This past week as I prepared to print several new photographs in platinum/palladium, those noblest of elemental metals, I didn’t expect anything out of the ordinary. A year and a half ago, I put a lot of time into not only learning the ins and outs of the process but also the crafting of large size negatives, both digitally and the traditional method requiring long hours in the darkroom.
You see, platinum printing is a contact process. You need a negative the same size as your final image and it needs to have certain properties in order to create a rich print, but that’s only the beginning. The prints are made on beautifully tactile watercolor or printmaking paper. Because such paper is manufactured acid-free for archival longevity, it contains carbonates that raise the pH of the paper into the alkaline end of the scale. This alkaline pH doesn’t get along with the platinum/palladium emulsion, which is by nature slightly acidic, and all sorts of maladies ensue ranging from washed-out images to mottled, blotchy prints. Soaking the paper in a relatively benign dilute acid bath for several minutes and drying it overnight usually ensures success.
By now you’re probably saying, “Doesn’t he know that there are digital cameras and inkjet printers that would save him a lot of time?” Well…yes, but there’s nothing like the fun (my definition) of slopping, I mean, brushing emulsion on paper. You’re making light-sensitive paper by hand and it’s as analog a process as can be especially in today’s speed-of-light existence, no pun intended.
After the paper dries, you slap the negative in place and expose in the sun or a UV exposure unit for a few minutes, take the paper out and pour hot developer over it all at once. The image comes up immediately in beautiful rich tones. After a few clearing baths to rid the paper of excess salts, the print is washed and laid out to dry. It’s as close to magic as anything can be.
Once you’ve done this a few hundred times you start getting the hang of it (Malcolm Gladwell says that 10,000 hours is needed to become an expert in a field) and you can count on getting reliable results despite the huge number of variables inherent in a hand process like this.
Until…something goes wrong.
Well, it happened. Just as I was looking forward to making many new prints (while my girls were out-of-state visiting family for the week), I started getting results that didn’t match the quality of the prints I had been making for the past year. I checked my chemistry, the exposure unit, the brush…even the humidity, but it takes a lot of time to isolate the problem by changing just one variable at a time. Each iteration seems endless…mix chemicals, coat paper, wait for it to dry, humidify paper, expose, develop, clear, wash, dry.
I finally tracked the problem down to the paper, an all too common occurrence among platinum printers. Manufacturers change formulas without notice and although the changes don’t matter much to watercolor artists and printmakers, people like me who are dependent upon a precarious set of conditions are thrown into the abyss.
It got me thinking about how much life is like a platinum print. We settle into a groove, going about our daily routine, learning and loving, making it better, keeping our heads down and going for it. Then something comes along to uproot the balance we’ve struck and our lives need to be reevaluated, reordered, reconsidered. Sorting through can take a while but hopefully we’ll come out the other side stronger, confident and ready for more. Here’s to that hope for all of us…