The digital camera has revolutionized photography, but when it comes to printing a photo, older methods are still best.
In a studio in the Powderhorn neighborhood of Minneapolis, 86-year-old Cy DeCosse stood over a large case filled with prints, turning through the images.
“Weeds have their own beauty,” he mused. “They don’t get the love and attention they should be getting; after all, they grow too, you know.” He came to another image. “There’s a milkweed pod — I think these things are beautiful.”
DeCosse’s roomy studio is filled with photographs of beautiful things — flowers, still-lifes of vegetables, portraits, and his beloved weeds. Some are saturated with color, but most are black and white. The majority of those images are made with what’s called the “platinum process.”
The Platinum Process
“The platinum is totally archival,” he said, explaining that a photograph made with the process will look as good 150 years from now as it does today. “It also has a much more beautiful grayscale than an ordinary silver print. Digital prints are coming closer — but platinum is still the king.”
With contemporary printing methods, a white flower petal often shows up as solid white. But the platinum printing process provides more nuance and depth, permitting the viewer to see the ripples in the petal or the shading in a dark leaf that would otherwise be lost. And some estimate the photographs will last not just hundreds but thousands of years.
However, platinum is a precious metal, and its use is cost-prohibitive for many photographers. An ounce of the solution runs about $300. And it is a finicky process that takes years to master. Bostick-Sullivan, the premier American supplier of platinum and palladium salts, estimates there are only 200 or so photographers in the world who regularly engage in platinum printmaking. Of those, perhaps half actually make their living by it.
DeCosse fully dedicated himself to platinum photography only after selling his publishing business. He then hired fellow photographer Keith Taylor to be his master printmaker.
“I don’t even think about the cost anymore,” Taylor said. “You can’t. Irving Penn said the print’s the thing; that’s what it’s all about. It’s just such a beautiful process.”
DeCosse and Taylor have now worked together close to two decades, with DeCosse taking the photographs and digitally cleaning up the negatives and Taylor printing them.
In the darkroom, Taylor brushed a yellowish liquid made with platinum and palladium salts onto a sheet of paper. Once it was dry he affixed a full-size negative to the paper and placed it in a vacuum seal, then exposed it to ultraviolet light for about 90 seconds. He then removed the negative and slipped the paper into a tray where he rinsed it with a developing solution.
Immediately, a brooding image of the English countryside emerged. The leaves on the trees and clouds in the sky each conveyed a unique heft and tone. There’s a reason this was the preferred printing technique of such photographers as Edward Weston, Edward Steichen and Imogen Cunningham.
It’s also the printing method most prized by art collectors. DeCosse’s images sell for thousands of dollars at galleries on the East Coast and in the Southwest. Jennifer Schlesinger, director of Verve Gallery in Santa Fe, represents a handful of platinum printmakers, including DeCosse and Taylor.
“These guys are at the top, certainly,” she said.
Schlesinger said DeCosse and Taylor are creating exquisite images, beautifully composed and exactingly printed. And given the materials they’re using, their images will be around for generations to enjoy.