Keeping up appearances

A Victorian printing process is making a comeback and, as Richard Freestone reports, is delivering images that will last for ever

Ever since Henry Fox Talbot first produced a positive print from a negative, back in the mid-19th century, archival longevity has been the bane of the photographer. Even the latest printing methods have a finite lifespan and will eventually fade or self-destruct due to the unstable nature of the constituents.

However, there is a printing process, currently enjoying a renaissance, so stable that it will outlast the paper it is printed on.

The platinum print, or more correctly the platinum/palladium print, was developed by William Willis in 1873. As well as being truly archival, it portrays more detail than any other process, yet by the 1920s it was dead. Most of the world’s platinum had been used up making bomb fuses during the Great War and the makers of platinotype paper ceased production.

Fast forward to the 1960s and a handful of dedicated individuals, including the legendary American photographer Irving Penn, set about relearning the platinum process in an attempt to improve their own printing results. Penn began working on it in the early-1960s and only in 1967 made editioned platinum prints.

Those of us who make platinum prints today are eternally grateful for their dedication. Ready-made platinotype paper is still unavailable, so contemporary platinum printers make their own, by hand-coating pure cotton paper.

Platinum prints are made by contact printing. This requires a negative to be made the same size as the finished print. These negatives can now be produced digitally, making the process available to digital and analogue photographers. The negative is then held firmly against the coated paper in a frame and exposed to ultraviolet light.

Once processed you have an exquisite, subtle, warm-toned print that will last for ever. It is these qualities that are reflected in the prices prints command in the auction houses and galleries around the world.