Platinum photographs look cool. Actually they can look a bit warm too, depending on the mood of photo goddesses and gods on that particular day. In reality, it’s such a temperamental process that even when you have the scientific aspects precisely correct, one can still get dramatically different looks that seem to defy logic. This drives some photographers completely mental, and many simply abandon it and move on to something easier, like quantum physics.
People who are willing to let go a bit, and go with the flow from what the photo goddesses send your way generally get good results. In other words, it’s critical to have a look or feel that you like and strive for making a visual manifestation of it, yet be open to the fluidity of what the process has to offer it’s practitioners. Be steadfast yet flexible, kind of like how you raise a teenager, and when everything seems beyond redemption, try again, don’t give up.
Platinum photographs, or platinotypes are a 19th century photographic process where you mix up a liquid photographic emulsion that contains real platinum and other light sensitive compounds. You coat the paper with this emulsion, let it dry and then expose a negative with ultraviolet light onto the paper. Sounds easy, right? In reality, it’s quite complex, but in my opinion is worth the battle to make it work because you end up with a look that is so unique. Each photographer who uses this process starts to have their own visual aesthetic or tastes with how they want their prints to look.
Please go see the work for yourself at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian from now until January of 2015. Here is a link where you can see all of the photographs in the exhibition, “Indelible: The Platinum Photographs of Larry McNeil and Will Wilson.”
I’m partial to sharp detail even when the look is a little soft because of how the emulsion interacts with the paper. The photographers who used soft focus lenses in the 19th century were practitioners of Pictorialism, where the platinum photographs were often “dreamy looking” where soft focus lenses ruled the day and it was a highly romanticized look. My photographs are anything but romanticized, but I like to think that they have a certain poetry to them, but with a hard edge, both visually and metaphorically.
This is where “the rubber meets the road” as they say. If you can’t make a decent digital negative, maybe it’s time to walk the Earth until you get your mind right. It’s when you see whether the photo goddesses are partial to you. If you still get bad negatives, perhaps you ought to consider just using a cell phone camera or get on your knees to the photo gods and do some serious begging to get back in their good graces.
The moment of truth. If you’ve got an exceptional negative, you are now free to start getting abused in the darkroom. Sorry, I mean if you have a great tonal range and it’s sharp, you can sneak into the darkroom before any bad mojo catches up with you. Your platinum photograph is going to be the same size as the negative.
The Act of Naming New Work
Like any creative work, my photographs nearly always earn a title, and I view a title as another creative aspect of the work itself, sometimes offering a subtle layer of meaning. Naming new work is always a challenge, because we generally want something “short and sweet” as they say, without being too blunt or factual. It’s a fine line, because hopefully the title is also perhaps a little poetic and a natural reflection of the work itself without seeming to force anything.
Since this was a collaboratively made photograph with my son T’naa, it was only fair that we named it together. We bounced a lot of ideas around in my office, including why the photograph looks like this, and thought that maybe a title inspired by one of his Metal Bands would be good. Just by dumb luck, T’naa was taking a college writing class at the time and he explained that some classic writing verses have what’s called an “iambic pentameter.” For an example, Shakespeare used an iambic pentameter which consisted of five pairs of two syllables (or iambic feet). This means that there is a quantified rhythm to the English language.
Having established attitude, rhythm and meaning, we started writing down lists of words; some humorous, some a bit presumptuous, and some just plain way too serious for it’s own good. I insisted on keeping “Raven” somewhere, because after all, he’s the one walking around the scene. I still like a plain little notebook for brainstorming ideas and have stray notebooks around the studio.
Ready for what we came up with after all this? Drumroll please, and preferably from a Metal band: “Sunrise Stroll Across the Wastelands”
We both liked it because the idea of a sunrise is about hope, a literal new day that we can make our own. The word “stroll” seemed perfect because it infers something leisurely and maybe even kind of carefree, like the idea of a relaxed walk through a park or garden. Much like the photograph itself, the words are juxtaposed with the last word “wastelands,” which is what helps add momentum to the idea that the photograph may be a bit satirical. When we tossed this title into the mix it made both of us laugh out loud, so we knew we nailed it.
Smithsonian Website Indelible
I hope you take the time to visit the Smithsonian’s Indelible website for the new platinum photography. Not only that, I hope you get the opportunity to see the exhibition in person, because there is a subtlety to the photographs that is difficult to reproduce on a web page. Each photograph has a very cool set of audio recordings to accompany the work.
“Raven is known among the Tlingit to have created the world. Of the deepest platinum black, he surveys wreckage strewn across a post-apocalyptic landscape, casting a shadow upon a smashed camera. Although the bleak setting suggests photography’s demise, Raven instead announces a new beginning for the medium. With Raven’s connection to the camera, McNeil asserts the power of the power of American Indians to create their own photographic representations of and for themselves.”
The audio files were fun to make. Scroll down on each image page and listen to McNeil as he shares his wisdom about such topics as Raven’s Boneheads, or Baskets Before Time. Each platinum photograph has it’s own set of audio files. Get yourself a nice mug of coffee and a comfortable chair to listen up.
And Don’t forget about the Nikon that makes cool digital Negatives
This high resolution Nikon D800 makes extraordinary digital negatives for platinum prints. After comparing scanned film with photos shot directly from a digital camera, I’ve been finding that the digital negatives are very, very high quality. For whatever reason, the negatives are more forgiving for photos originating from a digital camera. I suspect it’s because you don’t have to make the transition from film grain to pixels, and the pixel to pixel transition is a very cool lateral shift where image quality is not compromised in the least.
The 36 megapixel sensor makes highly detailed photographs that can easily rival a large format scanned negative. Toss in some cool Nikkor lenses and you get great digital negatives. This Nikon is going to make my platinum printing faster without compromising image quality, which is what us photographers are constantly chasing around the planet. With ravens.
Now go check out the Indelible exhibition. Do a road trip, man.
Story and Photographs Copyright Larry McNeil 2014, All Rights Reserved.