Artists and collectors value platinum prints because of their beauty, permanence, and rarity.
Beauty: In skilled hands, platinum and its close sister palladium make exquisite photographs. The image you see is made from tiny particles of pure platinum and/or palladium embedded within the paper fibres. I use the finest artist's paper that complement platinum’s graceful silver-grey tones, and bring out the almost three dimensional look that is the trademark of a platinum print.
Permanence: Platinum is one of the most stable metals known to science. A well made platinum print will last as long as the paper it is made on. That is far longer than any silver gelatine or inkjet print is likely to last. Its only rivals for permanence are carbon prints and photogravures. If well cared for, a platinum print could last a thousand years.
Rarity: Today there are only a handful of dedicated platinum printers in the world. I am one of them. And I am one of the even smaller number of people who continue to use platinum rather than its cheaper and easier sister, palladium. The difficulty of the process plus the high cost of materials mean it is highly unlikely that there will ever be large numbers of platinum prints on the market. And because platinum prints are made entirely by hand, each one is unique.
A Short History of Platinum Printing
1842: Sir John Herschel discovers iron-based printing (the Cyanotype, or Blue Print, process).
1879: William Willis Jr. patents the platinum printing process which builds upon Herschel’s invention.
1880s to 1910s: Platinum prints rule supreme as the medium of choice for fine art photography.
1914 to 1918: Platinum becomes a strategically important war material because of its use in manufacturing TNT. Its use in photography rapidly declines.
1890s to 1920s: Silver gelatine printing gradually supplants platinum printing because it is so much cheaper and easier. By 1920 almost no-one is making platinum prints.
1970s and 1980s: A small number of photographers, most notably Irving Penn, rediscover platinum printing as a creative medium.
1990s and 2000s: The platinum printing renaissance begins as more artist photographers commit themselves to this fabulous medium. However the dependency upon large film negatives means it is still a minority pursuit.
Today: Advanced inkjet printers make it easy to create high quality digital negatives for platinum printing. Ironically this new technology, which has largely killed off silver gelatine printing, has also made platinum printing accessible to many more people. While digital negatives don’t play a big part in my own creative process, I am thrilled at the opportunities these bring to platinum printing and other historic printing processes.
What’s in a Name?
Sadly the label ‘platinum print’ is often used in ways I find problematic. For example, prints made wholly or mostly from palladium are often described as ‘platinum prints’. To me it seems reasonable to expect that when you buy a ‘platinum print’ then it should be made largely of platinum.
For complete transparency with my collectors, here are the definitions I use.
Platinum Print (or Platinotype): This is the print medium of choice for discerning artists and collectors.
Platinum prints are traditionally the finest photographs available. Nowadays they are extremely rare, because platinum has been largely supplanted by palladium which is much cheaper and also easier to work with.
I make my platinum prints with a minimum of 85% platinum, with the rest usually palladium (although from time-to-time I may use other additives for particular affects). By contrast, 18 carat gold, which is the European standard for ‘pure’ gold, has only 75% gold content.
Palladium Print (or Palladiotype): Palladium has similar qualities to platinum but normally tends to a strong brown tone (or in certain circumstances an intense black or blue/black). I make my palladium prints with 100% palladium.
Platinum/Palladium Print: For many years I used a 50:50 mix of platinum and palladium. I describe these prints as platinum/palladium prints. I rarely use this combination any more, but the description is relevant for collectors of my older prints.