Alchemical Windows, 1984

Tessa Jackson, Curator, Collins Gallery, Strathclyde University

The presentation of a one person show is as problematic for the hosting gallery as for the artist concerned. The Gallery must select its candidate for the quality and coherence of the work, substantiating its decision, if necessary, in response to criticism and challenge. Similarly, the artist must present, perhaps for the first time, a new body of work to an unknown audience, seeking recognition yet at the same time being aware of his vulnerability. In the case of a young artist with his first large scale one-man show, as in this instance, the way in which the work is selected and projected is vital to both parties. Concurrently, their shared responsibility includes sustaining the viewer’s interest and promoting a fresh form of visual expression.

The selection of Pradip Malde in 1984 for the Gallery’s annual solo show by a young artist working in Scotland, is noteworthy, as it is the first time that the choice has fallen upon a photographer. Photography, a relatively young artform and yet to be recognised as such by some galleries and viewers, has already proved itself to be both popular and accessible. It is therefore perhaps remarkable that Malde’s work has been selected, since on first encounter it could be neither described as easily accessible in meaning and medium, nor as associated with common or popular photographic traditions like those of reportage or social documentation. The exhibition is the product of the last five years since completing a post-graduate degree at Glasgow School of Art. The work divides into two technical types—those images printed by the platinum process and those where the more usual process of silver gelatin has been employed. In turn, the prints can be loosely grouped into a number of subjects or themes, namely still lives of various periods, landscapes, portraits and those with political or literary antecedents. The images, while composed of recognizable objects or elements, remain enigmatic and complex. Furthermore, the platinum prints present an unfamiliar impression and total quality to most viewers, since the technique is now not often adopted or easily practiced. However, it is these various factors which have prompted a detailed examination and greater exposure of Pradip Malde’s work.

The inaccessibility of platinum printing is a modern phenomena. The technique, first patent by William Willis in 1873, enjoyed great popularity and was practiced by a large number of photographers before its demise during and following the First World War. The process involves coating paper with a light-sensitive solution based upon a mixture of ferric oxalate and platinum. The paper is then exposed to light through the image negative. 1880 saw the introduction of commercially produced platinum papers and, as a result, by the 1890’s half the photographs exhibited at the Royal Photographic Society were platinotypes, as they were then called. The proponents of the process included Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936) Alfred Horsley Hinton (1863-1908) and the Linked Ring Brotherhood who saw the process as embodying a specific aesthetic, as opposed to the scientific approach to photography which has existed to date. They saw that its qualities lay in the delicacy of images portrayed and the wide tonal range attained. The suggestion of atmosphere was recognized while the inability to manipulate the print through the process was seen as an advantage in the pursuit of pure photography. Emerson noted with pleasure the absence of harsh blacks and proceeded to use the wealth of greys to superlative effect in his landscapes. Frederick H. Evans (1852-1943), who practiced the technique exclusively in his famous views of English cathedrals, commented ”if the platinotype were to become a lost art, we for our part would never take another photograph”. In addition, Frederick Hollyer (1837-1933) employed platinum in his series of portraits of celebrated artists and authors; Clarence White (1871-1925) and Edward Weston (1886-1958) continued to capitalize on its suitability for capturing the natural with its intermediate tones. In America, Paul Strand (1892-1976) was to continue to use until 1937, when Kodak withdrew the last commercially produced platinum paper. As a process, it declined as a result of the First World War when platinum became a strategic material. The cost of platinum became prohibitive and even its present market value stands at 20 times that of silver. Today’s photographer must therefore address himself to the problems of producing the light-sensitive paper himself as well as arriving at a suitable coating formula since time has veiled the chemistry in uncertainty

In the wake of platinum becoming scarce and economically implausible, many photographers ceased producing pictures altogether. However, the very qualities which attracted and preoccupied former exponents led Pradip Malde to the medium. Finding it a more emotionally charged process, Malde has surmounted both the technical and aesthetic problems it posed on initial examination in 1982. He uses the process in all areas of this work but perhaps most significantly in his still lives. He takes advantage of its inherent physical qualities and aptly marries them with his thoughts and emotions. The results have real and recognisable content, but are transformed into the abstract by physical placing. The picture is one consciously composed using found objects, or debris, often decomposed, incomplete or imperfect. These very characteristics aid in dispelling preconceived ideas and associations for both the maker and the viewer. The objects are not subjected to any specific ordering, but reflect the artists approach to expressing his emotions and thoughts. Rarely in this area of his work does he set out and progress from a specific idea, instead the success of the images lie in the arrangement and composition which are arrived at spontaneously. Malde enjoys wielding tight control and yet he selects platinum in some cases to remove the harshness which can exist in the control and gloss finish off the silver gelatin images.

The landscapes contrast with the still lives in what Malde has chosen to omit from the picture frame. Rather than an assemblage, the viewer is presented with an oblique view of the natural. A strong sense of landscape and the environment exist and yet it is not captured for its own sake. During the past four years, Malde has lived on South Ronaldsay, Orkney. The place is alluded to in much of his work, and yet the photographs do not tell of or bear specific reference to the place. The only contradictions to this are the three striking photographs of the Occidental oil rig, Flotta (37-39) which present very specific and descriptive images.

Portraiture is a more recent departure for Malde. Returning to a theme he rejected while at Bournemouth College of Art in the mid 1970’s on the grounds of having insufficient control and being too exacting in identity, the artist now approaches portraits with renewed confidence in and a greater respect for outside stimuli. Earlier work, in particular the still lives of 1981 to 82, possess personal references; more recently these have been extended and are now drawn from wider experience. Orkney, in its geographical isolation, has estranged Malde for identifying with any specifically Scottish our European tradition and yet has provided a strong but neutral environment from which to gain greater awareness, be it on an emotional or political level.

Pradip Malde’s work is unusual both in the context of Scotland and Britain. Its visual and emotional qualities are offset by the artist’s preoccupation with the technical, the firm control of content by the need to experiment with process formula, the composed objects by the inferred elements in his images. These polarities are further emphasized by the adoption of an antique process, a vocabulary through which a contemporary vision is translated. Pradip Malde’s approach combines the characteristics of a painter with that of an alchemist; his work becomes a magical window from which the worlds looks in and the artist looks out.

Published in ‘Alchemical Windows: platinum and silver photographs by Pradip Malde’, exhibition catalogue, Collins Gallery, Glasgow, 1984