Welcome to the virtual presentation of "In Focus: Platinum Photographs", an exhibition drawn from the Museum’s collection to showcase some of the most striking prints made with platinum and the closely related palladium processes.
Admired for their velvety matte surface, wide tonal range, and neutral palette, platinum prints helped establish photography as a fine art. Introduced in 1873, the process was championed by prominent photographers until platinum’s use was restricted in World War I and manufacturers were forced to introduce alternatives. The process attracted renewed interest in the mid- twentieth century from a relatively small but dedicated community of practitioners. This exhibition draws from the Getty Museum’s collection to showcase some of the most striking prints made with platinum and the closely related palladium processes.
The Platinum Process
The scientist William Willis Jr. (British, 1841–1923) developed the platinum process in 1873, and in 1878 he established the Platinotype Company of London to begin the commercial production of photographic papers and chemicals. The quick rise in the technique’s popularity spurred an industry with numerous manufacturers located in cities across Europe and North America and the flourishing of papers with distinct tints, surface textures, and sheens. To create a platinum print, a negative is placed in direct contact with photographic paper sensitized with a solution of iron and platinum salts. After exposure, while the paper is submerged in the developer, the salts react to produce platinum metal in the exposed areas. The iron salts are then removed from the print in a clearing bath. The final platinum image is embedded in the uppermost fibers of the paper, resulting in a velvety, matte appearance. The visual quality of the print can be altered by varying the temperature of the developer or by adding chemicals such as mercury or uranium, both of which result in warmer tones. The development process can be controlled by the selective application of developer mixed with glycerin, a step that allows the photographer to enhance or alter specific areas of the print.
The term “Pictorialism” refers simultaneously to a movement and an aesthetic style that became popular at the end of the nineteenth century. Advocates strove to differentiate their photographs from the crisp images produced by commercial photographers and from snapshots made with hand-held cameras recently introduced by Kodak. Informed by sketching and painting manuals illustrated with compositional guidelines and marketed to amateur artists, Pictorialists aimed to create photographs that were beautiful objects in their own right. Platinum printing became widely associated with Pictorialism, as the darkroom allowed for a variety of modifications and embellishments that were not possible with other processes. Photographers also had access to a wide array of commercially available papers, including fine drawing and writing papers made from linen and cotton rags with pronounced textures and rich visual character. They used inventive techniques, such as the application of pigments and layered coatings ranging from wax to watercolors, to mimic effects associated with painting and drawing. The vast array of tools available to manipulate a print’s appearance made platinum an important medium for photographers invested in artistic expression.