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The Platinotype Process

Celio Barreto

· Historic Processes
I Failed The Turing Test

PLATINOTYPE: A History of the Process

Brought to the forefront of avant-garde photography by the exquisite work of the Photo Secessionist and The Linked Ring artist groups from the 1890s to the 1910s, the platinum process had its beginnings in the early 19th Century, when German chemist Adolph Ferdinand Gehlen published a report regarding the light sensitivity of platinum, uranium, copper and iron compounds. He was particularly interested in how a mixture of platinum chloride, ether and alcohol reacted to light. Johan Wolfgang Döbereiner noted the higher light sensitivity of platinum chloride and oxalic acid, yielding pure platinum from their reaction with light.

          English inventor John Hershel (who coined the term photography) said in 1832 that a platinum solution dissolved in a mixture of hydrochloric and nitric acids (known as aqua regia) and neutralized with calcium hydroxide, was clear in darkness, but yielded a yellow precipitate when exposed to light. He discovered that this solution was sensitive to the violet portion of the light spectrum when he used red and yellow light filters and the precipitation did not occur. In the 1840s Robert Hunt attempted to create the first platinotype process (and coined its name), but was unsuccessful in creating a permanent image. In 1856 French photographer Ernest de Caranza was the first to publish a platinum toning method in La Lumiere.

          Nearly 20 years later, the first platinotype patent was awarded to William Willis Jr, followed by a further patent of a more reliable and simpler method in 1878. He founded the Platinotype Company and was consecrated by the by the British Society in 1881 for his invention of the platinotype. In 1883 Captain William Abney of Wivesleslie translated the 1882 treatise “Die Platinotype” by the Austrians Giuseppe Pizzighelli and Arthur von Hübl, which liberated the theoretical and practical information on the process from secretive proprietary protection, making it quite popular amongst photographers. By following Pizzighelli’s techniques, photographers could now prepare their own platinum papers and experiment further.

          The Great Britain-based Pictorialist group, The Linked Ring, embraced the platinotype in the 1880s, with member Frederick Evans working exclusively with this process. Fellow Linked Ring member Peter H. Emerson declared “…No artist could rest content to practice photography alone as art, so long as such inartistic processes as pre-platinotype processes were in vogue.” In the mid 1910s the process became too expensive to use, as the war effort required platinum for artillery shell manufacture. The price of platinum skyrocketed by 500 times, and even its replacement, the palladiotype also became unaffordable and unprofitable by the mid 1920s. Most production of platinum paper ceased, except in the UK where sales continued into the late 1930s.

          In recent decades a resurgence in interest for the process, spearheaded by such photographers as Irving Penn and author William Crawford’s The Keepers of Light: A History and Working Guide to Early Photographic Processes have sparked wider experimentation by photographers around the world. New variations in this “permanent” process appeals to fine art as well as some commercial photographers. New technologies have also made it possible in recent years to examine historical platinotypes to gain a better understanding of how they were produced and the potential preservation issues they might face over time, as in the case of Constance McCabe and Lisha Deming Glin X-ray Fluorescent Spectometry studies on Stieglitz’s platinotypes in the 1995.

PLATINOTYPE: How the Process Works

The modern platinotype process produces an image that is formed directly on the paper fibres, similar to slated paper prints, giving the photograph a matte appearance. They have a long tonal scale, yielding subtle grey tones to deep blacks. The Platinotype has many variants to help increase or decrease contrast, and account for negative and paper variations. It consists of three basic stock solutions of Ferrous Oxalate, Potassium chloroplatinate and Ferric Oxalate. Generally it is developed in an acidic bath and cleared with an agent such as EDTA. The minimum amount of sensitizer for an 8 x10 pint is 46 drops of the combined stock solutions.

The emulsion is poured into a pool in the centre of the paper, brushed on the paper using a soft brush, alternating brush strokes at right angles. While wet, the emulsion’s light sensitivity is greatly reduced, but once dry it needs to be protected from light. This paper is now ready to be contact printed. The negative is then placed on top of the sensitized side, put into a contact printing frame and then exposed to either sunlight or into a UV light box for a number of minutes. The printing frame is then opened, and the exposed paper is taken out and put into the developer (various developers can be used) recommended to be at 20C. The developer washes away the salts and reveals the image almost instantly. The print is then cleared in a bath of EDTA and subsequently washed in water. The times vary as do the developers and clearing agents depending on the final tone and contrast desired.

PLATINOTYPE: Preservation Issues

While considered one of the most permanent photographic processes, platinotypes are not without a number of preservation issues. While the image layer itself is composed of very stable, metallic platinum, carelessness during the developing and clearing stages may leave behind undissolved light sensitive salts on the surface, which over time will contribute to the yellowing or other discolouration or staining of the image.

Provided that the image processing has been carried out with all due care, precision and attention, creating a stable image, the support itself becomes an issue. As supports for platinotypes are typically made of cellulose, it is important to understand its deterioration issues as well. Paper substrates can be affected by organic and chemical deterioration if not cared for correctly. The support is porous and it can therefore act as a sponge, collecting airborne pollutants such as sulphides, which can lead to yellowing and brittleness of the support. It can also attract mould spores that can lead to foxing and other biological staining.

With certain process variations, image migration has been noted when another piece of paper is placed on top of he image layer, as in the case of interleaving stacks of photographs. This phenomenon is less understood that others, and requires particular attention. While the original photographs may not be significantly affected, it is an issue that concerns those items placed in direct proximity to the image layer.
By creating appropriate, well-regulated and controlled atmospheric conditions, adequate housings and overall care in handling, platinotypes can be preserved and viewed for extended periods of time. It is important to remember that the longevity of a platinotype image is inextricably linked to that of its support.


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