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 Brief History of Platinum Printing


  Platinum and palladium prints have been with us for more than a century.  Over that time, the prints have received the praise of many of the century's top photographers: Paul Strand, Irving Penn, Alfred Stieglitz, Frederick Evans, Laura Gilpin, and others.

  What is it that draws the printer, the collector, and the viewer to the platinum print?  Is it the luminosity, the permanence, the name?  There are as many reasons as there are platinotypes and palladiotypes.

  To the neophyte, these prints are those made with platinum and/or palladium metals.  To the collector, these prints are photographic gems that will last as no other.  To the printer, these prints are an expression of truly great control, creating images of depth and brilliance.  

  How does the print project its brilliance and luminosity?  Several factors are incorporated together: the paper, the developer and the choice of metal or more correctly, metals.

  The NOBLE METALS are a group that includes Platinum, Osmium, Iridium, Palladium, Ruthenium, and Rhodium.  Although Irving Penn made reference to Iridium in his prints, most modern prints are made using only platinum and/or palladium.  One or usually both of these noble metals are used to make a print.

    What do we call these prints made from the noble metals? Platinum prints because the word platinum is more identifiable? Platinum/Palladium if both are used but more platinum than palladium? Palladium/Platinum if both are used but more palladium than platinum? Palladium? Platinotype? Palladiotypes? Noble prints?

  The earliest roots of the platinotype trace back to 1804 , when a worker named Gehlen is said to have discussed the action of light on platinum salts.1  In 1832, Sir John Herschel demonstrated the ability of certain platinum salts in the presence of certain organic compounds to exhibit photo-reactive qualities.  Early work was also done by Johann Wolfgang Doebereiner and Robert Hunt.  It was then left to William Willis, who realized the need for and discovered a workable method for developing the platinum image after exposure. He was awarded his first patent for a workable platinum printing process on June 5, 1873. In 1879, Willis formed the Platinotype Company and began marketing his precoated papers in 1880.  In 1882, after further refinements to the process, Giuseppe Pizzighelli and Baron Arthur von Hubl were able to give the platinum process freely to the world  .  By the turn of the century, several different companies offered precoated platinum paper. However, during World War I, platinum metal became increasingly harder for the average photographer to acquire, until finally, when the price and availability became too much to overcome, the platinotype was no longer an option.  The process made a recovery during the late 1970s and early 1980s and today is an accessible option for printers and photographers.

  Let's start with a quick overview of the process of making a Noble print.  The basic items involved include a negative, sensitized paper, a UV light source, a contact frame, a developer, clearing baths, and basic darkroom equipment: trays, timers, etc. The negative is placed on the paper, which is held in place by the contact frame.  An exposure is made using the UV light source.  The paper is placed in the developer, where the image comes up quickly.  After several minutes in the developer, the print is cleared and washed. Sounds simple enough.

  A closer look into the process of the traditional Noble print reveals that combining solutions of platinum, in the form ( K2PtCl4) and palladium as (Na2PdCl4 ) , along with an equal molar volume solution of ferric oxalate (Fe2(C2O4)3) yields a solution that is sensitive to ultraviolet light.  This solution is poured onto a piece of high-quality paper (in the absence of UV light) and made to cover the printing area evenly.  The paper is then dried at temperatures close to 1001F .  The negative, which has been carefully crafted to specific density ranges, is placed with the dried and humidified paper in the contact frame.  An exposure is made using a UV light source.  In the reactions:

Fe2(C2O4)3 + light (UV) = 2FeC2O4 + 2CO2 (gas)

2FeC2O4 + K2C2O4 + K2PtCl4 ----> Fe2(C2O4)3 + Pt + 4KCl

  The exposed paper is then placed in a developing agent, cleared of unreacted reagents, and washed. The prints are dried and spotted.  Colorfast pigments are used for spotting.  Most finished prints are hinge-mounted on acid-free boards and with proper care are set for life -- a life that might perhaps endure longer than 2000 years.

  Is a Noble print difficult to make? No. Is it difficult to make several that are alike from the same negative? Not really. It does however become increasingly difficult to produce many prints of the same image over a span of months and years. It takes many years to achieve the understanding that enables the printer to control all the variables in the process, thus allowing the image to be fully revealed. 

  The cost and the perceived hazardous nature of the chemicals keep many able-bodied photographers and printmakers away from this excellent expression of the photographic image.  In creating the Noble print, the printer affects the image with each choice that is made:  type of paper, percentages of each metal salt, type and temperature of developer, films used for the negatives and positives, etc.  Typically, the more platinum salts used in the mixture, the cooler the prints are, while the more palladium used, the warmer they appear.  The cost of the two metal salts is drastically different.  The platinum salt, potassium chloroplatinite  K2PtCl4, costs between $8.50/gram and $22.00/gram, depending on the supplier and the quantity purchased.  As recently as 1999,  palladium chloride (added with sodium chloride) costs about $4.10/gram to $9.75/gram, once again depending on the supplier and the quantity purchased, it is currently about $14.00/gram.  However, 10 grams of platinum salts makes approximately 50ml of solution, while 10 grams of palladium chloride makes approximately 80ml of solution.

  The printing process is in some ways very forgiving.  It yields an image easily, but the qualities of the image are affected by changes in chemistry, temperature, humidity, type of paper and many other factors.  The most important thing to strive for when making your prints is to achieve a repeatable process that makes good prints.  Only after you have achieved this step can you fully understand all the subtle factors that will affect your printing process.  You'll feel your creative soul captured forever as you master the process





The Quarterly Print Club

I am offering collectors a special offering. For a yearly subscription of $375.00 I'll send you 4 new pieces. The available images will be posted on the special offerings page and you'll be able to select one of the images per quarter. I'll be posting a new digital ink jet print, a silver Gelatin B&W, a Platinum/Palladium and one additional image. I will be trying to keep it fresh and alive with some new and some images from the archive.

See Quarterly Image Gallery