Platinum prints have unique properties when compared to classic black and white silver gelatin prints.
Through the platinum print process platinum is both woven into the fibers and sits on top of the 100% cotton rag paper.
In contrast the silver in silver gelatin prints lies in a gelatin emulsion that coats the surface of the paper resulting in a semi-gloss or glossy presentation. Since no gelatin emulsion is used for platinum printing, the final platinum image is absolutely matte with a deposit of platinum and/or palladium absorbed slightly into the exposed cotton rag paper.
In 1873, thirty-four years after Louis Daguerre in Paris and William Henry Fox Talbot in London presented the discovery of photography to the world, the platinum process of printing photographs was patented. However, we know that platinum printing started decades before the official patent by Willis.
Since the late 19th century, platinum’s use in photography has had an almost unbroken continuity to the present day—being interrupted only by the World Wars.
In this video by George Eastman Museum, the platinum print is described and its history is discussed.
At the outbreak of the First World War, platinum abruptly could no longer be obtained. Russia had almost 90 percent of the world’s supply at that time, and what little platinum was available went into the strategic needs of the war.
When peace returned to the world, platinum was prominently resurrected by Alfred Stieglitz, who printed mostly on platinum and palladium papers. Platinum was also preferred by his young and now famous protégés Paul Strand and Clarence White.
Edward Weston also used platinum and palladium papers throughout his early years as did Irving Penn, Manuel Alvarez Bravo and most of the greats in the history of photography have all produced perfect, beautiful images in platinum.
After World War II, few photographers immediately resumed the use of platinum, largely because commercially made, a platinum-coated paper was no longer available. This meant that the photographer had to hand-coat the paper. While we appreciate the handmade artisan aspect of hand coating platinum prints today, it was not viewed as such during the late 1940s.
In this video by the National Gallery of Art, the platinum printing process is described and reviewed.
Laura Gilpin was among a few post-World War II photographers who did maintain the use of platinum, hand-coating her papers and creating images of the Southwest that would ultimately become legendary.
Although platinum was again obtainable after World War I, its price remained extremely high and out of reach for many photographers and collectors. Because of these market conditions, experimentation with palladium photography began.
By the early 1900s, it was understood that platinum was one of a family of “platinum metals”: the closely-related elements platinum, palladium, iridium, osmium and rhodium share many similar physical and chemical properties.
During this time and for many decades Palladium remained less expensive than platinum and in better supply putting it within reach of more photographers. Costs of the precious metals are continually changing over time.
Certain compounds of palladium were found to be nearly indistinguishable substitutes for platinum, however, palladium produces a “warm” image, with less contrast.
In the following years, photographers began to experiment by mixing platinum and palladium together in varying proportions to achieve results that are not possible when the precious metals were used alone.
Two key aspects make the platinum print so special and so loved by collectors around the world – their delicate beauty and permanence.
The unique beauty of a fine platinum print involves a broad scale of tones from black to white with delicate highlights and open shadows unlike anything attainable in silver prints. In the deepest shadows, the platinum print still presents information; the platinum whites are delicate, and the depth of the image is alive and three-dimensional.
Platinum prints are not only exceptionally beautiful, but they are also among the most permanent objects invented by human beings! The platinum metals (platinum and palladium) are both more stable than gold, with platinum being the most stable of the three.
Incredibly, a platinum image, properly made, can last thousands of years.
Throughout history, man has used many methods of expression, such as daguerreotype, albumen, carbon, gravure, and most commonly, silver emulsions. But for master photographers, platinum has always held a special place.
In spite of its enormous extra labor and cost, platinum is often preferred for the photographer’s most personal, special and rare images.
Alfred Stieglitz referred to platinum as “the prince of media.”
Frederick Evans, one of the best platinum printers in history (whose prints of medieval cathedrals in Britain and the Continent are still regarded as quintessential), refused to use anything else and gave up photography when his beloved platinum became unavailable due to the war.
His friend, George Bernard Shaw, wrote that platinum is “on the extreme margin of photographic subtlety.”
In recent decades—with the appreciation of photography as an art, and its accelerating value as an investment to collectors—platinum is again in a renaissance among artists.