At the turn of the last century some of the most beautiful photographic prints ever made were produced on platinum paper. A UV sensitive paper that contains no silver and produces an image of platinum metal. And since platinum is so non-reactive, the images are virtually indestructible. Surviving as long as the paper on which it is made. The practice of producing platinum prints virtually died out at the end of the first world war. Due mainly to the scarcity and cost of platinum which became a strategic metal. However, since the late 70’s, platinum printing has enjoyed something of a resurgence among fine art print makers. Partly for it’s beauty and partly for it’s durability. Today, in the field of monochromatic photography, platinum printing has been characterized as one of the alternative processes. What this means is that within the current myriad forms of digital and non digital photographic printing processes, the application of non-silver materials such as inks pigments and dyes are now considered as an alternative to the ubiquitous silver gelatin prints.
A platinum print is subliminal. Like a mountain it exists. It needs nothing to embellish it. It is seen, felt and heart. It seduces the viewer with an astonishing depth, and smooth tonality that seems to go on forever. Like certain minor keys in a piece of music which are heard ever so subtly yet set the mood of the piece. So it is with the tones of a platinum print. The most beautiful platinum prints can make one take a deep breath. And sometimes, one can even hear oneself let out a sigh. A well made platinum print has a certain luminosity; an inner light emanating from within. In Evan’s classic work, on the cathedrals of England, the texture of the printing material complemented the subject to the point where one could almost feel the stone walls. Nothing in the world of printing media can compare to a platinum print. Technically, platinum’s long, tonal scale and matte surface tends to soften contrast. The colours vary from the cool velvety neutral black of pure platinum to the warm sandy browns of palladium. The image lies slightly within as well as on top of the paper itself. This physical relationship between the paper fibers and particles of platinum metal give the print it’s characteristic tactility and depth.
The invention of the platinum print dates back to 1804 when Ferdinand Gehlen was the first to observe the reaction of platinum salts exposed to sunlight. In 1831, Johann Wolfgang Dobereiner observed that platinum salts were only slightly affected by non-actinic light. When Ferric Oxalate was combined with platinum chloride and exposed to actinic light he observed a precipitate of platinum metal was formed. In 1832, Sir John Herschel announced to the royal photographic society in Oxford that when Platinum Salts were mixed with certain organic materials, the platinum salts could be reduced to metallic platinum by the violet wavelengths of the visible spectrum. 12 years later, Robert Hunt described in his book Researchers On Light, how he coated paper with a mixture of ferric oxalate and certain platinum salts and observed that the coating darkened on exposure to light. He did not discover however that darkening could be taken to completion with the aid of a developer. Some 40 years later, in 1873, William Willis refined the patented the platinum process and in the fall of 1879, formed the platinotype company. Two Austrian army officers, Capitan Giuseppe Pizzighelli and Baron Author Von Hubel further refined the process and developed methods for photographers to prepare their own platinum papers. They published their findings in 1882 in Die Platinotype which was then translated into English and published in the photographic journal the following year. A move which popularized the process. The process which has remained unchanged to this day is based upon the fact that certain ferric salts can be reduced to the ferrous state when exposed to light rich in ultraviolet radiation. And these ferrous salts can further reduce the platinum salts to metallic platinum.
The first platinum print exhibition was presented by JC Burnette who demonstrated his experimental work in 1859. And although Fredrick Evans gave up photography altogether when platinum became available in the first world war after the war platinum and palladium prints were still being made by Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand (1890-1976) Edward Steichen, Gurtrude Kaesebier, and Frances Benjamin Johnson. Vintage works in platinum by the likes of Heinrich Kuhn (1904); Karl Struss (1909) Paul Outerbridge (1922) Margaret Watkins (1923) and Barron Adolfe de Meyer (1940) command extremely high prices in galleries even today. And these prints seldom exceed 8”x10” in size. Laural Gilpin, Edward Westin and Imogene Cunningham coated their own paper and continued the tradition well past the 1940s. More recently, Irving Penn, W. Schneider MacNeil, George Tice, Jed Divine, Jan Groover, and Lois Connor have been part of the resurgence of platinum printers who have shown their work at prestigious galleries and used the process to showcase their best work.
Amongst these non-silver processes which are currently enjoying a resurgence, it is platinum which has taken it’s place as the finest and most enduring expression of artistic media in the photographic field. Indeed, those who have ever had the opportunity to view the stunning work from the 1890’s of that Victorian master of the platinum printing technique Frederick Evans few would deny that the platinum print is arguably the most prized of all the photographic prints. And yet, in today’s world of virtually automatic everything to make a platinum print requires a dedication to the craft of print making and to do it well, one must return to the inquisitiveness and non-commercial incentives of the 19th century amateur photographer and master the craft for the sole purposes of personal satisfaction and achievement. In other words, one must have a passion for it.