gelatin print has an emulsion that sits on top of the paper making the image look more two-dimensional.  The platinum printing process also allows a level of artistic creativity not available with traditional commercial silver gelatin papers.  Since a piece of paper is coated with a solution to make it light sensitive, the printer has the added flexibility and dimension of selecting a paper that enhances or complements the image.  Just about any paper can be used such as rice paper, water-color paper, or drafting vellum as long as it is capable of absorbing the sensitizing solution.  The platinum printer can select a smooth finish hot press paper of a rough textured cold press paper.  The use of brush strokes can also be employed in the making of a platinum print.  Since the coating is normally brushed onto the paper with an artist’s brush, the printer has the option of coating a rectangle to cover the entire image area or selectively coat areas of the image using the strokes to limit or enhance the image.

 

There are only several hundred photographers worldwide who print exclusively in platinum.  Platinum prints are the most permanent of all photograph processes. They will not fade or change with time or take on a mirror-like finish like many old black and white photographs.  They will last as long as the paper on which they are printed since metallic platinum and palladium are highly resistant to oxidation and therefore any deterioration.    The platinum process is a contact printing process.  You must have a negative the same size as the final print.  Therefore the photographer works with large format cameras – 4x5, 8x10, 7x17, 12x20, 12x17, 16x20, 18x22, or even 20x24 inches.  The resulting contact print has unparalleled clarity and quality.

 

While platinum prints were popular at the turn of the century and up until World War I, the commercial manufacture of paper ceased during the war.  Platinum and other precious metals were needed for the war effort.  At the same time, commercial silver based papers improved significantly and were more flexible for the mass markets, so they displaced the demand for the higher priced platinum papers.  The materials for printing in platinum were not available for several decades thereafter.

 

Gradually in the 1960s and early 1970s, the materials to make platinum prints started to re-appear.   But even with these materials, it is still a hand made print making process.  You cannot buy a box of platinum paper from commercial sources but must make your own light sensitive paper one sheet at a time.  The chemicals for coating the paper are mixed just prior to printing. The solution is hand brushed on a high quality paper with an artist’s brush and the paper is then dried with a small hair dryer or air-dried over night. Platinum materials are sensitive only to ultraviolet light.  They are exposed with a high intensity ultraviolet light source. The very first platinum prints were exposed outside in direct sun and some platinum printers still do this today.

 

Platinum printing is a 19th century process practiced by small group of 21st century artists dedicated to the art form of hand made printmaking.