Friday, 27 August 2010

Learning from Master Platinum Printer Irving Penn

 Irving Penn was one the finest platinum printers of recent times and created some of the most exquisite, valuable and sort after platinum prints. He was self taught and obsessive about this particular alternative photographic printing process, trying all manner of papers, combinations and mixes of platinum/palladium and even Iridium metals. He is well respected within photographic community first and foremost for being a great photographer,  however he is also championed as leading the revival of the platinum printing  process in the late 1960’s/70’s since becoming dormant for over 50 years.

From reading around the subject, the reason for Penn taking up the platinum printing process was in part due to the fact after taking so much time, care and attention in creating images in the studio and darkroom, once printed in the pages of Vogue and other magazines they would lose a lot of the beauty and subtlety of the original negatives/prints. He wanted to somehow take back his images and ‘transform them from being a thing suitable for reproduction into something entirely different, something beautiful in itself’ (Conversation with Penn and Greenough, 14 January 2003).  Always testing and pushing his technique further and allowing chance and fortuitous discoveries to occur, in the late 1980’s he used a modified banquet camera (12x20 inch) to photographic his own drawings which he would  later paint over and sometimes mix in sand to add greater texture. The book ‘Platinum Prints’ published by Yale University Press in 2005 has an interesting and well written essay by Sarah Greenough that goes into great detail regarding Penn’s printing process. Although it is largely second hand information I can well believe it to be accurate. I came across text actually written by Penn for an exhibition catalogue in 1980 the other day, shown below, although it tells us nothing new it was interesting to read him describe his technique is his own words.

  I think there is probably a lot we still don’t know about his printing method, some printers I have come across refrain from divulging their techniques, which I am fine with as some advances are hard won, indeed Penn once stated that he was ‘jealous’ of sharing his pleasure with anyone.(quoted from ‘The stranger behind the camera: Photographs and Art work by Irving Penn,’Vogue November 2004) However there are other printers that I have come across that are very open with their advances, people that immediately spring to mind who have generously helped my development as a  printer include Mike Ware and Ian Leake.

Renowned platinum printer Stan Klimek, who has printed some of the finest contemporary platinum prints I have ever seen, states in Dick Arentz book on platinum printing that creating a perfect platinum print is like ‘aiming at a moving target’ which is definitely the case these days. With materials such as paper being discontinued all the time or modified to suit other printmaking techniques (buffering of paper with calcium carbonate comes to mind) new papers/transparency films have to be found and tested and new methods of paper/negative preparation and processing techniques have to be devised and adapted. This is why ultimately I believe as more  products people once relied on to create platinum prints are discontinued or changed hybrid techniques will continue to expand and why websites such as (part of APUG) are this are essential to any future development.

Anyway I digress! Coming back to Penn, If  one  looks at the existing information on Penn’s technique what can modern day platinum printers learn from it ?Well for a start we know he muliti layered platinum/palladium onto paper such as BFK Rives, Bienfang, Arches and Strathmore.  Penn obviously did this for a reason and could see significant benefits from this practice, further to this he sometimes made the first coating with platinum and the second with palladium or Iridium, the later I have never come across, has anyone else? What hands on experience have others had with muliti layering contemporary papers such as Platine, Lana Aquarelle, Bergger COT-320,BFK Rives and alternating with coats of platinum and palladium.

 Penn states that he used ‘2 or more negatives of varying contrast to make a single print.’ He was able to register them perfectly by mounting his printing paper onto aluminium using a bond called Surlyn created by Dupont. The reason being to endure the ‘repeating wettings and dryings with little change to the dimension’ of the paper which was required for printing and exposing multiple negatives (A modified version of this was devised by Richard Sullivan using a different bond made by Seal, the advantage being that at the final stage the bond can be heated and the print removed from the aluminium without damaging the print.)Using a digital negative system approach in theory we should be able to replicate this without the use of multiple negatives and successive exposures. As is well known for any given image, modern day photographers can take a series of two digital exposures and combine to create one image, one exposed for the shadows and one for the highlights, then combine them via Photoshop to create an image of ‘High Dynamic Range’ (HDR), this HDR image could then be output via inkjet printer/imagesetter. (A similar approach could be used when scanning film of either two negatives or even one). I am not a fan of HDR images per say, as I find them overly surreal, however if used in moderation it should work the same as using multiple negatives, shouldn’t it?. This is my theory, of course the very act of making successive exposures to multiple negatives of varying contrast could play a significant part, much like the layering of a pigment or gum print, has anyone researched this or established the difference ? I aim to test this theory over the next few weeks by using multiple negatives/exposures versus just a single HDR digital negative with a single exposure to see if there is much of a difference. At the moment for some images I initially create 4 separate negatives each with a slightly different correction curve that I have developed and modified over the years, which i then print all together on one sheet, I then examine the final dried down print and on occasion I combine certain image characteristics that I like of each of the 4 negatives to create one final negative. Probably overly elaborate but it’s the way I like to work.

Another issue is the exposure system used, Penn states that they ranged 'from 2 mins to 2 hours with a single strong Xenon light' I know Sandy King has done significant research into the area of uv exposure systems and it is one that I have overlooked but need to follow up (further information can be found here,  )

A final question….If Penn were alive today and creating platinum prints with the proficiency of his early youth, would he still be creating multiple negatives with successive exposures in the darkroom or would he embracing hybrid techniques such as digital negative creation to achieve the same results?
To conclude, this post has been rather longer than I intended it to be, however I hope others find it thought provoking.

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