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A cornerstone of photographic practice during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the platinum print is revered by photographers and viewers alike as one of the most beautiful forms of photography, with subtle and lustrous shades that range from the deepest blacks to the most delicate whites. The Philadelphia Museum of Art will present an exhibition of 75 works, showcasing outstanding prints largely drawn from the Museum’s collection of photographs. The Platinum Process: Photographs from the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First Century, on view February 27 – May 23 in the Julien Levy Gallery at the Museum’s Perelman Building, will include images by early masters of the process including Frederick H. Evans (British, 1853-1943) and Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864-1946), as well as works by contemporary artists such as Lois Conner (American, born 1951) and Andrea Modica (American, born 1960), who continue to engage in this historic and painstaking process in an era noted for electronic imaging.
“The exhibition offers an opportunity to share this beautiful form of photography with our visitors, some of whom may be seeing it for the first time,” Curator of Photographs Peter Barberie said, adding “the Museum is fortunate to have a particularly strong and varied collection of work by some of the truly great practitioners of this process.”
Unlike standard silver printing, in which particles are suspended in gelatin, platinum is brushed directly onto the paper, allowing artists to create a matte image with an exceptionally wide tonal range. Introduced in 1873, the process was enthusiastically embraced by the group of photographers known as the Pictorialists, who believed that fine art photography should emulate the aesthetic values of painting. The group included Evans, whose beautifully rendered images of Britain’s Westminster Abbey, York Minster Abbey and Ely Cathedral are included in the exhibition, and Stieglitz, who is represented in the show by a portrait of his wife, the artist Georgia O’Keeffe (American, 1887-1986), as well as a 1922 landscape preliminary to his renowned Equivalents series.
While encompassing works spanning many dates and styles, The Platinum Process highlights one of the Museum's treasures, the 1915 masterpiece “Wall Street” by Paul Strand (1890-1976), whose work was at the forefront of the modernist aesthetic developing in New York during the early 20th century. Strand used the subtlety of the platinum print in this work to emphasize abstract patterns in the long shadows cast by figures that walk before a succession of monumental windows.
Reserves of platinum were appropriated for military use during World War I, and its high cost led manufacturers to cease production of commercial platinum paper by the 1930s. As photographers became more engaged in social concerns, documentation and realism, the process fell into disuse. It was not until the early 1960s when Irving Penn, then a successful photographer for Vogue magazine, began to experiment with the long-forgotten technique and took the first steps toward its revival. A meticulous craftsman, Penn was delighted by the luminous prints and lavish tonal range he could achieve using platinum and began to make new photographs with this process in the 1970s. Penn and many of the other contemporary artists on view including Thomas Shillea and Nancy Hellebrand followed Strand's example, using platinum not for idealized pictures, but to capture nuances of modern experience.
This exhibition is supported by the Arlin and Neysa Adams Fund.