Platinum Printing Workshop at the George Eastman House – A Report

by Mark Roberts

  

Written words are fixed even though time moves on. Therefore, I have no way of knowing when you, dear reader, are actually reading this. It may be 5 minutes after it went live or it may be five years. None the less, I will tell you this: If you ever find yourself near Rochester, New York, you should find a way to visit the George Eastman House and the International Museum of Photography. I don’t know what will be on exhibit when you visit, but I do know that it will be worth the trip. The material on show changes but the quality doesn’t.

I’ll tell you something else. If you are a photographer and you have a chance to attend a workshop at the George Eastman House, you’d be a fool if you pass up the chance. Any photo workshop can teach you mechanics, technicalities and such. And there are countless workshops that will take you to exotic locales and/or introduce you to well-known photographers. I don’t know of any place other than GEH where you can learn about photography and photographic processes and have instant access to an archive of 400,000 photographs and negatives by 14,000 photographers, including all the masters of the medium since its invention.

  

Workshop

Dr No's HQ

Dr No's HQ (or the GEH).

I recently attended a 2-day workshop in platinum printing, taught by experienced platinum printer Ron Cowie at the George Eastman House. That’s two 8-hour days in a facility with every imaginable (to me) chemistry, all the necessary equipment, access to original prints by the greatest photographers in history and top-flight experts doing the teaching. How much do you think that should cost? If your relationship with today’s economic realities is anything better than “tenuous” you probably guessed much more than the actual price: $425.00 (which includes $75.00 for material costs). At this price one of the participants in my session even found it feasible to fly into Rochester from out of town specifically for the workshop.

You enter International Museum of Photography at the far northern end of the George Eastman House complex. As you would expect, the entrance and interior are beautifully lit. To your left is the counter where you pay your admission fee and beyond is the museum itself, which, as I mentioned, will have glorious exhibits from photography’s relatively short 170-year history. But just a couple of feet past the ticket counter there is a set of doors on the left—doors which are locked to the general public but which can be opened for VIPs, staff and…workshop participants. Pass through these doors and you enter the library, archives and working labs of the museum. This area extends downward two floors below ground level—it looks rather like a friendly version of Bond villain’s secret headquarters, only without the armed henchmen in matching jumpsuits. We were greeted here by two decidedly friendly (and unarmed) members of the GEH staff, Stacy VanDenburgh and Mark Osterman, who assisted Ron Cowie throughout the weekend.

The workshop itself consisted of both theoretical and practical work. Stacy and Mark had put together for each participant a 3-ring binder absolutely packed with information on the history and techniques of platinum printing. We heard a good presentation on platinum printing and a chance to view first-hand some original prints by the masters of the technique. Emerson’s “Picking the Reed” has long been one of my favorite photographs, and when we entered the viewing room there it was, alongside original prints by Coburn, Steichen and others. The library of the GEH (normally accessible to all by appointment) is closed on Saturdays, but the librarian came in on his day off to open up for us. I have no doubt he’d have been happy to pull any print in their archives out for us to view if we’d thought it might be helpful and this was the attitude of everyone I encountered there. I’m pretty sure Stacy and Mark were working the weekend on their own time. Then we all went out for lunch (Indian food—yay!) and discussions of everything photographic took place over nan, pakoras and curry.

Inside Looking Out In the Tray

  

Platinum Printing

Pray for the Emulsion

Put your hands together and do it.


Ron Cowie Demonstrates

Ron Cowie demonstrates the Ultraviolet Art.



Ron Cowie Rinsing Print

Ron Cowie Rinsing Print.

From that point on we spent most of our time making prints in the ‘darkroom’—which in the case of platinum printing isn’t actually dark. The exposure is made with ultraviolet light, so all the preparation and development can be done under normal room lighting. For platinum printing you make your own light-sensitive solution and coat your own paper with it just before making the exposure. Generally, this mixture consists of 50% ferric oxalate (which is the light-sensitive ingredient) and varying ratios of platinum salts and palladium salts. Most of the time, the palladium is used in much greater quantity than the platinum, but the prints are still referred to as platinum prints for historical reasons (and probably, let’s face it, because “platinum print” just sounds cooler). Using more palladium yields a warmer print and also reduces contrast. Changing the temperature of the developer (usually potassium oxalate at around 100 °F) also affects contrast—lower temperature means higher contrast and cooler print tone. One interesting aspect of the developer is that it isn’t used up during development; you can keep using the same developer for years. Exposure takes several minutes under powerful ultraviolet lamps, so the platinum process is pretty much limited to contact prints: Your final print is the size of your negative.

We were provided with a stack of Ron Cowie’s and Mark Osterman’s large-format negatives—no, we didn’t get to pull any Ansel Adams (or Lewis Hine) negatives to make prints—and immediately set to work mixing chemistry, coating paper and making prints. There are plenty of online tutorials that explain the process of making platinum prints, but nothing comes close to the experience you gain through actually doing it yourself. Doing it with the guidance of two experts with the resources of the George Eastman House at their disposal dials up the learning curve significantly, to understate the matter somewhat.

At one point Ron Cowie suggested that a participant’s print might look good with a gum wash. The words had scarcely left his lips when Mark Osterman was back with the gum arabic to give it a try. A short while later the notion of asphalt wash came up. A minute later we were trying it. How about soaking the print in glycerin and brushing on ammonium citrate as developer? They have chemistry on hand for everything from Daguerreotypes (Mark Osterman teaches that) to cyanotypes, ambrotypes, calotypes and on and on and on. If it’s been done in the past couple of hundred years they have the chemistry on hand and Mark knows about it. In just a few minutes Ron was brushing ammonium citrate onto a print in a bath of glycerin.

The reason I wanted to attend this particular workshop was to explore the possibility of making negatives with an inkjet printer using one of the many types of clear media available. This would allow you to make platinum prints of almost any size from a small scanned negative or from a digital capture. I learned that not only is this possible, it’s the direction a lot of platinum printers are going, due to increasing problems with the availability of film and a rather dire outlook for the future of film in general, according to the Eastman House people. I’m pretty sure I’m going to be making platinum prints in the near future.

  

Conclusion

Interested in taking one of the George Eastman House workshops yourself? Intimidated by the prospect? Don’t be: No special photographic experience is required for most of them, and indeed some are aimed at casual photographers. But all will have the formidable resources of the George Eastman House behind them and the knowledgeable and enthusiastic support of people like Stacy VanDenburgh and Mark Osterman. In 2011 the George Eastman House will be holding workshops in:

  • Basic Gelatin Emulsion Making
  • Printing, Sharing & Archiving Digital Family Photographs
  • Daguerreotype History & Technique
  • Collodion Emulsion
  • Carbon Prints
  • Albumen Prints
  • Early Camera History & Design
  • …and more!

You can get all the information on the GEH’s workshops page. And keep this in mind: When you take a workshop at the George Eastman House you’re also helping support what is arguably the world’s foremost institution devoted to promoting and preserving the history of photography. The fact that they’re so affordably priced is icing on the cake.

Any downsides? Well, even though you save anywhere from hundreds to possibly thousands of dollars compared to the exotic locale/famous photographer workshops, Rochester, NY isn’t as enticing a destination as Peru, Iceland or Antarctica. On the other hand, none of those places has the garlic nan of the India House on South Clinton Ave or the Park Avenue Ale of Hogan’s Hideaway. Throw in the knowledge and experience of Mark Osterman and Stacy VanDenburgh and the archives of one of the world’s top photographic museums and I think the choice is clear.

Note: There is one other place where you can get this kind of learning experience. It’s at the Fox Talbot Museum in Lacock, England…in workshops taught by Mark Osterman and held in conjunction with the George Eastman House. :)

  

Links

George Eastman House
GEH on Facebook

  

Mark Roberts Mark Roberts is a photographer and writer living in Boston MA. He teaches graphic design and digital imaging at Lasell College in Newton, MA and is the editor of the PDML Photo Annual.

All images: ©Mark Roberts unless otherwise specified.

  

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks to Mr. Mark Roberts for this informative write up of the GEH. Now, I am thinking it is a must to see this place before I die.

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