Platinum Process

The History Of The Platinum Process & Print

The invention of platinum print photography and the platinum process 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 found 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.

Alberta Prairie # 41, Stettler, Alberta
Giant Steps With Brushstrokes

Twelve years later, Robert Hunt described in his book Researches 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 platinum process and formed the platinotype company in the fall of 1879.

Two Austrian army officers, Capitan Giuseppe Pizzighelli and Baron Author von Hubel, further refined the platinum process. They developed methods for photographers to prepare their own platinum papers. The pair published their findings in 1882 in Die Platinotype, which was then translated into English and published in the photographic journal the following year. It was a move that 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.

Train Station, Rowley, AB

Platinum Process

At the turn of the last century, some of the most beautiful photographic prints ever made were produced on platinum paper. Platinum paper is a UV sensitive paper that contains no silver and creates an image of platinum metal. And since platinum is so non-reactive, the photos are virtually indestructible, surviving as long as the paper on which it is made.

The practice of producing platinum photography prints nearly died out at the end of the first World War. This was due mainly to the scarcity and cost of platinum, which became a strategic metal. However, since the late ’70s, platinum printing has enjoyed a resurgence among fine-art printmakers.

Sunrise On Mt. Rundle, Banff, AB
Queen Of Maligne, Maligne Canyon, Jasper NP, AB

The resurgence is partly for its beauty and partly for its durability. In the field of monochromatic photography, platinum printing has been characterized as one of the alternative processes. This means that within the current multitude of digital photography and non-digital printing processes, the application of non-silver materials such as inks pigments and dyes is now considered an alternative to the ubiquitous silver gelatin prints.

Amongst these non-silver processes, which are currently enjoying a resurgence, is platinum photography which has taken its place as the finest and most enduring expression of artistic media in the photographic field. Few who have viewed the stunning work of 1890s Victorian master of the platinum printing technique, Frederick Evans, 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, creating a platinum print requires a dedication to the craft of printmaking. 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.

Valley Of Gold, Dinosaur Prov. Park, AB

The Platinum Look

A platinum print photograph is subliminal. Like a mountain, it exists. It needs nothing to embellish it. It is seen, felt and heard. It seduces the viewer with an astonishing depth and smooth tonality that seems to go on forever.

Like specific minor keys in a piece of music that are heard ever so subtly yet set the mood of the piece, so it is with the tones of a platinum photograph. 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 photograph has an absolute luminosity, an inner light emanating from within.

Aspen Grove, David Thompsen Hwy, AB
Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet

In Frederick 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 stonewalls. Nothing in the world of print media can compare to a platinum print. Technically, platinum’s long, tonal scale and the matte surface tends to soften the 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 fibres and platinum metal particles gives the print its distinctive tactility and depth.

Platinum Artists

The first platinum print photography exhibition was presented by JC Burnette, who demonstrated his experimental work in 1859. Fredrick Evans gave up photography altogether when platinum became available in the first World War. After the war, however, palladium and platinum photography prints were still being made by Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand (1890-1976) Edward Steichen, Gertrude Käsebier and Frances Benjamin Johnston.

Peninsula Illusion, Johnston's Canyon, Banff NP, AB
St. Xavier Del Bac Mission, Tucson, AZ

Vintage photographic works in platinum by the likes of Heinrich Kuhn (1904), Karl Struss (1909), Paul Outerbridge (1922), Margaret Watkins (1923) and Baron Adolf de Meyer (1940) command extremely high prices in art galleries even today. These prints seldom exceed 8” X 10” in size. Laura Gilpin, Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham coated their own paper and continued the tradition well past the 1940s.

More recently, Irving Penn, W. Schneider MacNeil, George Tice, Jed Devine, 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.