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Platinum Palladium Printing - Roots that bare many Branches?           

 

       There has been a large growth in the field of print making using platinum and palladium since the early 1980's.  And over that time we have been witness to a radical change in the practices of platinum and palladium printing. However, if you missed the beginning of the revival you could benefit from a quick history lesson.  If we were to look at the process as a tree, I believe that we would begin to see some intricate branching emerge from one main root that dates back to at least 1886.  The preface to the “Platinotype by Captain Pizzighelli and Baron Von Hubl” which was released in 1886 and translated by J.F. Iselin, MA., Edited by W. DE W. Abney  begins…

The growing popularity of the Platinotype process has induced the Council of the Photographic Society of Great Britain to authorize a reprint of the translation of the brochure by Captain Pizzighelli and Baron Von Hubl, which appeared in the Photographic Journal in 1883….                   W. DE W. Abney

The copy that I have is included in a four part book that includes Photogravure, Bromoil, and Gum Bichromate. Those are however, trees in this alternative forest for another discussion at a later time.

Drawing from this one main root, myself and I suspect countless students were taught platinum printing as we were taught many other technical aspects in our lives.  Through a method that introduces a standard or basic method to use in the making of prints.  One which will provide you the knowledge and principles to accomplish some very good work, but a method that is somewhat restricted in its completeness. I believe that this was in part caused by limited access to literature, historical or otherwise and to other printers.  Within the limitations of platinum print making, many practitioners started with the ferric oxalate, potassium platinum salts (K2PtCl4), palladium double salt of sodium (Na2PdCl4)written about by Pizzighelli and Baron Hubl.    

      In these early years of printing and learning many hours were spent in relative isolation. Students perhaps only had limited conversation with a teacher or mentor.  While this gave them time to practice and make observations, it did not allow for much interaction. Following these path photographers found themselves in many situations that presented road blocks to successful print making. As they grew and evolved as print makers they reached a level of skill and understanding that required additional information and guidance if they were to stretch their limits even further.  They desired supplemental information to allow for more growth and perhaps in new directions.  However, having a desire to grow in a new direction is quite different than having the knowledge to successfully travel a path that proves fruitful.

For much of the time proceeding 1970, there were a very small number of people printing in the noble metals of platinum and palladium.  However, as a result of a growth spurt in much of photography toward non traditional image creation, more people had found the fertile land of platinum and palladium waiting to be planted with seeds of creative invention. During this period, a network of printers emerged that produced an interest and excitement for the craft of image creation with these noble metals.  These included Irving Penn, Tom Millea, George Tice and Nancy Rexroth.  For some, this emerging renaissance of platinum printing afforded them new jewels to sell, other were interested in seeing what this medium could provide to there artistic tool box, some had historical curiosity, and yet others simply saw this as an opportunity to make a profit by supplying the needs a growing niche in photography.

      I had studied several years of photography and had decided to take a break from formal education while I worked with still and moving pictures. It was through this path that I came to platinum printing.  I took a job as an assistant to a Silicon Valley executive Chuck Henningsen.  He had a nice darkroom in a second home next to his main house where we made mostly silver gelatin prints.  One of the journeys in photography that he had started before I became his assistant was that of platinum printing.  I had only heard of it and had no idea how it was done.  Several months after working with limit access to help, we made a trip to Monterey, CA where a met Tom Millea.  He practiced what I'd call a traditional approach to platinum printing; Ferric Oxalate (A) + Ferric Oxalate (B - with potassium chlorate added) with a nearly equal amount of Platinum and/or Palladium salts. For years, Tom was my main source of information when I would run across a problem with the process.  However, in addition to Tom there was a supplier that we began to buy our ferric oxalate from in Southern California, Bostick and Sullivan. Eventually, Chuck wanted to begin to make 24x30 prints in platinum, even though we had only previously made 8x10's.  With no one to guide me, I began trying to make a variety of papers work for Chuck.  After many many tries, it soon became easy to coat a 24x30 platinum print.  In 1990 we relocated to Taos, NM and the process began all over.  The traditional method that we worked with is a develop out method (DOP - Develop Out Print), and I could see changes in image depth from our California images to the New Mexico images.

While we worked in the traditional approach, there were others that used another branch of the platinum/palladium tree.  That branch used chemistry that would produce a print that was nearly complete after exposure alone and referred to as a POP – Print out print.  This also has its roots back to early work with platinum printing.  The main component that allows these POP prints is ammonium ferric oxalate. The use of ferric ammonium oxalate is now quite popular with one of its modern proponents being George Tice.  There are currently two main branches of methodologies that use ammonium ferric oxalate or AFO; the Ware/Malde system and the Ziatype.  I was made aware of the Ware/Malde method by John Stevenson back in 1991 when he came to Taos to visit Chuck.  Mike Ware and Pradip Malde had been working together to refine the ammonium printing system and had released a paper to the Photographic Society in 1986.  This paper was the first that I had seen that showed correlations between many of the components of the process; chemistries, papers, humidity. And although, their paper was about the ammonium system, I could see many of the principles clearly ion the traditional system as well. I am sure that others had been experimenting with the ammonium chemistry.  Richard Sullivan introduced his Ziatype to me at a party at his house in Santa Fe, NM in 1994.  Early on he promoted that it used no costly platinum at all, but was based on an alternative double salt of palladium made with lithium. 

      It was also back in 1994 that the Internet was beginning to catch on big. It provided printers from all over the world an opportunity to exchange ideas from the comfort of their own offices and studios. The alternative process newsgroup brought together a much larger collection of artist and educators.  The feeling of isolation of the early 80's was now very distant and many new practitioners of noble printing had a vast network of helping hands.  There have been many workshops over the last decade that has included platinum workshops as part of their course offerings.  I have seen both traditional methods as well as those based in the use of POP platinum prints.  Besides the internet and workshops, there are several books that cover platinum printing and some of those cover it exclusively.  Dick Arentz and Luis Nadeau both have books out that exclusively cover platinum/palladium printing.  There are several alternative process printing books that include a chapter on platinum/palladium printing, most notably The Keepers of Light.  All of these have without a doubt helped self starters to learn the process.

      From a distance the limbs of our platinum family tree look very similar.  It is only upon closer examination that distinctive traits show up.  It would be very interesting to see how the teaching of the process has been passed down from early discoveries to modern applications. As each of us practices the art of Noble print making we may develop our own branch.  Every location and each practitioner will require new answer to similar problems. But I don’t believe that each of us deserves a name for our particular techniques unless they are truly different and substantially unique. I know that since my participation began back in 1982, many have learned the joys and frustrations of platinum printing. Many aspects of the process have changed over the last 19 years. Some papers that I used to coat quite well, no longer coat very well and suppliers have come and gone.  One very notable supplier to have left the market is the Palladium Company.  They sold precoated paper and other supplies.  However, as with other precoated platinum papers they failed to last. 

      The Ziatype ammonium based system introduced by Dick Sullivan stressed the lack of high priced platinum as a component.  Although Mr. Sullivan has since changed that position, the price differential between platinum and palladium has radically changed as well.  A more complete explanation of the Ziatype can be found in The New Platinum Print, by Dick Sullivan and Carl Weese. Through my metals supplier, the Engelhard Corporation, I was able to buy small amounts of platinum and palladium for reasonable prices.  The platinum salt sold for about $14.00/g ready to use and palladium for about $4.75 still needing the sodium or ammonium chloride added.  These prices were good until about 1998. Palladium soon started a rapid rise and is now nearly as expensive as platinum.  This was not an industry response to the use of platinum and palladium to make art but rather the effects of other industries such as the automotive industry for use in catalytic converters. Platinum is now included in the newer computer technologies. I don’t know how that will affect the platinum market, but I suspect that platinum printers represent such a small segment of the market as to be a non factor.  Perhaps all that these higher prices will allow us to do is forecast that more selective production of images will be performed, as an alternative to the technique equivalent to strip mining photographic images,  blast or click away and hope to uncover or discover a gem in the pile of rubble.

                     

  Short Bio for Eric Neilsen

Although he was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1959, Eric considers himself a California at heart.  Raised in the Santa Clara Valley from 1962 he lived in Northern California until moving to Taos, NM in 1990.   He has been active in photography since 1978.  Although a real interest in photography didn't develop until he entered college, he received early exposure to photography while attending grade school in San Jose, making contact prints and developing film. His father had several camera stores in Cleveland, OH and was surrounded by cameras of many types growing up. 

After working in a camera store for several years, he apprenticed in the portrait studio of Emma Hooker in Los Altos, CA in 1981, where he learned the craft of fine portraiture and copying old photographs.    His involvement in platinum/palladium printing began soon after that in 1982 when he became Chuck Henningsen's photographic assistant in Portola Valley, California.  Although much of his photographic knowledge was based in traditional B&W and color, adding the platinum/palladium printing process was relatively easy for him because of his background in chemistry.  Eric later worked for the San Francisco Unified School District Department of Special Education applying his video skills as the Media Production Specialist.  

In late 1983, Eric was introduced to Tom Millea, a highly regarded platinum printer and Chuck Henningsen's teacher. Through much of his early platinum printing, Eric was able to query Tom for answers to platinum printing problems that would arise at the Henningsen Studio. 

After running both a commercial photography business and the Taos Photographic Workshops in Taos, Eric relocated to Dallas with his family and later set up a studio in the Fair Park/ Deep Elum area in 1998, where he runs workshops, commercial B&W printing as well individual portrait sessions. 

He has taught workshops in platinum/palladium printing since 1992. As a teacher, Eric believes that sharing the information, which allows students to form an understanding of the nuances of printing, is a vital part of the learning process.  The creation of perfect images involves years of learning and tremendous dedication.  Every day brings a new situation, and the learning process never ends.  He continues to print and teach the platinum/palladium process.  He also uses several other photographic media to render visions from the realms of time and space: the traditional gelatin silver print, several alternative processes, and the new kid on the block, Digital Ink jet.


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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