Mike Ware - Alternative Photography

The Eighth Metal: the Rise of the Platinotype Process

In 1900 the Platinotype process could justly claim the pre-eminent place among the media for photographic printing. As quantitative evidence for this claim, we have exhibition statistics (1): from the relative numbers of prints in three media - platinum, carbon and silver - shown at the Annual Exhibitions of the Royal Photographic Society between 1893 and 1901 it can be seen that between a half and a third of the work exhibited during those years was in platinum, the nearest competitor being carbon, with a quarter to a third of the total.

The excellence of a process is reflected in the good opinions of its most distinguished users, and any list of the best-known practitioners of Platinotype must read like a Who's Who of Pictorialism. In Great Britain, there were Robinson and Emerson and many members of the Linked Ring (2): notably, Evans, Davison, Hollyer and Horsley-Hinton. In the USA, there were many users among the membership of the Photosecession: Steiglitz, Steichen, Eugene, Coburn, White, and Kasebier come to mind immediately; later Anderson, Strand and Weston followed their example. We are all familiar with many beautiful examples of the work of these photographers printed in platinum, so just three instances of the devotion which the medium inspired will have to serve here in lieu of a comprehensive review. The schedule of Henry Peach Robinson's work prepared by Margaret Harker shows that after 1888 he appears to have used platinum exclusively for his exhibition prints; and in the year of his death, 1901, his son Ralph printed his father's best images in platinum for public sale (3). Peter Henry Emerson's Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads (4) is one of the treasures of the pictorialist canon; Emerson's preferred medium for this volume was Platinotype, but he compromised for his subsequent publications by adopting photogravure as the closest approach to the expensive Platinotype. Frederick Evans began his great series of cathedral studies in 1890, printing only in Platinotype (5); in 1900 his first one-man show at the Royal Photographic Society consisted of 150 Platinotypes. As Anne Hammond has observed "Frederick H. Evans remained loyal to the platinum print..." (6) and when Platinotype paper ceased to be available Evans gave up photography.

It should not be inferred from this that Platinotype was the exclusive preserve of the photographic luminaries of the day: many examples of commercially produced Platinotypes can be found in ordinary private albums dating from the turn of the century (7), showing that the medium was also in use for everyday pictorial souvenirs.

The contemporary literature also provides a measure of the seriousness with which the medium was treated. The definitive monographs of the time, works of considerable scholarship, were Die Platinotypie by Pizzighelli and Hubl (8) and Platinotype by Abney and Clark (9). Platinotype Printing by Horsley Hinton (10), was a useful little practical instruction book, and most standard texts on photography also contained substantial sections on the process. Advocacy of the Platinotype was not confined solely to the advanced monographs; we find evidence even in books for beginners that the process was highly popular and strongly recommended - a view that is typified, for instance, by this quotation from Photography for Novices "...platinotype is the simplest and quickest process of printing..." (11). The frontispiece of the same book displays a plate printed on original Barnet 'Platino-matt' paper, which sought to emulate the 'platinum look' with a silver-gelatin emulsion. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but sadly the plate is now badly faded and mirrored - a failure of endurance that would not have occurred had it been a genuine Platinotype.

A further tribute to the prestige enjoyed by the platinum print is represented by the existence around 1910 of a Catalogue of Sepia Platinotype Reproductions of Famous Pictures published by Eyre and Spottiswoode (12), and offering some five hundred entries; it is remarkable that the publishers should find it commercially viable to reproduce, as sepia Platinotypes, facsimiles of the Mona Lisa or The Fighting Temeraire.

Advertisements by the manufacturers of platinum printing paper, notably The Platinotype Company in Britain, the sister company Willis and Clements in the USA, and Hezekiel & Jacoby in Berlin, are also indicators of the degree of commercial success of the process and its claims to excellence at the end of the century (13).

My final piece of evidence is again quantitative. Around 1900, potassium chloroplatinite was marketed by the Johnson Matthey Company chiefly for the manufacture of Platinotype paper. The sales figures for this product have been discovered in the Johnson Matthey Company records by Ian Cottington and the sales curve shows a peak in 1905 (14). Over the years 1901 to 1914 the total quantity of potassium chloroplatinite sold (presumably mostly to Willis's Platinotype Company) amounted to about 113,600 Troy ounces; this figure provides the basis for a simple calculation. We know from his patent specifications that Willis's Platinotype paper had, at most, a coating weight of 4 grains of this substance per square foot (15). The area of Platinotype paper manufactured during these 14 years is hence easily calculated, and the result may be vividly expressed in terms of the number of 'whole plate' prints which this area could produce: the number is about 35 million! Considering the holdings of the major collections, we may conclude that either there are many historic platinotypes still to be discovered, or the process was more fallible than it is usually represented, and much spoiled paper ended up in the wastebin! Whichever is the case, the consumption of material attests to its popularity.

Having examined the case for the pre-eminence of Platinotype at the turn of the Century, it is relevant to ask how long this popularity lasted. The historical spans of photographic processes have been compiled by Coe and Haworth-Booth (16) into a useful comparative chronology, which confronts us with the surprising fact that Platinotype enjoyed an active lifespan of only thirty years, centred on 1900. The process was not widely employed until the late 1880's, (to judge by editorial acclaim in the yearbooks (17), the 'breakthrough year' was 1888) and its use was already in decline by 1916. The central purpose of my paper, therefore, is to resolve this paradox: why, in the entire history of photography, did its finest printing process come so late upon the scene, and then depart so disappointingly early? The answer to the latter half of this question, namely the forces that sent Platinotype into an early decline, is already well-understood (18), and will only be touched on briefly later; but the first half of the answer - the reason for the Platinotype's puzzlingly slow rise to fame - is less obvious, and requires some teasing out of the threads of chemical technology, commerce and aesthetics that are closely woven into the fabric of photographic practice.

It is certain that the 'platinum inhibition' cannot be attributed to ignorance of the metal and its properties, which, by 1850, had been known in Europe for a century. Throughout most of history, humankind has had access only to seven metallic elements: copper, silver, gold, tin, lead, mercury and iron (plus their various alloys). These seven metals of classical antiquity were joined by platinum - the 'Eighth Metal' - in 1748 when it was introduced into Europe from South America by Antonio de Ulloa. The name derives from the Spanish diminutive 'Platina' or 'little silver' (19). The use of platinum in the 19th century was confined to the fabrication of scientific apparatus and vessels; its extreme resistance to attack was a major factor contributing to the foundation of quantitative chemical science.

The chief pioneers of photographic process, Talbot, Herschel and Hunt, were keenly aware of the problems of impermanence in their images, and realised that the desirable properties of platinum as an imaging substance could avoid this shortcoming. Schaaf (20) has drawn attention to the significance of Herschel's early photochemical experiments with "platinate of lime" (21) in the 'pre-photographic' year of 1831, and Talbot later speculated on its possible use for photography. Both Herschel and Hunt recorded their experimental endeavours to make images in platinum: Herschel, in his paper of 1840 (22), reported experiments with platinum(IV) chloride, which proved insensitive, and with platinum(IV) iodide which, although light sensitive, only yielded evanescent images - probably in iodine rather than platinum. Hunt's Researches on Light of 1844 (23), describes a rather complex platinum sensitizer (24), yielding images on which he bestowed the name of "Platinotypes", but it is evident from their fading within a few days that they could not have consisted of platinum metal, but were probably precipitated mercury.

C.J.Burnett of Edinburgh has been credited" with successfully making and exhibiting platinum prints as early as 1858 (25), but the evidence from his publications (26) seems inconclusive. What is clear from his writings, however, is that he must have made and exhibited palladium prints at that time, so deserving credit for very substantially predating Willis's Palladiotype process of 1916!

Despite the best endeavours of the founders of photography in the 1840's, nearly fifty years were to elapse before a viable platinum printing process was established by William Willis (1841-1923) who had himself devoted twenty years' research to perfecting it. This historical development of the Platinotype process cannot be understood without some background in the chemistry of platinum (27). The essential relevant facts may be summed up in three chemical reactions:-

Platinum metal + "aqua regia" = Platinum(IV) chloride

"Aqua regia" - a mixture of concentrated hydrochloric and nitric acids- is the only common reagent capable of dissolving metallic platinum. The resulting salt is the commonest available compound of platinum, previously referred to as 'platinic chloride' (28) and was used in all early experiments. It is not very easily reduced to the metal, however, and consequently does not provide a satisfactory ingredient for a platinum printing process.

Platinum(IV) chloride + reducing agents = Platinum(II) chloride

Although the preparation of platinum(II) chloride, also called 'platinous chloride' (29), was first reported by Magnus as early as 1828 (30), his method was difficult and uncertain, so this salt remained a little-known substance until the 1870's; thereafter, several relatively easy preparative methods were finally devised using a variety of reducing agents (31). It is this compound, in its complex form as potassium chloroplatinite (32), that is essential to a successful platinum printing process, because it is easily reduced to the metal (in the finely divided form of "platinum black") by the following reaction:

Platinum(II) chloride + ferrous oxalate = Platinum Black

Ferrous oxalate results from the exposure of ferric oxalate to light (33); hence the platinotype sensitizer consists essentially of a mixture of potassium chloroplatinite and ferric oxalate.

Willis describes his first attempts in 1872 thus: "All my early experiments were naturally made with platinic chloride.." (34). Like all previous experimenters, he began with the readily available platinum(IV) chloride, and achieved negligible results. It was only when he had the idea in 1873 of trying platinum(II) compounds that success followed: "After a troublesome operation, I made some potassic chloro-platinite..." (34). The importance of this breakthrough has been emphasised in the context of platinum toning by Chapman Jones: "...it was not until potassium chloroplatinite was made available by Mr. Willis and the Platinotype Company that platinum toning was successful." (35). Indeed, one might attribute the sudden interest shown by preparative chemists in synthesising the little-known potassium chloroplatinite after 1873 (31), to Willis's finding a use for the substance.

The other essential component of the Platinotype process is a "developer" to solubilise the ferrous oxalate. Willis says that his attention was directed to try potassium oxalate for this purpose by a French chemist - who regrettably remains unidentified (34). Willis also had to make this substance because he could not obtain it in London.

We may therefore identify the primary cause of the time-lag in developing a viable Platinotype process: it was the non-availability, at the outset, of the key platinum chemical, potassium chloroplatinite. This inhibition, however, only represents the beginning of the difficulties. The reaction by which the platinum image is formed, the third equation above, proceeds relatively slowly; in consequence, during wet development the chemicals may be washed out of the paper before the reaction is complete (36), causing degradation of image quality, which takes on a 'granular' or 'fibrous' appearance. In search of a means to accelerate the image-forming reaction, Willis was obliged to compromise the elegant simplicity of his original conception, by adding to his sensitizer formulation salts of silver, gold, lead or mercury. His struggles with the recalcitrant chemistry of platinum can be traced through five patent specifications spanning 1873 to 1887 (37), four of which are reproduced in extenso in Luis Nadeau's valuable monograph (38). We are also fortunate to have specimens illustrating the early development of the process in a panel prepared by Willis himself for the International Exhibition of Inventors in 1885, and subsequently lent by him to the Science Museum. A fuller evaluation of his chemical endeavours, including several different types of developer, which mostly had to be used hot, will be published elsewhere (40). In 1878 Willis's success in making the first platinum print without added silver imbued him with sufficient confidence to found the Platinotype Company the following year in order to market the process (41); although he had to wait until 1888 before the Platinotype was widely acclaimed in the photographic press: attention having been focussed by the success of Pizzighelli and Hubl with a 'printout' platinum process the previous year. It was not until 1892 that Willis achieved his final goal of a 'cold development' paper (36), whereupon, to use Abney's words, "The process became immediately popular and is now more frequently used." (42). This acceptance may be largely attributable to the fact that workers no longer scalded their fingers in the developer!

Unlike all his previous advances, real or putative, Willis did not take out a patent for the commercially successful 'cold development' paper; and since there appear to be no surviving records of the Platinotype Company (43), the technical details of its manufacture are a lost secret. It is probable, however, that the key lay in the sizing of the paper, rather than in the chemistry of the sensitizer. We find evidence (44) from an early stage (1880) of Willis's awareness that platinotype chemistry is inhibited by gelatin. He therefore avoided it as a sizing agent for his papers, although his patents, being "economical with the truth", say nothing of this important aspect. But the success of 1892 must have entailed some additional feature, possibly the use of a 'retentive' alum-rosin size (45), which slowed up the rate of dissolution of the exposed sensitizer during wet processing.

So, after twenty years of intensive research, Willis finally arrived at a Platinotype formulation which matched his original conception of 1873, and he could sustain the triple claim of his advertisements, that the process was simple, beautiful and lasting.

Regarding simplicity, the modus operandi was certainly easier than silver printing-out paper, which required three times the exposure and gold toning for permanence; by contrast, a finished platinum print could be obtained in half an hour. The cost was also competitive, at least initially: in 1892 a 10"x12" sheet of Platinotype paper cost 6d, compared with 5d for a corresponding sheet of silver bromide enlarging paper.

The aesthetic claim is more complex (46): the Platinotype, with its neutral grey-black tones and totally matt surface, arrived at a time when the public taste in photographs had been conditioned by the glossy purple-brown finish of gold-toned albumen prints, the dominant medium of the previous forty years. It is significant that the contemporary 'carbon' papers of the Autotype Company offered a popular colour to mimic this. If the general public at first shunned the platinotype for its 'un-photographic' appearance, there were connoisseurs who appreciated its "...fine engraving black without meretricious gloss." (47). Willis's sensitivity to public demand induced him to respond by subsequently devising and marketing platinotype papers that furnished brown prints ('Sepia Platinotype') or glossy prints ('Japine paper'), or even both ('Sepia Japine').

The third attribute -of permanence- had been a longstanding issue ever since the Fading Committee of the Photographic Society reported in 1855, and the Duc de Luynes' prize for a permanent process was won by Poitevin (for Carbon printing) in 1859. Willis's platinum research was also stimulated by the quest for permanence, but even after he had finalised his procedures, we find many articles in the photographic literature complaining of incomplete clearing, and offering suggestions for curing yellowed highlights in Platinotypes. A modern investigation of this problem, and the extent to which it can be attributed to residual iron, has recently been carried out by Rees and Gent at the Victoria & Albert Museum (48). Although the metal constituting a Platinotype image is invulnerable, its paper substrate is certainly not. Acid embrittlement of the cellulose is the other besetting problem that Platinotypes present to the conservator. The build-up of acid is exacerbated by the catalytic action of the platinum black itself, which assists the conversion of sulphur dioxide to sulphur trioxide and hence to sulphuric acid (49).

In 1902 Ostwald found that platinum was an excellent catalyst also for the oxidation of ammonia to nitric acid. This seemingly innocent discovery was ultimately to undermine the commercial viability of the Platinotype, because nitric acid, previously produced from imported saltpetre, is essential to the manufacture of explosives. Suddenly platinum became a strategic material, vital to industrial chemistry - a status which was reflected in its soaring price. It is ironic that blame for the premature decline of the platinotype can be laid at the same door that enabled it in the first place - namely, the advance of chemical knowledge. The British Government, finding more compelling employment for platinum, forbade the use of the metal for photography during World War I. By the time Western civilization had discontinued its attempt at self-destruction, the price of platinum had risen to five times that in 1900. To counter the rising costs, Willis again rose to the challenge: in 1913 by devising his Satista paper (50), in which silver replaced most of the platinum, and in 1917 with his Palladiotype paper (51), using the closely related noble metal palladium, which had not yet found other uses. These developments probably helped extend the lease of life of the Platinotype Company, which was not finally wound up until 1937, although Eastman Kodak had stopped manufacturing platinum paper much earlier in 1916. A growing disincentive to Platinotype printing was also provided by the trend towards miniature camera formats and the consequent need for papers that could be used for enlargement.

In spite of the commercial demise of the Platinotype in the 1930's, I can end this paper on a note of optimism, because the technique has survived in the hands of a few devotees who have continued to make their own platinum paper over the intervening years. Since the mid 70's, the process has enjoyed a significant renaissance worldwide, marked by aesthetic appreciation, renewed theoretical interest, updated procedures and formulae (52) and practical workshops. With the founding in 1988 of the Palladio Company in the USA, a commercial platinum-palladium paper is once again available on the market.

Notes and References

  1. H.V.Hyde, 'Some Exhibition Statistics', Photographic News, 45, 680 (1901).
  2. Margaret F. Harker, The Linked Ring (London: The Royal Photographic Society and Heinemann, 1979).
  3. Margaret F. Harker, Henry Peach Robinson (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988).
  4. P.H.Emerson and T.F.Goodall, Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1886). Illustrated with 40 platinotypes printed by Valentine and Sons of Dundee; edition of 200 copies.
  5. Beaumont Newhall, Frederick H. Evans (New York: Aperture, 1973).
  6. Anne Kelsey Hammond, 'Frederick H. Evans: The Interior Vision', Creative Camera 243, 12 (March 1985). See also A. Hammond, 'Aesthetic Aspects of the Photomechanical Print', in Mike Weaver (Ed.), British Photography in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 1989) 176, 256.
  7. I am indebted to John Benjafield of Historical Impressions for supplying some fine examples.
  8. G.Pizzighelli and A.Hübl, Die Platinotypie (Wien und Leipzig: 1882); idem, Platinotype, translated by J.F.Iselin (London: Harrison and Sons, 1886).
  9. W.de W.Abney and Lyonel Clark, Platinotype, its Preparation and Manipulation (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co., 1895).
  10. A.Horsley Hinton, Platinotype Printing (London: Hazell, Watson & Viney, 1897).
  11. Percy Lund, Photography for Novices (London: W.Butcher & Sons, 1902) 3rd edition.
  12. I thank Helen McCurdy for bringing this to my notice.
  13. The Photographic News and Almanac.
  14. Ian E. Cottington, 'Platinum and Early Photography', Platinum Metals Review, 28 (4), 186 (1984).
  15. William Willis, British Patent no. 1117 (15 March 1880).
  16. Brian Coe and Mark Haworth-Booth, A Guide to Early Photographic Processes (London: The Victoria and Albert Museum, 1983).
  17. Editorial, The Photographic News, 32, 801 (1888).
  18. Josef Maria Eder, The History of Photography (New York: Columbia University Press, 1945); Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1964); Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, The History of Photography (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969).
  19. D. McDonald and L.B.Hunt, A History of Platinum and its Allied Metals (London: Johnson Matthey, 1982); N.N.Greenwood and A. Earnshaw, Chemistry of the Elements (Oxford: Pergamon, 1984).
  20. Larry J.Schaaf, Out of the Shadows: Herschel, Talbot and the Invention of Photography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), and references cited therein.
  21. A white precipitate formed by the light-induced photo-aquation of the hexachloroplatinate(IV) ion in the presence of calcium ions. Probably calcium hexahydroxyplatinate(IV), Ca[Pt(OH)6] or Ca[Pt(OH)5Cl].
  22. J.F.W.Herschel, 'On the Chemical Action of the Rays of the Solar Spectrum on Preparations of Silver and other Substances, both Metallic and non-metallic, and on some Photographic Processes.' Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 14-15 (1840).
  23. Robert Hunt, Researches on Light (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1844), reprint edition 1973 by Arno Press Inc.
  24. Hunt's chemistry deserves further investigation; he appears to have prepared potassium hexacyanatoplatinate(IV), which he found to be light sensitive, and 'developable' with mercury(I) nitrate.
  25. For an interesting review of Burnett's work by Ian Cottington see ref. 14, and references cited therein.
  26. C.J.Burnett, 'On the Production of Direct Positives- on Printing by the Salts of the Uranic and Ferric Oxides, with Observations Climetic and Chemical', The Liverpool and Manchester Photographic Journal, 2, 99, 111, 127, 155 (1858); idem, The Photographic Journal (Liverpool), 6, 181, 185, 193 (1859).
  27. N.N.Greenwood and A.Earnshaw, Chemistry of the Elements (Oxford: Pergamon, 1984); F.A.Cotton and G.Wilkinson, Advanced Inorganic Chemistry (New York: Interscience, 1972).
  28. In the interests of readability, the chemical nomenclature is somewhat simplified here; platinum(IV) chloride is usually obtained from this reaction in the form of a complex: hydrogen hexachloroplatinate(IV) hexahydrate H2[PtCl6].6H2O.
  29. The chemical history is further complicated by the misapprehension, prevalent until the 1860's, that the Atomic Weight of platinum was one half of its correct value; hence platinum(IV) chloride PtCl4, was referred to as the "bichloride, PtCl2" in all writings previous to that time.
  30. Magnus, Poggendorff's Annalen, 14, 241 (1828).
  31. e.g. Blomstrand (1871), Thomsen (1877), Knoefoed (1888), Lea (1894), Kurnakoff (1894), Pigeon (1895), Grîger (1897), Wolfram (1900), Klason (1904), Wohler and Frey (1909). For further details see Mellor's Comprehensive Treatise on Inorganic Chemistry.
  32. In contemporary nomenclature: potassium tetrachloroplatinate(II), K2[PtCl4].
  33. The light sensitivity of ferric oxalate was first noted by Dobereiner in 1831.
  34. W.Willis, 'A Recent Improvement in the Platinotype Process', Journal of the Camera Club, 2, 47 (1888).
  35. Chapman Jones, The Science and Practice of Photography (London: Iliffe, 1904) p 441.
  36. W.Willis, 'Recent Improvements in Platinotype', Journal of the Camera Club, 6, 53 (1892).
  37. William Willis, British Patents nos. 2011 (5 June 1873), 2800 (12 July 1878), 1117 (15 March 1880), 1681 (2 February 1887), 16003 (21 November 1887).
  38. Luis Nadeau, History and Practice of Platinum Printing (Fredericton: Atelier Luis Nadeau, 1984).
  39. I am grateful to Roger Taylor and the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford, for granting me access to this item.
  40. M.J.Ware, History of Photography, to be published.
  41. See Christie's sale catalogue of 19th and 20th Century Photographs, 21st April 1988. I thank Lindsey Stewart of Christie's for bringing this item to my attention.
  42. W. de W. Abney, Instruction in Photography (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co., 1900) 10th Edition, p 404.
  43. Mr. John William Willis Clemens: a private communication, 28th October 1988.
  44. W.Willis, 'Platinotype Possibilities', Camera Club Journal, 4, 121 (1890); W.H.Harrison, British Journal of Photography, 34, 101 (1887); W.S.Davenport, BJP, 47, 376 (1900); G.Dawson, BJP, 27, 399 (1880); E.J.Wall, BJP, 49, 531, 570, 612, 630 (1902); E.A.Salt, Photographic Journal, 509 (Dec 1929).
  45. Alum-rosin size has been detected by chemical analysis of a specimen of unexposed Willis Platinotype paper dating from ca. 1906. (N. Barnwell and M.J.Ware, unpublished results, 1989).
  46. Brian Starbuck, The Platinum Print and Photographic Printing: some Historical Notes. (Unpublished workshop notes 1989); William Crawford, The Keepers of Light (New York: Morgan & Morgan, 1979).
  47. W.K.Burton, Practical Guide to Photographic and Photomechanical Printing (London: Marion & Co., 1892).
  48. J.Rees and M.Gent, Victoria & Albert Museum, to be published.
  49. N.Barnwell, An Analytical Investigation of the Platinotype Process, unpublished project, 1989.
  50. W. Willis, British Patent No. 20022 (4 September 1913); Photographic Journal, 224 (May 1914); 282 (December 1915); W.H.Smith, BJP, 61, 808 (1914); See also ref.38.
  51. There is no patent for Willis's palladiotype; and even the precise date of its introduction seems uncertain; see: British Journal of Photography, 64, 60 (2 February 1917); 344 (29th June 1917).
  52. M.J.Ware, 'An Investigation of Platinum and Palladium Printing', Journal of Photographic Science, 34, 165-177 (1986); Mike Ware, 'Contemporary Platinum-Palladium Printing', The Silverprint Manual (1990).


First Published in Photography 1900: The Edinburgh Symposium, National Museums of Scotland and National Galleries of Scotland, 1993.

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