By Carl Weese
[Carl is the Print Sale artist this month, offering two of my personal favorites from among his prints. The sale is open until Monday evening at 7:00 p.m. —Mike]
One reason it’s been over four years since we did a TOP platinum/palladium (Pt/Pd) Print Offer is because, after managing to print the 8x10 negative of The Pike Drive-in Theater (below) well over a hundred and twenty times four years ago, I resolved never, ever, again to commit to making scores of direct contact prints on handcoated paper working from a unique, irreplaceable negative. After that, it wasn’t until late 2013 that I worked out a procedure for creating digital negatives for Pt/Pd printing that gave me fully realized, successful prints according to my sense of what platinum prints should look like.
Pt/Pd materials can only be contact-printed because they are much too slow for projection enlargement. Contact exposures run to several minutes in full sunlight or the artificial equivalent. But photographers have long found ways around this. For a famous example, Paul Strand made platinum prints from some of his most iconic early pictures, like “Blind,” as little gem-like direct contacts, and also as 11x14-ish enlargements. For the larger prints, he enlarged the original negative onto a glass plate, resulting in an interpositive. Then he contacted that to a second glass plate, to create the final enlarged negative for printing.
Paul Strand, Blind, 1916
Of course, as noted, enlargement isn’t the only reason for second generation negatives. Handcoated Pt/Pd paper isn’t the smoothest stuff in the world; it needs to be exposed in carefully controlled humidity levels (which can change accidentally), and the negative has to be held against the paper under pressure, exposed to strong UV light (which heats it up), then removed and put somewhere safe...for every single print. To make a big edition of conventional enlargements, you clean the negative and get it safely ensconced in the enlarger where it’s touched by nothing but light until you are finished. Every single Pt/Pd print, on the other hand, requires lots of negative handling, and to expect permanent error-free perfection is ridiculous.
Also, The Pike negative, which began needing a 12-minute exposure, faded during the course of the printing, ending up at 6.5 minutes. Thank goodness, the contrast hardly changed, and I only really needed to keep pulling back the exposure to get consistent prints to the end—but it was nerve-wracking. Somewhere around sixty prints the negative picked up soft blotches that printed as gray blobs, and wouldn’t come off with film cleaner. A soak in wetting agent followed by water washing fixed the problem, but…never again. The other two pictures in the 2010 offer got through their 40+ printings each without a hitch, but it wasn’t relaxing.
The professional printers who make platinum editions or book insertions for celebrities or famous photographers almost always print from second-generation negatives even if the original was large format. I mean, can you imagine—"do you have another negative of that Moonrise shot, Mr. Adams?"
Another reason I put in months of effort working out a satisfactory second-generation negative printing approach is that film is going to keep getting more scarce. Even if it doesn't disappear—Ilford deserves credit for putting in great effort to keep large, ultra-large, and exotic-format films available—it's already getting expensive. Digital negatives open up the possibility of making prints in the platinum medium even when it is impossible or impractical to begin with film exposures. My tests of 8x10-ish Pt/Pd prints from digital captures show some astonishing results compared side by side with prints originating from vastly larger film negatives, so there’s a bright future on that front.
©2014 by Carl Weese, all rights reserved
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Sal Santamaura: "Carl, was that a pyro-developed stained negative that faded during the course of printing? If so and, going forward, you've any desire to make large numbers of contact prints from in-camera negatives, why not just drop the pyro? I've never heard of a conventionally-developed gelatin silver sheet film negative 'fading,' even from repeated exposure to UV. The unstained image is, after all, metallic silver."
Carl replies: Sal, it was a pyro neg, but what faded apparently was about a stop of secondary overall stain, an unnecessary but harmless artifact like fb+f. The last prints, at the shortened exposures, were if anything slightly "cleaner" in value separations. Even without silver printing, a pyro developed negative scans much better than a negative developed in HC110/D-76-type developers with sufficient contrast to make a first-rate Pt/Pd print with no contrast enhancement in the formula, so I still prefer to work with pyro both for the direct printing and for scanning—haven't printed silver from large format in quite some time now.
Joe: "Cool coincidence: After Carl's print was released here four years ago, I visited The Pike drive-in to shoot the projection booth for my series 'The Booth.' The Pike is just a few miles from my home town, Muncy, Pennsylvania, though when I was growing up we had an even closer drive-in, The Starlite, which shut down long ago.
"The last I heard of The Pike, the owner was struggling to raise money for a digital projector. Almost all the studios no longer ship 35mm prints, so it's go digital or shut down if you want to show current movies."
Carl replies: Joe, I've seen your "Booth" series online and like it. The digital conversion is a problem that all drive-in theaters face, and was a spur to pushing to complete as much coverage as I could back in 2012, but since then I've been happily surprised, almost amazed, how many theaters, even quite small ones, have been managing to make the costly upgrade. One of my favorites, the Mt. Zion in West Virginia, is still struggling but I have my fingers crossed for them.
Ed Richards: "Given that the hand-coated media is not very smooth, it is not going to capture much detail from the large format negative. Seems a perfect case for digital negatives. Maybe even from one of those small, convenient cameras you have started to carry. :-) "
Carl replies: Ed, there are some mysterious things that happen with contact printing. A specialty material I use for some pictures is a Japanese tissue called Masa. One side is super smooth and hard as steel, the other side is more like a highly refined blotter paper. You can print on either side, making it really two papers in one. The thing is, if you print on the rough side using a vacuum frame the neg is mashed into perfect contact with the compressed paper fiber. The rough texture returns when the print is fully processed and dried, but when you look at the print you clearly see picture details finer than the texture of the paper, a stunning effect. Don't know if it's an optical illusion or what.
In working out my digital negative approach I consistently used both scans from 8x10 film and RAW captures in 4/3s format. It's amazing how well the captures hold up technically. Aside from technical tests though, I've done hardly any digital capture work intended for Pt/Pd printing, though that surely will change in the future.
cfw: "Many years ago I attended a (very) brief introductory, hands-on session about Pt/Pd printing. The digital negative I used for my assignment was not 'dense' enough (for lack of a better term), and my print came out barely visible. I also did not have the right pressure on the negative/paper. Since then I've been meaning to invest in the basic equipment (not cheap) to do this type of printing, but always find some excuse to not get it together. The digital negative I used was produced from a conversion process in Photoshop, directly from the digital file (not a scanned negative), and I remember that getting the digital negative right in the beginning is a make or break deal for the final print. It was a lengthy process of trial and error, using different curves, getting the gradations and shadows just right. Just making one print come out right is a Herculean task. I can't phantom doing 100+ prints at a time."