Platinum/palladium prints are renown for their persistent shadows and nuanced highlight values, for having a distinctive appearance, and perhaps most famously, for being the most permanent of photographic printing methods. The process was invented in 1873 by William Willis in Kent, England. It soon became a very popular printing method and was widely used up until the late 1930s, and along the way was profoundly influential in shaping the aesthetics of photography. Having almost gone defunct by 1937, it regained popularity as an ‘alternative’ process in the 1970s and interest in platinum/palladium prints and printing has steadily grown since then. It is considered to be the premiere process for photographic printers, sought after by collectors, and has been reputed to make connoisseurs sit down in a faint from visual bliss.
All of this is fine, and I certainly strive for these qualities and properties in my prints. But amidst the awe and respect, the history and hype, the chemical magic and endless alternative-process tinkering, is this one, simple, but hard-to-articulate fact: the platinum/palladium process has a particular and peculiar language of tones, surfaces and structural depth. It is this language that captivated me on my first look at Frederick H Evans’ gorgeous prints, and has shaped my work from that point on.
Frederick H Evans, York Minster, North Transept: “In Sure and Certain Hope”, 1902. Platinum print. Source: Carolyn Brody Fund and Pepita Milmore Memorial Fund National Gallery of Art 2011.18.1
Evans only made platinum prints. Most contemporary prints contain a mixture of platinum and palladium, or just palladium. See the following paragraph about describing the process. Unless otherwise stated, all my platinum-palladium prints are made from a 1:1 mix of platinum:palladium. More specifically, the prints are made from a mix containing equal numbers of molecules of each of the two metals (an equimolar mix of the two salts, ammonium tetrachloroplatinate and ammonium tetrachloropalladate). The resulting prints are as close to being platinum-palladium prints in equal amounts as is possible.
I make prints on 100% cellulose (often also described as ‘rag’, but the terms are not synonymous) papers using the ‘Malde-Ware’* recipe, with ammonium salts of platinum and palladium combined with ferric ammonium oxalate. After exposure to ultraviolet, the prints are processed in a series of clean-working and environmentally safe solutions of clearing agents (EDTA disodium salt, sodium metabisulfite and EDTA tetrasodium salt respectively) and finally washed in water and air dried.
*This sounds like shameless self-promotion, but that is not the intention. The name has been arrived at from the work of a remarkable team of experts working with the American Institute of Conservators in 2014. It goes against my and my longtime collaborator/guide and friend Mike Ware’s sensibilities, but they had to find a name that clearly identifies this variant from other recipes. We spent over a decade, starting in 1981, researching and reformulating the recipe, which we called the ‘Ammonium System’. This ‘ammonium’ process is a modernized, printing-out version of the traditional recipes that does not require a developer, and has some advantages over the more widely used ‘potassium’ process. We do not claim to have invented a new process, but rather to have reformulated and updated some aspects of older processes, to have clearly identified most if not all the parameters that affect the process, and to introduce more efficient and safer working methods than those employed in traditional approaches (i.e. EDTA clearing baths, sodium metabisulfite, glass coating rods and hydration controls). I still prefer calling this variant ‘the Ammonium System’ – it seems to roll off the tongue more easily.
The Name: Prints from the two precious metals may be made with platinum, palladium or a mixture of both. I prefer to use the term ‘platinum/palladium’ as a general way of denoting all recipes using either one or both of these metals.
The hyphenated form, ‘platinum-palladium’ is used by me to describe a print made from a combined recipe of platinum and palladium salts, where the greater portion of metal in the finished print is platinum, or platinum and palladium are present in almost equal amounts. By this logic, prints where palladium is the predominant ingredient should be called palladium-platinum. Most contemporary prints made with a combined recipe are rendered from a predominance of palladium and should, strictly speaking, be described as suggested here. Many people also refer to prints made with platinum or palladium as ‘Platinotype’ and ‘Palladiotype’ or when combined, as platino-palladiotypes. etc. Finally, the chemical symbols for platinum and palladium are Pt and Pd respectively, and I occasionally use these as a shorthand for the full names.
Since around July 2015, I have tried to display images on this site that are scanned from actual prints. In all cases, I describe the source of the scan (e.g. ‘digital source’ for a photograph made with a digital camera; ‘Platinum-palladium print on 100% cellulose (Van Gelder simili japon) from original 8×10 in negative’, and so on.)
Since 2016, where prints are scanned, I have included a photographic target, designed for and approved by the American Institute of Conservators, to ‘provide an easy and efficient way to include photographic reference standards’. My hope is that by doing this, viewers will be able to get a better sense of what the originals look like. I have also included, from this date, a detailed view of the full scan.
- I use an Epson 10000XL flatbed scanner
- Prints are scanned with a Small AIC PhD Target from Robin Myers Imaging
- Epson Scan software is set to
- 48-bit color
- 600 ppi resolution
- No color correction
- Saved as TIFF, no compression, and then rendered in Adobe 1998.
- Files are imported into Lightroom. The only processing I do is some cropping and then Sharpen > Amount to 50, Radius to 1.0 and Detail to 25.
Screen grab of Epson Scan settings for reflective scans of original prints
Screen grab of Lightroom settings for Develop module > Sharpening settings. See the posted image of this particular scan