By Mark Roberts
My curiosity piqued by articles on The Online Photographer, I recently attended a two-day workshop on platinum printing at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. And though I certainly learned a lot about platinum printing and acquired a great enthusiasm for it, the overriding impression I came away with was this: If you ever have a chance to attend any workshop at the George Eastman House, you'd be very foolish to pass it up.
Two eight-hour days in a facility with top-flight experts doing the teaching, every imaginable (to me, anyway) kind of photochemistry available, all the necessary equipment...and access to original prints by the greatest photographers in history. How much should that cost? Probably a lot more than $425 (which included $75 for materials costs). One participant flew in from out of town for the weekend just for this event.
The workshop was taught by Ron Cowie, an experienced platinum printer from Rhode Island who also teaches at the New England School of Photography. Two members of the GEH staff, Stacy VanDenburgh and Mark Osterman, assisted throughout the weekend. All phases of the workshop were held in the offices and labs just adjacent to (and below—they extend two stories below the ground floor) the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House. This area houses all their study and restoration labs, archives, and the museum library.
The program consisted of platinum print theory, practical work, and study of original prints. Stacy and Mark had put together for each participant a three-ring binder absolutely packed with information on the history and techniques of platinum printing. We heard a good presentation on platinum printing and then saw first-hand some original prints by the masters of the technique. Emerson's "Picking the Reed" has long been one of my favorite photographs, and when we entered the viewing room there it was, alongside original prints by Coburn, Steichen and others. The library of the GEH (accessible to all by appointment) is closed on Saturdays, but the librarian came in on his day off just for us. I have no doubt they'd have been happy to get any print in their archives for us to view if we'd asked. Think of any famous photographer or, indeed, any famous photograph: Chances are they have an original print you can see.
From then on we spent most of our time in the "darkroom"—in quotes because one of the nice things about platinum printing is that it doesn't require...well, darkness. We were provided with a stack of Ron Cowie's and Mark Osterman's large-format negatives (no, we didn't get to pull any famous photographers' negatives to make prints) and immediately set to work mixing chemistry, coating paper and making prints.
Carl Weese's TOP article "The Making of a Platinum Print" will tell you about the basic process, but nothing comes close to the experience you gain through actually doing it yourself. The guidance of two experts with the resources of the George Eastman House at their disposal dials up the learning curve significantly, to understate the matter somewhat.
At one point Ron suggested that a print might look good with a gum wash. The words had scarcely left his lips before Mark Osterman was back with the gum arabic to give it a try. A short while later the notion of asphalt wash came up. A minute later we were trying that. How about soaking the print in glycerin and brushing on ammonium citrate developer? The GEH is set up for everything from Daguerreotypes (Osterman teaches that) to cyanotypes, ambrotypes, calotypes and on and on and on. In just a few minutes Ron was brushing ammonium citrate onto a print in a bath of glycerin. Imagine taking a photo workshop of any kind with this kind of energy and these resources.
It may be years before they offer another program specifically relating to platinum printing, but there are almost a dozen different topics lined up for next year. All will have the formidable resources of the George Eastman House behind them and the knowledgeable and enthusiastic support of people like Stacy VanDenburgh and Mark Osterman. In 2011, GEH will be holding workshops in Gelatin Emulsion Making, Archiving Digital Family Photographs, Daguerreotype History and Technique, Collodion Emulsion, Carbon Prints, Albumen Prints, Early Camera History and Design, and more. The schedule is on the GEH website.
Taking a well-designed workshop of any kind can do great things for your own photography. When you take a workshop at the George Eastman House you're also helping support what is arguably the world's foremost institution devoted to promoting and preserving the history of photography. That the workshops are so affordably priced is icing on the cake.
In fact, if there's a bigger bargain in the world of photography, I'd very much like to know what it is.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Geoff Wittig: "George Eastman House is an absolutely wonderful institution. It's a far friendlier and more low-key place than many leading museums, yet it houses what is arguably the greatest collection of photographs in the known universe. Membership is dirt-cheap, and permits you all sorts of benefits, from free lectures by the greatest photographers in the world to free screenings of vintage movies. There's also a yearly member's meeting with the director (Tony Bannon) where upcoming programs and exhibitions are previewed. You even get a discount on courses like this platinum printing class...which I couldn't attend because of my day job...dammit."