The Ultimate Guide To Platinum & Palladium Prints
For Art Buyers and Collectors
Although difficult and costly to create, platinum prints are the sine qua non of photographic art. Discerning art buyers and collectors value platinum prints because of their ethereal beauty, permanence, and rarity.
In this guide, the term platinum is synonymous with platinum & palladium.
Once a platinum print is experienced in person, it is usually a visual revelation because of its tremendous tonal range and delicate characteristics. Platinum prints are also referred to as Platinotypes in the historic literature.
The platinum print dates back to the mid 19th century when chemists and photographers were exploring ways to make more permanent photographs. It all started in 1842 when Sir John Hershel discovered an iron-based printing process. Fast forward about thirty years and William Willis Jr. patented the platinum printing process that builds upon the light-sensitive research of Hershel.
Platinum is a noble metal and is one of the most stable known to science. It is more precious than gold and because of its stability, a handmade platinum print that is made to archival standards can last for thousands of years as compared to 100 or 200 years for regular photographs. Palladium is less stable than platinum, but it certainly is considered to be an archival print by collectors and curators. Art buyers and collectors are well served by the archival properties of these noble metals.
In the 21st century, the vast majority of life and photography have been digitized. There are only a small number of dedicated platinum printmakers actively creating artist original work with platinum and I am one of them. Since platinum prints are made entirely by hand, each one is unique and this is important when considering original artwork.
In the right hands, platinum prints are unparalleled in their beauty and many people describe them as having a three-dimensional appearance. When a platinum print is made, the light-sensitive iron particles chemically react with the platinum to form fine elemental platinum particles into and on the top fibers of the paper. Because the resulting platinum is both woven into the fibers and sits on top of the paper, platinum prints have a depth about them unlike any other type of fine art photograph.
Platinum and Palladium Terminology
When purchasing a platinum print, the artist should fully disclose the chemical composition of each piece of artwork.
For every one of my platinum and palladium prints, I write in pencil on the print the exact chemical composition processed into the fibers of the paper, making this essential information a permanent part of the artwork.
There are technical reasons why an artist would want to include a small amount of palladium in a platinum print, but they should disclose the ratios so the buyer fully understands the composition of the artwork they are purchasing.
Platinum prints have a historically higher value than any other type of fine art photograph, so it is important that all parties have full visibility of the composition of the artwork. I believe when an artist markets their artwork as platinum, then it is a reasonable assumption the artwork should be made of platinum and if any other by-products are used, they should be fully disclosed.
Platinum vs. Palladium Visual Characteristics
The most noticeable difference between platinum and palladium prints is tonality and exposure range.
Platinum prints have elegant silvery-gray highlights and open shadow values. Platinum prints are much more demanding technically and more sensitive to chemical impurities in the paper. Platinum has a shorter exposure range resulting in more contrast than palladium which can give them a visual punch that often times sets them apart.
Palladium prints are typically warm toned with beautiful creamy looking highlight values. It is technically easier to make a palladium print and they are more tolerant of paper impurities than platinum. Palladium prints are known for their elegant and long exposure range. While still a noble and precious metal, palladium is more susceptible to environmental pollutants as compared to platinum prints.
How Platinum & Palladium Prints Are Created
All platinum, palladium, or platinum/palladium prints are handmade using a contact printing analog method.
An archival paper is hand-coated with the “sensitizer” which consists of iron salt and the precious metal or combination of metals platinum and palladium.
The artist has to first create a suitable negative the same size as the print and this is why most platinum or palladium prints are more intimate sizes.
Negatives for platinum or palladium prints require much more contrast than compared to other types of fine art prints like silver gelatin, for example. The photographer must possess the technical acumen to create a negative that takes advantage of the long tonal range offered by platinum and palladium prints or the prints will look flat and emotionless.
Based on the discovery of Sir John Hershel in 1842, light-sensitive iron salts, typically ferric oxalate, is mixed with a precious metal (platinum and/or palladium) and then exposed to ultra-violet light before being chemically developed and cleared.
Because of the lower contrast and long tonal range of platinum and palladium prints, a restrainer chemical can be used in the sensitizer formula or in the chemical developer. This is a personal choice of the photographer based on their creative vision.
The photographer has much discretion regarding their choice of developers which can have a significant impact on the visual characteristics of the final print.
The iron starts off in its normal ferric state and when combined with platinum and/or palladium it is converted to ferrous iron. The ferrous iron chemically reacts with the platinum and/or palladium while being exposed to ultraviolet light and when chemically developed returns to its ferric state with tiny particles of platinum and/or palladium woven into and on top of the fibers of the paper making a truly unique piece of art.
Archival & Permanence Matters
While platinum and palladium precious metals are incredibly stable, the paper that holds these precious metals and how the artwork is processed directly influences its archival permanence.
Papers used for creating platinum prints, in particular, must be 100% pure with no chemical by-products or agents, which are typically used in the manufacturing of contemporary papers for other types of photographs. Palladium is more tolerant than platinum for suitable papers, thus making platinum printing more challenging.
I create all of my platinum and palladium prints on Hahnemühle Platinum Rag because it is the ultimate archival paper that I trust.
In addition to the proper choice of a substrate (paper), the photographer must follow proper archival methods to “clear” the unwanted iron compounds and by-products from the iron and platinum/palladium reaction. If these elements are not removed properly through a time-consuming series of clearing baths and an archival wash, the print will eventually stain and damage the paper leading to failure.
Standards For Platinum & Palladium Prints
There are no formal standards for platinum or palladium prints, however, I will share my personal standards with you to provide you with a point of reference. I think you will find my standard reasonable and logical.
Platinum Prints: My platinum prints are a minimum of 85% platinum with the rest typically made with palladium. This is not an industry-standard because one doesn’t exist, but I feel it is an honest and credible standard that is based on transparency with my art buyers and collectors.
In contrast, 18-carat gold, which is the international standard for “pure gold” only has about 75% gold. The reason for the small amount of palladium in my platinum prints has to do with the way the precious metals react to the light-sensitive iron when the image is formed with the chemical developer, and not for aesthetic reasons. A very small amount of palladium in the platinum sensitizer supercharges the reaction process and produces an incredibly beautiful print with a long tonal range and soft and delicate highlight values.
Palladium Prints: Palladium has very similar properties and qualities as platinum, but palladium has a very warm/brown sets of tones versus the black and silver associated with platinum. All of my palladium prints are very warm toned artwork and made with 100% palladium. I choose palladium when the artwork is best rendered with these tonal values and a warm aesthetic.
Platinum & Palladium Prints: When a platinum print is made with more than 15% palladium, then I consider it to be a platinum and palladium print.
As a fine art collector, there are several things that you can do to ensure your artwork is in the best possible position for future generations. I will summarize some of the most important concepts to help you.
Tip # 1: Make sure your platinum or palladium or platinum/palladium print is made on 100% cotton rag paper because it is the most durable form of paper with a very pure cellulose content that is lignin free.
We know based on history that cotton rag documents have survived from the middle ages in remarkably good condition, so this is a point not to be overlooked.
Tip # 2: Either frame behind glass or store your platinum or palladium prints, and especially 100% pure platinum prints, in archival polyester sleeves to protect them from atmospheric influences. Framing isolates the artwork from harmful gases, especially sulfur dioxide (SO2) which is thought to be catalyzed by platinum to harmful sulfuric acid. Though SO2 emissions have gone down considerably over the last few decades, there is no way to know future levels.
Tip # 3: If you want to display your artwork without glass or leave them out without being stored in polyester archival sleeves, choose 100% palladium prints for best archival longevity. Scientific research shows there is no current evidence that palladium facilitates the catalyst conversion of SO2 to sulfuric acid. However, keep in mind we are likely talking about archival performance of many hundreds of years or longer.
Tip # 4: Ensure your platinum or palladium print is archivally processed by a trusted artist. By confirming 100% cotton rag paper is used and proper archival clearing is performed by the artist, you are taking the vital steps to ensure the longevity of your artwork. The harmful iron and chemical by-products must be removed during the clearing process to achieve optimal permanence.
Important History of Platinum & Palladium Prints
Platinum prints have unique properties when compared to classic black and white silver gelatin prints. Through the platinum print process platinum is both woven into the fibers and sits on top of the 100% cotton rag paper.
In contrast the silver in silver gelatin prints lies in a gelatin emulsion that coats the surface of the paper resulting in a semi-gloss or glossy presentation. Since no gelatin emulsion is used for platinum printing, the final platinum image is absolutely matte with a deposit of platinum and/or palladium absorbed slightly into the exposed cotton rag paper.
In 1873, thirty-four years after Louis Daguerre in Paris and William Henry Fox Talbot in London presented the discovery of photography to the world, the platinum process of printing photographs was patented. However, we know that platinum printing started decades before the official patent by Willis.
Since the late 19th century, platinum's use in photography has had an almost unbroken continuity to the present day—being interrupted only by the World Wars.
At the outbreak of the First World War, platinum abruptly could no longer be obtained. Russia had almost 90 percent of the world's supply at that time, and what little platinum was available went into the strategic needs of the war.
When peace returned to the world, platinum was prominently resurrected by Alfred Stieglitz, who printed mostly on platinum and palladium papers. Platinum was also preferred by his young and now famous protégés Paul Strand and Clarence White.
Edward Weston also used platinum and palladium papers throughout his early years as did Irving Penn, Manuel Alvarez Bravo and most of the greats in the history of photography have all produced perfect, beautiful images in platinum.
After World War II, few photographers immediately resumed the use of platinum, largely because commercially made, a platinum-coated paper was no longer available. This meant that the photographer had to hand-coat the paper. While we appreciate the handmade artisan aspect of hand coating platinum prints today, it was not viewed as such during the late 1940s.
Laura Gilpin was among a few post-World War II photographers who did maintain the use of platinum, hand-coating her papers and creating images of the Southwest that would ultimately become legendary.
Although platinum was again obtainable after World War I, its price remained extremely high and out of reach for many photographers and collectors. Because of these market conditions, experimentation with palladium photography began.
By the early 1900s, it was understood that platinum was one of a family of "platinum metals": the closely-related elements platinum, palladium, iridium, osmium and rhodium share many similar physical and chemical properties.
During this time and for many decades Palladium remained less expensive than platinum and in better supply putting it within reach of more photographers. Costs of the precious metals are continually changing over time.
In the following years, photographers began to experiment by mixing platinum and palladium together in varying proportions to achieve results that are not possible when the precious metals were used alone.
Two key aspects make the platinum print so special and so loved by collectors around the world - their delicate beauty and permanence.
The unique beauty of a fine platinum print involves a broad scale of tones from black to white with delicate highlights and open shadows unlike anything attainable in silver prints. In the deepest shadows, the platinum print still presents information; the platinum whites are delicate, and the depth of the image is alive and three-dimensional.
Platinum prints are not only exceptionally beautiful, but they are also among the most permanent objects invented by human beings! The platinum metals (platinum and palladium) are both more stable than gold, with platinum being the most stable of the three.
Throughout history, man has used many methods of expression, such as daguerreotype, albumen, carbon, gravure, and most commonly, silver emulsions. But for master photographers, platinum has always held a special place.
In spite of its enormous extra labor and cost, platinum is often preferred for the photographer's most personal, special and rare images.
Alfred Stieglitz referred to platinum as "the prince of media."
Frederick Evans, one of the best platinum printers in history (whose prints of medieval cathedrals in Britain and the Continent are still regarded as quintessential), refused to use anything else and gave up photography when his beloved platinum became unavailable due to the war.
His friend, George Bernard Shaw, wrote that platinum is "on the extreme margin of photographic subtlety."
In recent decades—with the appreciation of photography as an art, and its accelerating value as an investment to collectors—platinum is again in a renaissance among artists.