To Mask or not to Mask

September 6, 2012

When I first started printing with alternative processes some ten years ago I would always show the edges/brush strokes on my prints. However the problem with showing brush strokes is that you cannot completely tell if you have fully cleared a print. The vast majority of platinum/palladium prints we create today at DC Editions the negatives are masked with rublith film to create clean edges in the final print unless the artist stipulates differently. All of the Irving Penns platinum/palladium prints that I have come across always have clean edges when you lift up the mount, you can even see the pencil marks on the printing paper where he marked out the edge bounderies of where he wanted to coat.

Quite often the brush strokes detract from the actual image and it is rare to come across an image that benefits from showing them. However I am always prepared to experiment if the right image comes along. That was the case with one of Stephan Milev images which we have been working on recently entitled  ‘Nika’, the scanned platinum/palladium print is shown below. We highlighted some of the platinum prints we created for him a few months ago on this blog.


Nika, Hamburg 2010, Stephan Milev, Platinum/Palladium


Stefan is an outstanding German photographer based in Paris, a master of the polaroid aesthetic,  he has recently been involved in the testing of the new 10x8inch instant film created by Impossible Project, the initial results are stunning. His work reminds me of Paolo Roversi in some respects and it has been a pleasure working with him. We will be highlighting more of his work that we have been working on later on in the year. To see more of his imagery visit  and also his blog at


Stefan MIlev at Work


To learn more about the Impossible 10×8 inch instant film testing he has been involved in you can visit the following websites :



– PDN –


Some time ago I started a thread looking at how contemporary platinum/palladium printers could learn from Irving Penn, one of the great masters of the process.  More specifically my interest was in relation to his use of multi-layer printing technique.

A recent poster to the thread had come across some of his hand working notes on the process in the Archives of the Art Institute of Chicago: The Irving Penn Archives at the Art Institute of Chicago | The Art Institute of Chicago

Below shows some of the Transcripts, I have yet to digest the significance of such notes but will do so in later posts. There are more pages that need transcribing which will also follow.

‘PH of paper greatest importance. Gray stain when even acid paper used without addition of HCL when coating. Bad stain when neutral or alkaline paper (Fabriano, unsized) used. Addition of 1.5 drops per cc of metallic solution required to reduce stain to acceptable level. (Some formulas use oxalic acid in fairly large amount in coating solution. I must explore this more fully.)

Kurt Steirs research (see his notes) indicates paper lasting quality almost entirely dependent on PH of paper. An acid condition is destructive. In our work this acidity is apparently cumulative. An acid paper (W.T.) + acidic result of alum size + hydrochloric acid of process leaves a PH that must be altered by additional chemical baths. (see K.S. notes).

Since we find that W.T. paper is not sufficiently neutral to face our finished prints, we have found from Andrews-Nelson-Whitehead a paper (tissue) used by the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress. Our tests indicate a PH of ________. Mrs. Vera Freeman A-N-W paper Co.

There is a serious difference in the behavior of platinum and palladium as a coating medium. Literature to the contrary is nonsense.

Palladium is softer and tends to have softer edges to the grain. It continues to bleach for hours in HCL. The result is an image with something of the quality of a stain. It tends to the brownish and faded look of an old silver-print. Any unevenness is in the original sizing of the paper is multiplied many times in the bleaching process. Our tests indicate that the dry image is absolutely fast to light.) It is difficult to decide on an exposure since one might attempt to prevision the final result of hours later.

Platinum is harder and clearer than palladium. The grain is more apparent than even in the negative from which the print is made. (There is a limit apparently to the softness one can get on platinum.) However the image as it appears in the developer is exactly what will be there even hours of HCL later! This is a joy. (The image of platinum is much slower coming up than palladium. Id guess 3 mins as against 30 seconds to more or less completion of development). Using platinum as the underprinting gives one the chance to abandon the plate early in the game if it seems that the highlights are too dark or too light, since the image is unalterable by further time or manipulation.

Use of iridium with palladium. Is this basically a toning of the palladium image? Great cost is a discouraging factor in its use.

Because of the time consumed in constant experimentation it is necessary to ration oneself and keep the objective of making fine prints foremost. This leaves many technical questions unanswered.

Our whole use of the platinum process for print-making was conditioned by the existence of modern materials, (estar base films, aluminum sheets, surelyn) which enrich the possibilities of hand-coated platinum (palladium, iridium).

The separation of the enlarged negative image into the basic negative + a highlight mask + 1 or 2 overprintings for the shadows gives enormous scope to the printing possibilities. The image is in effect reassembled in an altered relationship of the components.

The Xenon light makes possible a consistent exposure of a consistent color temperature night and day. We have used it always with a paper test strip. The light is actually on a trolley which allows alteration of distance marked on a tape-measure on the floor.

The further the light source is from the printing frame, the nearer it approaches a point source but the time increases in geometric proportion. From a practice time point of view we tend to use 2 1/2 ft for the 4000 Xenon and 36 for the 8000 Xenon. A large fan blows on the printing frame glass during the entire exposure and an exhaust fan removes the heat that builds up rapidly in the exposing room.

There is a die supplied by Condit who made our strips. A punch is used to make the screw holes that eventually hold the registration strip. Indentations were ground into the printing frame glass to accommodate the raised studs of the registration strip and insure absolute flat contact of the elements enclosed in the frame during exposure.’

Cigarette No. 86, New York, 1972, Platinum/Palladium.
(Courtasy-Hamiltons Gallery)

Opening tomorrow is an exhibition of Irving Penn’s platinum/palladium prints at Hamilton’s Gallery in London, entitled ‘Cigarettes’ it shows how Penn transformed one of the most widely consumed and discarded products of consumer society from that of pure detritus into a symbolic representation of contemporary culture.  By printing images of  ‘Cigarettes’ in platinum, Penn elevated each image to the status of a rare object. The soft, broad tonal ranges and gentle contrasts accentuate the nature of the original objects, further emphasizing their material characteristics.

When the series of prints was first shown to John Szarkowski, the influential curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1975, he on the spot offered Penn an exclusive exhibition which took place later that year. The show incited significant controversy at the time, however today the prints are widely regarded as masterpieces. The complete series of 26 prints will be on display and am looking forward to visiting the gallery to see them myself.  I enjoyed reading Francis Hodgson’s early preview of the exhibition…..

 ‘They are beautiful, though. There are surfaces like aerial views of landscapes and like skin. There are the lovely gradations of platinum, finding ever tinier nuances between one grey and the next. The backgrounds, sometimes paler, sometimes heavier, seem to vary like the weather. There are the scars and wounds in the split paper, the folds and creases. Stray whiskers sprout at odd angles, the burn lines at the edge of unburnt paper are sometimes pin-sharp. That sharpness itself is a miracle – the focus in these pictures is merciless: big camera, studio conditions, unerring photographer.’

 Hodgson is a well respected writer on the history and culture of photography and his wonderfully insightful review can be found here.

 Irving Penn, ‘Cigarettes’ runs from June 21 to August 17 at Hamilton’s Gallery, 13 Carlos Place London. Accompany the show is an accurate fully illustrated catalogue raisonné of the exhibition, which can be purchased via the gallery or here

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