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Backgrounder

Irving Penn and the Platinum Printing Process

A meticulous craftsman, Irving Penn has experimented extensively with platinum/palladium printing since the early 1960s, transforming his celebrated photographs into independent works of art with remarkably subtle, rich tonal ranges and luxurious textures.

Prized for its rich, subtle tonal range and its wealth of fine detail, platinum was a popular method of making photographic prints at the turn of the 20th century. Photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Frederick Evans employed it extensively. With platinum, chemicals could be applied with a brush, allowing greater freedom of expression. Also, the light sensitive salts were absorbed into the paper fibers, giving the print a sensuous texture dramatically different from the glossy surface of gelatin silver prints. As the cost of platinum escalated during World War I, manufacturers stopped making platinum paper. A few continued to make platinum paper by hand, but the process had long since been forgotten by the time Penn embraced it in the early 1960s.

In the early 1960s, disillusioned with the way his photographs appeared in publications, Penn embarked on a multiyear research project to learn more about the long-forgotten technique of platinum printing. He conducted his initial research in the New York Public Library, scouring old journals for recipes and techniques on the platinum process. His first results were less than satisfactory. As he looked at the first platinum print he had ever made, he realized that he needed to coat, expose, and develop his print multiple times in order to achieve the richness and complexity he desired. He would also have to ensure that his negative was in perfect registration and that the paper did not change size during its repeated submersions in chemicals. He overcame considerable technical challenges to do so, at one point even working with DuPont on a new polymer that would affix paper to an aluminum support.

Penn worked in his darkroom on Long Island on the weekends, often late into the night, devoting several years to his experiments with various printing techniques. He tried many different chemicals, including palladium, iridium, and gum bichromate, mixed with both black and colored pigments. Platinum, he discovered, produced a lavish tonal image and rich blacks but, used alone, could be “coarse,” while palladium gave delicate tones but lacked true blacks. After many trials, he realized that when platinum and palladium were mixed together in the correct proportions and coated onto the paper multiple times they could create luminous prints.

Penn experimented not only with multiple coatings and different formulas, but also with different exposure times, developing solutions, and various papers. He spent several years perfecting his technique and did not make prints he found acceptable until 1967.

Penn mixed, coated, exposed, and developed all the platinum prints himself. After spending years as a commercial photographer who made negatives but sometimes did not see his results until they were printed in a magazine, he delighted in his newfound ability to make a photograph from start to finish. He went back to earlier photographs and sought to transform them from a thing suitable for reproduction into something beautiful in and of itself. Starting in the 1970s, he also applied the platinum process to new photographs.

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