Large Format Platinum Photography

Platinum printing is one of the oldest and most permanent of the photographic processes and is known for its precision sharpness with delicate tonal scales from printing on cotton watercolor papers. It was first developed over 125 years ago. Instead of using silver in the emulsion to capture and record the image, platinum is employed. Because of the stability of platinum, the images created can last 500-1000 years, as opposed to 100-200 years for a conventional process. The finished image is as large as the negative used. This means that for a finished image to be 11'' x 14'', Auerbach uses a camera that exposes a single sheet of film that measures 11'' x 14'' inches. There are currently less than thirty photographers worldwide working in the field of large format platinum portraiture. [Text by Gary Auerbach.]

This month's article is in the form of an interview that was conducted via e-mail.

TheScreamOnline: Welcome, Gary. Perhaps the first thing the average person would notice about your rig is the size of your camera(s). Please talk a little about large format photography.

GARY: Large format cameras give the photographer an opportunity to work with a much larger piece of film. They require a lens that can cover the necessary image size. Cameras can range in size from a 4x5 negative up to a 20 by 24 negative. For my work, 8x10 and 11x14 inch cameras are principally used. The type of printmaking that you do will influence which large format camera you may want to use. If I were making gelatin silver prints, the move from 35mm to 4x5 negative size greatly improves the enlargement capacity of the image. Most laboratories can facilitate this size of negative. In platinum printmaking, all prints are made by direct contact. Therefore, a 4x5 negative would produce a 4x5 print, an 8x10 negative would produce an 8x10 print, and an 11x14 print is made from an 11x14 negative. All three would have the same sharpness and tone scale.

TheScreamOnline: I virtually grew up in the darkroom, but never having used a large format camera, I would imagine that one would regard the subject differently than with a 35mm or 2-1/4. Has your approach to composition changed at all since using the 8x10 or 11x14 format?

GARY: A quality platinum photograph is made in the field, not in the darkroom. My final platinotype will be as good as the negative that I produce to print from. Since all prints are by contact, all cropping must be done in camera. Development of the negative is stronger than for a silver negative. A densitomoter range of .9 to 1.5 is necessary. If you print a silver print on a #1 grade contrast paper, then your negative will be in the range for platinum.

The immobility of the large format camera, mounted to a tripod, places further restrictions on the type of photograph. An advantage of this stable platform is the ability to study the ground glass and inspect the composition in greater detail. If needed, swings and tilts can be utilized to influence the perspective of the photograph. The 10- to 35-pound view cameras do not allow for candid type of photography unless they are preset and focused to pick up a subject moving through the plane of focus.

TheScreamOnline: Early photography began with having to coat glass slides and paper with emulsions. Over the years, film and papers improved, photo-realism reigned supreme, and now we seem to have come full circle in an attempt to hark back to the look of bromoil, which in some ways helps qualify some photography as Art. Where do you see the future of photography going in terms of what you are doing?

GARY: Great photographs can make great art. The subject and technical presentation need to work together. If one is out of registration with the other, the work will fall short. While Annie Liebowitz produces great color and silver b/w photographs, her platinum prints made from the same negatives don't work well. Photography is the capture of an image on a two- or three-dimensional surface. I have learned to make platinum prints. They require me to see differently. The platinum process reproduces light in a different way than does the process for using silver metal papers. I print on watercolor paper coated with a platinum metal salt emulsion. I do not use typical silver photographic papers.

Making a platinotype that will physically last for centuries is part of my photographic art. I must still capture the image. Photography can be very transient if printed on inkjet or other contemporary digital methods. The image can be captured on film or CD, or for that matter on any medium. We live in a world of images. The final effort of printmaking will translate whether something is simply a picture or a work of art. Not all are made to stand the test of time. I have successfully experimented in making a three-dimensional platinum photograph. In the future, I think three-dimensional photographs will be a norm.

TheScreamOnline: We are in the middle of a four-part article about William Mortensen (see the June and August issues) by Larry Lytle. Readers are well aware of how Mortensen was ostracized by Ansel Adams and the Group f/64 realists. Any comments?

GARY: Mortensen's work is fabulous. While Ansel Adams was a master of the gelatin silver super-sharp, high gloss landscapes, he wasn't necessarily a master of all types of photography. Steiglitz, Steichen, White, and Mortensen all worked in other printmaking methods and produced portraits that Adams could not approach. These photographers are only now becoming more well known. When I was growing up, I used to think that Adams got all the good photographs. I have since learned that there are an infinite number of great photographs. During each period of history, certain artists are highlighted and others are forgotten. I haven't figured out the mechanisms as to who and why.

TheScreamOnline: Do you see any real difference between early manipulation techniques and the current digital trend in creating images? Or in other words, should photography be judged by the final result and not the means by which it was achieved?

GARY: We are all using the techniques available to us at the time. If Mortensen were alive in this era, he might have used the computer to help him in how he worked. He was on the leading edge. Classical alternative printing methods such as bromoil, kallotype, platinum, cyanotype, and gum bichromate still have their place, and there seems to be a resurgence of interest in them. They all still require a negative to print.

TheScreamOnline: You have made me aware that there are only about 30 or so photographers in the world working in platinum portraiture with 8x10 and 11x14 cameras. Why is that? And is there an awareness of what each is doing—a sharing of ideas, or even a close bond in communication—or are all of you going your separate ways?

GARY: Making platinum photographs is labor intensive. Not many people are willing to spend the time necessary to do so, even though there are great attributes to the final print. It is intimidating to both the sitter and the photographer working so close with such a large photographic instrument. That is why most people doing large format and platinum printmaking do landscapes or florals.

As a former chiropractor I was familiar with making people relax, and I worked with 8x10 and 11x14 film plates for x-rays. The transition to large format platinum portrait photography was an easy one for me—building up a body of work has not been as easy. We all need to have a focus of where our work is going if we want to be noticed. Anecdotal shooting of everything that is of interest to you is okay, but it is not going to make a magazine story or—better yet—a book project, unless there is a theme that ties it all together. There is nothing wrong with beautiful anecdotal photographs. We all have some. The Internet is allowing all of us to keep an eye on many photographers' work. It also allows us to promote our work as was never possible before.

TheScreamOnline: Yes, the Internet has certainly created a new venue for artists to be seen— that's why this magazine exists. The immediate global exposure is phenomenal. Do you feel that the Internet will ultimately be a successful vehicle for artists to sell their work? Has it been good for you?

GARY: The Internet has opened new doors for myself. I think it is important to find a way to differentiate yourself from the masses of artists that are online. In my case, platinum photography is a specialized area within photography. If anyone is searching this topic, they will find my name. I am having over 50,000 hits per month and more than 2000 unique viewers.

No longer does an artist need to send transparencies of his work to interested parties. They can see on a website what your work looks like. Not only have I had sales of prints, but I have received four book projects in the last 18 months by publishers finding my work unsolicited by me on the net.

TheScreamOnline: On your website (www.platinumphotographer.com) you provide an emulsion contrast chart and sources for chemicals, and give directions for making the emulsion, coating the paper, printing, and developing. That is a great service for anyone interested in trying the process, and I especially appreciate the sharing of techniques and ideas. When you were learning, did you find that others were generous with their time and talent?

GARY: Honestly, no. Most platinum photographers I met tried to make it sound like platinum printmaking was very difficult. I have found that it is a fairly easy method to produce a print, although getting a museum quality platinotype requires more effort. There is the process of handcoating the paper and developing it, and there also is the matter of getting a negative that is suited for printing in platinum. This is the most important part.

On my website you will see the article, "Platinum Printmaking made Simple." I titled it this way precisely because I am trying to take the mystique out of it. It is a low tech process, done by many over 100 years ago. It does require some effort to learn.

TheScreamOnline: Are any of the chemicals dangerous to breathe and/or touch? Should one have a well-ventilated room when creating platinum prints?

GARY: I think it is prudent to ventilate your rooms where you work. The process does not require a darkroom, so an open room with lowered light will be adequate. I started learning on the kitchen table with the shades drawn. I printed my platinotypes in the sun using a contact frame. I feel it is less toxic than silver printing.

TheScreamOnline: This has been an enlightening interview. Thank you for your time. Any last thoughts?

GARY: My mission statement is to stress that we need to be more conscious of archival aspects of the photography we do. Whether in silver printing or platinum, if we want the work to last, we need to understand the limitations of the materials we are using. While many people expound on the beautiful virtues of a platinum print—and I certainly would agree with them—it is the archival elements of using platinum in the printing process that I am trying to be an advocate for. Not many are talking about this.

To Gallery 1
To Gallery 2
To Artist's statement
To Résumé

For more of Mr. Auerbach's photography
go to http://www.platinumphotographer.com

E-mail: gary[AT]platinumphotographer.com
(Replace [AT] with @.)

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