Platinum Palladium Printing – Roots that bare many Branches?

Eric Neilsen gives us a brief history of Platinum Palladium Printing and explains how it has branched out.

Writer / Eric Neilsen
Photography / Eric Neilsen, Ed Stanton and Kevin Bubriski

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 Non-silver Printing Process – Four Selections by Bunnel. It includes Photogravure, Bromoil, Gum, and Platinum. Those are however, trees in this alternative forest for another discussion at a later time.

Image by Eric Neilsen
Image by Eric Neilsen

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. This method will provide you the knowledge and principles to accomplish some very good work, but it 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 printmaking, many practitioners started with the ferric oxalate, potassium platinum salts (K2PtCl4), palladium double salt of sodium (Na2PdCl4) written about by Pizzighelli and Baron Hubl.

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 limited access to help, we made a trip to Monterey, CA where we 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 24×30 prints in platinum, even though we had only previously made 8×10’s. With no one to guide me, I began trying to make a variety of papers work for Chuck. After many tries, it soon became easy to coat a 24×30 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.

'Dennis Hopper' by Ed Stanston
‘Dennis Hopper’ by Ed Stanston

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 it’s 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 have 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.

Kevin Bubriski 'Plate 6, Mirghasthali, Pashpatinath' from his book 'Portrait of Nepal'.
Kevin Bubriski ‘Plate 6, Mirghasthali, Pashpatinath’ from his book ‘Portrait of Nepal’.

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 printmaking 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 Palladio company. They sold pre-coated paper and other supplies. However, as with other pre-coated platinum papers they failed to last.

There are other processes that share a common ancestry with platinum/palladium printing; Kallitype, Vandyke and a modern printing method the Chrysotype. These other printing methods are distinct trees but live in the same countryside as the Noble prints of platinum and palladium. Some have described photography as an opposite to sculpture, in that we start with nothing and make something to fill the frame with our selective vision rather than slowly remove from an existing structure. Although, that should be the last aspect of this art form as well.

Eric Neilsen is an alternative photograher based in the US.

Further reading on the platinum and palladium process
Platinum and Palladium Printing by Dick Arentz

Platinum and Palladium Printing

by Dick Arentz

A complete guide.


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