Platinum Printmaking - Chapter 1


Platinum printing is one of many early photographic printmaking processes. As nineteenth century lens makers and camera designers refined their crafts, chemists and alchemists of the time were busy discovering new materials that could capture and preserve a photographic image. The platinum process was first devised in the 1870s, and it quickly became a standard against which other printing methods were judged. A platinum print is as permanent as its support material; displays a long, smoothly graduated tonal scale; and reproduces fine detail.

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

Although platinum printing has a number of extremely desirable qualities, an unfortunate combination of rapid market changes led to its near demise by the 1930s. Chief among them was the rapid rise in platinum prices during and after World War I. Today, platinum trades at over US$1,000 per ounce, twice the price of gold and 100 times the price of silver.

What seemed to have been the final nails in platinum printing's coffin were the exploding popularity of handheld cameras and darkroom enlargement of photographic images. Platinum is a contact printing process, so the negative used to make a platinum print must be the same size as the printed image. As cameras and film shrank, silver emulsion coated print paper for enlarging became the norm. Modern silver-based printing—which has actually been around in one form or another for the last 150 or so years—only recently found its first real volume challenger (since platinum's heyday, at least) in pigment/dye-based, computer-generated printing media, most commonly inkjet or giclée prints.

But despite its setbacks, platinum printing never quite died out. A few artisan/photographers continued to print in platinum, appreciating its beautiful, luminous qualities; its faithful reproduction and permanence; and the intimacy of mixing and applying the image-making chemistry by hand. Today, platinum printing—along with other so-called "alternative" photographic processes—has entered a renaissance. Its underlying science is well understood, which allows the printer to precisely adapt basic platinum chemistry and produce prints with nearly infinitely variable graduation, granularity, contrast, and base tone. The platinum printer also may choose from among a selection of high-quality printing papers (as well as other substrates), and large format camera equipment and film are widely available. A number of platinum printers have even embraced digital technology, making large, computer-generated negatives from digital images.

Getting Started

I began printing in platinum out of necessity more than anything else and then, grew to love the medium. After moving from Atlanta to the Phoenix area, I no longer had access to a darkroom, so even contact printing on modern silver emulsion photographic paper wasn't an option. Commercial silver papers are much more sensitive to light and sensitive to a wider spectrum than platinum, which means they must be handled under nothing brighter than a darkroom safelight.

That's when I started looking into alternative processes, many of which can be accomplished under normal room lighting. Platinum came to the fore because of its similarities to the silver printing I had done in the past. In addition, many of the classical photographers I admire were platinum printers at one time or another, and some of my favorite photographs were originally printed in platinum. In the end, taking up platinum printing not only resolved my darkroom deficiency, but also allowed a range of expression and a level of connection to my work I had never experienced with commercial silver processes and introduced a whole spectrum of alternative image-making possibilities, from pinhole photography to full-color gum printing.

For anyone wishing to give platinum printing a try, the time has never been better than now. Complete kits of materials, including basic instructions, are available for under US$200. In addition, accomplished platinum printer Dick Arentz has published the second edition of his Platinum & Palladium Printing, the definitive textbook on nearly every aspect of the platinum process. Arentz's book is worth the price of admission for its photography alone, but it also guides beginners through the process; broadens the knowledge of old hands; and serves as an invaluable reference for collectors, conservators, and even silver printers.