~ Posted by George Pendle, October 27th 2014

Discovering a new exhibition of platinum photographs tucked away in the sprawling National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC is akin to discovering tiny deposits of the precious metal itself in the alluvial sands of some jungle river—it’s small but valuable.


“A Subtle Beauty” consists of barely two dozen portrait, landscape and architectural photographs from the late-19th and early-20th centuries. What unites them is their printing technique. Platinum prints, or platinotypes, were created by using photographic paper with very fine platinum crystals embedded in the uppermost fibres. This was in contrast to the more popular albumen or gelatin prints of the time, in which silver salts were suspended in an emulsion that was then coated onto the paper. A technicality, you may well think, but the platinum process not only gave photographs a luminosity and a wide tonal scale that other methods couldn’t match (as well as a slight three-dimensional appearance), but it was also responsible for establishing photography as a fine art.

In the late-19th century photography was extremely popular but it had yet to be accepted as a serious art form. Most photographs were garishly hand-tinted and the use of photographic emulsion gave them a brash and glossy look. By contrast the platinum prints afforded a wealth of tasteful neutral colours, a delicate matte finish and a textured surface. In short, it made photographs look more like paintings, particularly the flat canvases being created by the Impressionist painters at the time.

Two of the leading proponents of the platinum print technique were the British photographer Frederick H. Evans and the American Alfred Stieglitz. Evans found that the platinotype was perfectly suited to capturing the play of light on the stone of French and English cathedrals. But it was also superb in delineating the lines and creases of the human face. Evans’ 1894 portrait of the illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, his slender fingers wrapped around his sallow cheeks, his aquiline nose splintering the light, makes him look like a contemptuous gargoyle from one of Evans’ beloved churches.

Stieglitz’s “The Last Joke—Bellagio” (1887) is as full of rambunctious life as a Goya etching. A group of children, some in bare feet, some in sailor suits, are joined together in laughter, their faces creased with smiles that match the folds of their clothes. It is a small photograph but within its frame is an incredible spectrum of cool blacks, neutral greys and rich sepia browns.

However, the show’s greatest revelation is the work of the remarkable American photographer Gertrude Käsebier, most notably her 1902 portrait of Stieglitz himself (above). Käsebier was a brilliant manipulator of tones and by masking sections of the negative and selectively brushing on developing solution to the platinum paper, she brought into play a veritable rainbow of blacks. In this photograph Stieglitz resembles a demon carved out of shadow, his eyes barely visible, his hair and walrus-like moustache masking his face. The only light that exists is reflected off one side of his nose, the rest of him recedes into abstraction. It is as masterly a disquisition on shade and light as any painting by Zurbarán or Velázquez. Ironic that such a shimmering, precious metal should have allowed photographers access to the very heart of darkness.

A Subtle Beauty: Platinum Photographs from the Collection is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC until January 4th 2015

George Pendle is the author of “Death: A Life”, a satire, and “Happy Failure”, a collection of essays

Image “Alfred Stieglitz” by Gertrude Käsebier (R. K. Mellon Family Foundation, Diana and Mallory Walker Fund, and Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation through Robert and Joyce Menschel)