Platinum Photographs: Art from a Noble Metal

October 16, 2014 by Barbara Orbach Natanson
The following is a guest post by Verna Curtis, Curator of Photography, Prints and Photographs Division.

RODINPortrait of Auguste Rodin in his studio. Platinum photograph on Japanese paper by Gertrude Käsebier, ca. 1906.

Imagine how people understood photographs in 1900, when photography had been around for just over sixty years. Were photographs factual documents? Could they be a new form of artistic expression? Those producing photographic prints knew, but the public was unsure whether photographs could be art.

A highlight of the growing international effort to exhibit photographs as art was the groundbreaking Internationale Ausstellung Künstlerischer Photographien (International Exhibition of Art Photographers) in Vienna in 1891. American Pictorialists (“pictorial” was the favored term for art photography) soon dominated shows in a variety of locations, including Chicago; San Francisco; Pittsburgh; and Newark, Ohio.

The Pictorialists shared with their counterparts in the graphic arts an interest in old master and Japanese prints, subtle printing effects, and technical experimentation. Among the experiments were photographs with the precious platinum metal as their base. The photographs are highly prized for their broad tonal range and delicate non-reflective surface. Their blacks or browns convey the qualities of softness and warmth. Yet, they could last a very long time. The artful platinum photographs of F. Holland Day, Clarence H. White, and Gertrude Käsebier are a special strength within the Prints and Photographs Division’s photography collections.

F. Holland Day (1864-1933), bibliophile, publisher, and photographer, was the New England leader of the Pictorialist Movement. Hallmarks of his style include the innovative use of cutout shapes and colored papers for mounting his photographs.

Platinum15841rClarence H. White (1871-1925), is best known as a teacher and founder of an American art school for photographers. The Library acquired Clarence H. White’s photographs early in 1926. His eponymous New York school for photography was the first in America to integrate design into its curriculum. White’s students were pioneers in the fields of photojournalism and advertising.

Spring. A triptych (Letitia Felix), Newark, Ohio. Platinum photograph by Clarence White, 1898.

The beauty of platinum photographs and their special qualities are receiving particular attention this fall. Twenty outstanding examples of original platinum printing will soon go on display at the Library of Congress (Jefferson Building, 1stFloor, South, October 20 to November 8, 2014). The display coincides with a symposium organized by the National Gallery of Art presenting collaborative research on the technical, chemical, and aesthetic history and practice of platinum photography (Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, October 21-24, 2014).

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