Portraits in Platinum – Pradip Malde
April 15, 2013
I have always been interested in learning about how other photographic printers use platinum and palladium especially if it’s in a contemporary way. Whilst doing research on the Ammonium method of creating platinum prints I came across the work of Pradip Malde, a professor of art at the University of the South and a photographer/printer based in Tennessee. Pradip and Mike Ware together devised and modernised this new method of platinum printing which is a printing-out process that requires little or no development, unlike the traditional platinotype, in which the full image does not appear until development. This modernized version has some advantages in economy, accessible chemistry, exposure control and will be discussed in greater in a later post. (You can learn more about it by clicking here)
There is something very special about the portraits Pradip has taken over the years and how he has masterfully paired them with this particular method of platinum printing. On the rare occasions that I have taken portraits of people the most successful have always been with those who I have had a certain connection with,which also seems to have been the case with Pradip.Much of his own work considers the experience of loss and how it serves as a catalyst for regeneration. Believing that beauty and hope are intertwined, his studio practice and teaching consider how best to use these experiences to bring about meaningful communication and expression
Since graduating from the Glasgow School of Art in 1980, he has lived and worked as a photographic artist and teacher in Scotland and Tennessee and has exhibited in Europe and the USA, and has works in numerous collections including the Princeton University Museum, Princeton, NJ; Victoria & Albert Museum, London and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.
I wanted to learn more about Pradip, how he became interested in platinum printing, why he chose to print using this particular alternative photographic process, how he goes about preparing to take a photographic portrait of someone as well as a number of other technical topics concerning the platinum printing process. What follows is my interview with him.
When did your interest in Platinum/Palladium printing begin?
From the outset, when I began to work with platinum-palladium printing around 1980, I was interested in the expressive capacities of this process rather than the ‘alternativeness’ of photographic practice. Much of my work is concerned with how (big) metaphysical questions are resolved in nuanced ways by the day-to-day experience. Nuance seems to define the platinum-palladium print, and so I prefer to work with the ammonium process more than any other. Mike Ware’s understanding of the need for clarity, and his constant call to apply Occam’s razor whenever possible, have had a profound influence on my work.
What is it about the platinum aesthetic that most appeals to you as a photographer compared to other photographic printing techniques?
The ‘aesthetic’ was summed up best I think by William Crawford, in ‘Keepers of Light’, quoting Beaumont Newhall, who said something like, ‘a good platinum print should just make you sit down, and say ooooh’. To be more specific, I often like to think of the aesthetic relationship between a platinum(-palladium) print and silver gelatin print to be akin to that between a harpsichord and a grand piano. With a print that capitalizes on the full capacities of the pt-pd process, the tones whisper out to the viewer without competing with each other or the paper fiber. A good pt-pd print, for me, makes invisible the process itself – and this includes grain, along with paper fibre and paper surface – and generates an experience of luminosity that is very close to the way we actually see tonal range.
Peter Henry Emerson cited these same qualities in designating the process as most suitable for what he called ‘Naturalistic Photography’. Many people go into making pt prints with a reference value system that is anchored to silver gelatin printing, and they emerge with wonderful results. I would urge photographers to consider this: how would you print in monochrome if you referenced the way we actually see, and never considered silver gelatin? Then, how would you print silver gelatin based on an experience of printing with platinum? It may quickly become apparent that the silver gelatin print may approximate the nuances of platinum, but is better designed to render its own tonal ‘voice’. Vice versa with the platinum print, and more so with platinum-palladium, and again even more so with palladium. This brings me to the matter of platinum, platinum-palladiu, palladium-platinum and palladium being used interchangeably. Each of these are not synonymous. Each of these renders, respectively, a less and less contrasty tonal range as well as a significantly different color palette. Platinum is the most contrasty and neutral, palladium is the least contrasty and can be made to render a variety of colors, even split tones. Finally contrast also depends on other parameters like paper and processing.
How do you normally approach taking a portrait of someone?
A number of specific things have to be present or in place, and this is easy to talk about: atmospherics, equipment, the person. By these I mean the quality of light, the configuration of objects and space, time to make the photograph; quick and fluid access to large format equipment; a willingness to be photographed and a desire to photograph that person. Very few of my photographs are made by appointment, but there are times when I sense that a photograph could be made, and always listen to this instinct — even if, after lugging a case of large format equipment around, I don’t touch the gear. Which brings me to the stuff of portraiture that is harder to talk about: anticipating and feeling, harmonizing the realtionships between subject and all the visual components of a frame, observing and becoming part of the image. Cartier-Bresson quoted Cardinal de Retz, saying that ‘there is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment’, and this has held true for a lot of photographic practice. But another way of considering portraiture is that all relationships swell and ebb, and the photographic portrait comes from – and to paraphrase – a most pregnant moment. There is nothing in this world that does not come from a process, in other words. So, to put it simply, I make a portrait at that moment that is swelling with feeling for my subject. I learned a lot about this from spending time with Rondal Partridge, and studying his mother’s (Imogen Cunningham) work.
Could you expand on what you have learnt from Rondal, I really enjoy viewing his mother’s work and i from what I understand she was a very accomplished platinum printer.
Ron expressed an interest in photography as a young child, frequently helping his mother in the darkroom before he was even ten. While still in his teens, he began to assist Imogen’s friends and peers – Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams most notably. By his late 20’s he was working independently as a photographer. He is still very active. What I learned most from Ron, even though it has taken decades for this to actually register, is a very simple thing. I learned about truth. Keeping in mind that he grew up and worked with Cunningham, Dorothea and Adams, it may better inform what I mean here by ‘truth’. All of these photographers are distinguished by work that renders experience in photographic terms without ever compromising imagination and feeling. For Ron, photography is about truth to subject and truth to process.
Did you have a chance to view some of her original prints? If so what were your favourite images by her.
Over a period of several months, I looked at each and every one of her negatives (well over 70,000 in total). Along with that, yes, I was able to study and enjoy many of her original prints. The platinum prints she made in the early 20thC are gorgeous, among them a portrait “Edward Weston, Margrethe Mather”, ca. 1914 (see below).It came out of a session with her friends, all shot with 8×10. Interestingly, in this same session, she did some of Weston and Mather (both photographers) holding metal tubes that were used for shipping and storing commercially produced platinum paper.
Are most of the portraits you have taken of friends or have some been commissioned?
They are all of friends or people I approached. The only commission I did, in Edinburgh some time in 1986 or ’87, was a disaster. A lot depends on motive. And I have to care for the person I am photographing. There have been a few times that I set out to make a portrait and found the result to be highly undesirable – in almost every case, this has happened due to my inadequacies as a photographer. But in some rare cases, the photograph has been a portent of a failed friendship. I learn a lot from portraits, about myself, as well as about the subject and my relationship with the subject.
For some of the portraits you have printed on Wyndstone vellum paper, I have never used this type of paper what is that like to print with?
The specific name of the paper is Wyndstone Vellum # 165 243, and my preferred weight is 5pt. Manufactured in Germany, and imported into the USA with this name, the paper is ‘naturally’ translucent, as opposed to the more common practise of chemical transparentizing used in the manufacture of most vellums. It has been sized for the reprographic / printing industry, and is slightly acidic. The paper has been manufactured with totally chlorine-free water. The furnish is wood cellulose, using a mixture of hard and soft woods, including some eucalyptus, but the US distributor insists that the paper is lignin free. I usually purchase my supplies from Sam Flax in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.
Using this paper, as my dear friend Mike Ware sometimes says, is not for the feint of heart. While it may be hardly apparent when looking at the dry, uncoated paper, there is a wire and a felt side that will show up once the print is dry. It is difficult to determine which side is which with the naked eye. When cutting down the full sheet, stack all paper with the same side up. Thus, once you make a first print from the stack, it will be possible to identify surfaces by the way the stack lies. Another, more subtle indicator comes from the curl of the paper: the convex side is the felt surface.
To coat a 8×10 inch area, 1.3cc of sensitizer solution is ideal, allowing for 5 passes with a coating rod. The paper is less absorbant than other papers. Consequently, you may feel as though embarking on a fifth pass is risky. Having said that, I have given this paper as many as 6 passes without any deterioration. It is essential that the paper is taped down onto glass, parallel to the grain or fiber direction. If using a glass coating rod, which I recommend, then the passes should be made perpendicular to the grain. This will render smoother passes. Once damp, the paper tends to curl dramatically. A simple method of preventing unmanageable curling from this point on through to drying is by attaching two clothes pegs to the lower end of the paper. The pegs themselves are attached to a ‘cross-piece’ of 3/16″ dowel or plexiglass tube. This structure tends to hold the paper relatively flat during drying. A similar arrangement can be used for the top end of the paper too.
Drying times are as normal for other papers (10 minutes at around 40°C)
Assessing exposure (this applies to printing-out processes such as the Ammonium pt-pd system, Chrysotype and the New Cyanotype)
During exposure, have a piece of white paper or thin white card handy as you prepare to inspect. Slipping it between the coated paper and the negative will make assessment easier. I have also found that it helps to place the contact printing frame face down on a white surface – as i swing the back open and lift the negative, the image projecting through the translucent paper gives me enough information to make a fairly accurate estimate of exposure. At full print-out, highlight values (zones VII – VIII) are still difficult to see, They will only become apparent once the paper is dry and sitting on an opaque white surface.
The paper is very robust and has good wet strength, but it is tremendous dimensional expansion. It tends to kink easily, therefore handle it with about the same care as with papers lighter than about 160 gsm. Process normally, finishing with a 30 minute wash in a very gentle flow of water.
Drip dry by placing the washed print on a vertical sheet of plexiglass / perspex or glass. Once all surface water has drained (about 15m), place face up on a screen. Be warned and do not panic: the paper will go through buckling contortions of geological proportions. Once dry, it will like dried seaweed, but somewhat flatter. At this point, press the print under some weights for a couple of days, or better, between two preheated sheets of matt board in a dry mounting press at around 70C / 160F for about 60 seconds.
The print can be given a very slightly finer surface by a process of ‘pseudo-calendering’. After it has washed and drained, place it face down on a very clean sheet of plexiglass, cover with three or four layers of blotting paper, and apply a roller over the entire print with considerable pressure. Uncover and peel off gently. This can be better accomplished if you have access to an etching press.
Vellum, being highly dimensionally unstable, can begin to buckle in humid environments. For exhibitions, it is best to matt, frame and display these prints in an atmosphere of less than 60% RH at around 20C. This means that frames should be sealed. An alternative is to dry-mount the paper onto archival board, using archival dry-mounting tissue (I recommend Seal MT 5 or Seal Buffer Mount.) As with any material behind the print, the color of the tissue will affect the print color due to the vellum’s translucency.
When exposing film for platinum printing what advice would you give other photographers/printers in respect of the subject matter and lighting conditions ?
It is important from the outset that photographers understand the relationship between subject matter and the print. This relationship ranges from technical issues to expressive ones. I mention this first as a disclaimer of sorts, and also as a reminder of something that a photographer for whom I have tremendous respect, Thomas Joshua Cooper, said: “Seeing leads to vision”. With regard to subject matter (including lighting conditions or subject brightness) and the platinum-palladium print, it helps for the photographer to have some sense not only of what the process will tolerate, but also how what is seen translates into what is felt — vision. So, as far as advice about subject brightness and platinum printing goes, I would recommend that negatives be made with as full a tonal range as possible: with some tonal information clearly visible even in the areas that may eventually print up as a maximum black, yet separation and detail in the areas that will print as the highlights. To be more technical, the ideal negative for platinum-palladium printing should have a density range of between 1.6 and 2.0. To arrive at this, the photographer has to be aware of how to convert subject brightness ranges into an appropriate exposure. Exposure is conditioned by vision, as well as film type and development. Development decisions are affected by vision, subject brightness, exposure and the printing process. Finally, I must stress that each printing technique has its own particular ‘voice’. Just as with different musical instruments, the platinum-palladium print is to the silver gelatin print what perhaps the harpsichord may be to the grand piano. Printers should remain aware of this.
A Final word from Pradip about the images and his process :
‘The images in this article were printed directly from the original negatives, which are either 8×10 or 11×14. I like to keep my process as simple, repeatable and disciplined as possible, so that I can fully concentrate on the expressive aspects of printing. There is a conundrum here, because, after all, these three components can kill ‘expression’. I’ll put it another way – I strive to not let process get in the way of eloquence, while being fully aware that each informs and conditions the other. I use HP5 film, process in Pyro PMK, and print using exactly those methods described in Mike Ware’s and my approach to the ammonium-based platinum-palladium printing process. The chief variable is paper, and I prefer to work with highly calendered surfaces such as found on Wyndstone Vellum. I also use Crane’s Business Card Stock Natural or Pearl White Wove (once sold as Crane’s Platinotype by Bostick and Sullivan), Fabriano 5 and Van Gelder Simili Japon.’