History of the Platinum Print


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Early Experiments

Early investigations were directed at the light sensitivity of platinum. In 1830, Ferdinand Gehlen found that platinum chloride solution turned yellow and eventually precipitated metallic platinum when exposed to light. In 1831, while testing for greater light sensitivity, Johann Wolfgang Dobereiner tried a variety of platinum compounds. Dobereiner found the combination of potassium chloroplatinite and ferric oxalate to be the most light sensitive. This combination has remained the most light sensitive combination for platinum materials. In England, in 1832, Sir John Herschel found several light sensitive platinum solutions. Herschel also found that the photosensitivity was confined to the violet end of the light spectrum.

Roger Hunt, in 1844, succeeded in making platinum photographic prints using platinum chloride mixed with boiling potassium cyanate. Paper coated with this mixture printed out a faint image which could be developed further in a mercury solution. Hunt, however, could not make the print permanent. Failing to find a permanent platinum printing process, researchers concentrated on finding a way to use platinum toning to increase the permanence of silver images.

Early Platinum Printing

William Willis, in 1873, obtained the first patent for a platinotype process. Willis found that potassium oxalate greatly aided the reduction of platinum by ferric oxalate, resulting in predictable platinum image formation. In his third patent (1880) related to making platinum photographic prints, Willis introduced the "hot bath" method where a mixture of ferric oxalate and potassium chloroplatinite are coated onto paper which is then exposed through a negative and developed in a warm solution of potassium oxalate. This is the basic platinotype process which is in use today.

Captain Giuseppe Pizzighelli, in an 1887 patent, presents a platinum Printing Out Paper process which uses a double salt, sodium ferric oxalate, in the sensitizing solution along with the potassium chloroplatinite. This resulted in an image that forms completely on exposure to light without the need for liquid development. Briefly marketed as Pizzitype, it was discontinued due to manufacturing consistency problems.

In 1892, Willis formed the Platinotype Company to market his inventions and began to sell "cold development" (room temperature) paper to the public. During the period from 1895 to 1905, the Platinoytpe Company's products were marketed in the United States and Europe, and competitors began to offer platinum papers. Platinum became one of the primary printing media in the Fine Art Photography and Pictorialist movements. In 1906, Eastman Kodak also began to market platinum papers.

By 1911, the Platinotype Company offered 15 different styles of platinum paper, and Kodak offered an even greater selection of emulsion colors and surface textures and weights. Platinum printing was perceived as the high point of photographic procedures, but was rapidly losing ground to high-speed silver bromide enlarging papers.

By the onset of the first world war, platinum was becoming increasingly expensive. This is about the time at which it was discovered that platinum could be used as a catalyst in the production of explosives. This resulted in platinum becoming extremely scarce with the onset of WWI. As a result, the Platinotype Company introduced a palladium based paper in 1916 to compensate for the increasing cost of platinum. About this time Kodak ceased producing platinum papers.

In 1917, the Platinotype Company ceased importing paper to the United States. Individual photographers such as Edward Weston and Paul Strand, privately imported platinum paper for their work.

Quiet Time and Resurgence

The period from the 1920's through the 1960's was a quiet time for platinum printing. With the rise of silver based papers, platinum printing fell into disuse. A few photographers continued to work with platinum by hand mixing and coating their own materials. For the most part, the platinotype had become an historical process.

In the 1930's, Paul Anderson developed the current two-solution, drop-counting, ferric oxalate process of hand coating papers for platinum printing, and published instructional articles in various photography journals. The 1940's through 1960's saw a trickle of magazine articles, indicating a small but dedicated group of photographers making platinum prints using Anderson's method.

A resurgence of interest in platinum printing began in the 1970's. Several books and articles were published on the technique of platinum printing, and exhibitions of platinum prints began to be seen.

The year 1981 saw the founding of Bostick and Sullivan, a mail order firm dedicated to supplying platinum and palladium printing materials. In 1988 the Palladio Company was formed to manufacture and market machine coated platinum paper. The Palladio Company ceased operations a few years ago.

In the 1990's, books and museum and gallery exhibitions showed a marked resurgence of interest in platinum printing along with other "alternate process" photographic techniques.


Note: The above was adapted from "The New Platinum Print..." by Richard Sullivan and Carl Weese, 1998.

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