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A Subtle Beauty: Platinum Photographs from the Collection

Gertrude Käsebier, American, 1852–1934, Alfred Stieglitz, 1902, platinum print, R. K. Mellon Family Foundation, Diana and Mallory Walker Fund, and Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation through Robert and Joyce Menschel

Featured in the 1903 inaugural issue of Alfred Stieglitz’s seminal journal Camera Work, Gertrude Käsebier was hailed by him as “the leading portrait photographer in the country.” To manipulate the tones of this print, Käsebier masked sections of the negative and then used a brush to selectively apply the developing solution to the printing paper. The final result resembles a beautifully hand-worked watercolor.

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Frederick H. Evans, British, 1853–1943, York Minster, North Transept: “In Sure and Certain Hope,” 1902, platinum print, Carolyn Brody Fund and Pepita Milmore Memorial Fund

Evans was known as the master of the unmanipulated platinum print. For him, a perfect photograph was one that “gives its beholder the same order of joy that the original would.” In this work, light, more than architecture, is his subject. As light fills the space of York Minster Cathedral it dissolves the weight of the massive stone, creating a reverential, timeless mood. Evans also took great care in the presentation of his photographs, often embellishing his mounts with hand-ruled borders and watercolor washes.

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Harry C. Rubincam, American, 1871–1940, The Circus, 1905, platinum print, The Sarah and William L Walton Fund

After years of working for insurance and wholesale grocery companies in New York City, Rubincam moved to Denver, Colorado, where he learned photography from a retired professional. His participation in several exhibitions brought his work to the attention of Alfred Stieglitz, who invited Rubincam in 1903 to be a member of the Photo-Secession, an elite group of photographers whose aim was to advance photography as a fine art. This photograph of a circus performance is unusual among art photographs from this time for its spontaneity.

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Alvin Langdon Coburn, British, born United States, 1882–1966, Clarence H. White, c. 1905, platinum print, Patrons’ Permanent Fund

Coburn presents fellow photographer Clarence H. White holding a tube of platinum paper in much the same manner as a painter would hold a palette. Because the paper support contributed greatly to the overall appearance of the platinum print, photographers experimented with a range of handmade and mass-produced papers that varied in texture and color.

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Edward Steichen, American, 1879–1973, Rodin, 1907, gum dichromate over platinum print, Pepita Milmore Memorial Fund

Steichen positioned Auguste Rodin in a contemplative pose reminiscent of the sculptor’s most recognized work, The Thinker. By adding gum dichromate (a mixture of light-sensitive salts, pigment and a gum arabic binder) over a platinum print, Steichen enhanced the soft- focus appearance and tonality of his portrait.

Steichen was an important link between European and American artistic circles during the first decade of the twentieth century. A member of the Photo-Secession, Steichen encouraged the group’s founder, Alfred Stieglitz, to open a gallery in New York to promote the club’s work. The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (later known as “291” from its address at 291 Fifth Avenue) opened in 1905. Soon, the gallery’s scope extended beyond photography to include other currents in modern art, such as the exhibition of Rodin’s watercolors and drawings that Steichen organized in 1908.

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Clarence H. White, American, 1871–1925, George Borup, 1909, platinum print, Patrons’ Permanent Fund

A self-taught photographer from Ohio, White became an important leader of the pictorialist movement. A member of the Photo-Secession, he exhibited widely and later founded the Clarence H. White School of Photography in New York in 1914, a school that helped define and establish pictorialist ideals. White took this portrait of geologist and explorer George Borup the year he returned from an expedition to the North Pole.

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Heinrich Kühn, German, 1866–1944, Walther Kühn, 1911, gum dichromate over platinum print, Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation through Robert and Joyce Menschel

A photographer, writer, and scientist, Heinrich Kühn was a central figure in the international development of pictorialist photography. Known for his intimate portraits, scenes of rural life, and still-life photographs, he was actively involved in groups—both in Great Britain and Austria—that espoused an alternative to a purely technical view of photography.

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Alfred Stieglitz, American, 1864–1946, From the Back-Window—291, 1915, platinum print, Alfred Stieglitz Collection

Influenced by Peter Henry Emerson’s understanding of photography as an independent art form, Stieglitz became the driving force behind the development of art photography at the turn of the century. He founded the Photo-Secession group in 1902 with the aim to “advance photography as applied to pictorial expression.” This view of the buildings in New York behind Stieglitz’s famed Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession at 291 Fifth Avenue is an exceptional example of a platinum print with rich, neutral gray and black tones. The diffuse glow of the lights is enhanced by Stieglitz’s choice of a smooth printing paper with a subtle surface sheen.

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Alfred Stieglitz, American, 1864-1946, Hodge Kirnon, 1917, Satista print, Alfred Stieglitz Collection

Hodge Kirnon, the elevator operator for 291 Fifth Avenue from 1912 to 1917, remarked in a special issue of Camera Work that he “found in ‘291’ a spirit which fosters liberty.” Kirnon later became a member of the Harlem Renaissance and editor of The Promoter, a journal that sought to elevate racial and class consciousness. Stieglitz printed this portrait of Kirnon holding a copy of Camera Work on Satista paper, which combined a relatively small amount of platinum with silver. Commercially introduced in 1914, Satista was marketed as a more economical alternative to platinum printing that yielded the same rich visual effects and permanence.

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Laura Gilpin, American, 1891–1979, Ghost Rock, Colorado Springs, 1919, platinum print, The Marvin Breckinridge Patterson Fund

Renowned for her landscape photographs of the American Southwest, Gilpin was mentored by Gertrude Käsebier and trained at the Clarence H. White School of Photography in New York. This luminous photograph exemplifies Gilpin’s skill in producing expressive works with a wide spectrum of tonal values.

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Edith R. Wilson, American, 1864–1924, Portrait of a Family, 1922, palladium print, R.K. Mellon Family Foundation

With the onset of World War I, platinum metal was needed for military purposes, raising its price and severely limiting its use in commercial applications. This led to the advancement of new photographic products that relied on the more readily available and less expensive precious metals of silver and palladium. Wilson made this portrait on palladium paper during a summer course offered by the Clarence H. White School of Photography. Intended to replicate the look of platinum prints, palladium papers came in various surface textures and tonal values; however, they were never fully embraced by photographers, who questioned both their quality and permanence.

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Paul Strand, American, 1890–1976, Driftwood, Maine, 1928, platinum print, Southwestern Bell Corporation Paul Strand Collection

Strand was a committed advocate of the platinum process and made platinum photographs well into the 1920s and early 1930s. Driftwood, Maine is printed on Japine paper, a photographic paper with a chemically altered surface, which resembles parchment. First introduced by William Willis’ Platinotype Company in 1906, Japine platinum paper provided deep blacks and a lustrous surface sheen that Strand found ideal for his modernist abstractions.

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