The History of Platinum Printing

The Pictorialists, a group of photographers active primarily between the years 1880 to 1920, worked using the Platinum process extensively because of its delicacy of tonal ranges and its potential for expressing the characteristics of more traditional art making methods such as drawing and etching. Championed by Alfred Steiglitz and the Photo Secession, Platinum was used by almost all of the great photographers during this time including Edward Weston, Edward Steichen, and Imogen Cunningham.

The process virtually disappeared during World War I when platinum, mined primarily in Russia, was diverted to the war effort. The cost became prohibitive. Because of its ease of manufacturing, availability, and cost, silver became the dominant light sensitive material, a fact that continues to this day. Where once there had been 20 commercial companies supplying platinum paper, by 1930 the last company went out of business.

The early 1980’s saw a renewed interest in alternative processes of image making of which platinum was only one of many. This has revitalized the medium, producing a renaissance in this most exquisite of print making processes. Platinum prints have been referred to as the quintessential black and white photograph. Contemporary printmakers, with new techniques and materials, are today producing prints of extraordinary beauty.

A Few Words About The Process...

Invented in 1873, platinum printing is one of the oldest photographic processes, noted for its subtlety in rendering the tonalities of the middle grays. It is the most archival or long lasting of all photographs. Impervious to light fading and acid damage, it is capable of lasting 1000 years without change. Platinum prints are contact prints-the photographs are the size of the negatives. The final size of the print is achieved in one of two ways. Either the negative is enlarged in the darkroom or more commonly a large camera is used, such as 8 X 10, 11 X 14, or the 12 X 20 banquet camera.

Each image is the result of an intricate series of steps. The process begins with blank sheets of specialized paper. This paper is usually humidified before coating. Several different light sensitive iron salts are mixed with platinum and/or palladium in solution, a closely related metal, and applied to the paper. Using a brush or a glass rod, the solution is spread evenly over the paper. The paper is dried and then rehumidified. The negative is placed on the dried coated paper and both are put into a contact printing frame. Traditionally the sun was used for exposure. Now Ultraviolet light sources are used. Exposure times range from 2 minutes to 2 hours. The print is developed, usually in developer heated to over 100 degrees, cleared, washed, and then air dried.

Because of the number of variables involved, such as changes of humidity, age of the chemistry, paper batch, and the position of the moon, platinum printers must have a great deal of patience and forbearance. For these reasons, no two prints are ever exactly alike.

All photographs are by Caren Levin, from her book  Patrick Alt Large Format Photographer, Mammoth Plate Printer    

All photographs are by Caren Levin, from her book Patrick Alt Large Format Photographer, Mammoth Plate Printer