Platinum Photography: An Interview With Gary Auerbach
Published on: November 18, 1999
Pt. Ask a chemist what these symbols mean and you're likely to hear an equation of hieroglyphic intricacy. Ask photographer Gary Auerbach the same question and he'll show you lustrous images turned to gold in the sun. Not merely a Midas touch, Auerbach's prints are made with the precious metals platinum and palladium rather than the silver of black and white.
Platinum uses the sun as a potent elixir to preserve an image. While other light sources such as ultraviolet or a fluorescent lamp can be used, prints made with the sun possess a majestic luminescence. No darkroom is needed to make a print, and the size of the negative determines the size of the image.
Watercolor or cotton papers replace light-sensitive photo papers, and no acidic chemicals are used. The developer is no stronger than Coca-Cola, and hypo is not required to fix the print.
Platinum prints are contact printed, meaning that the negative is covered with a piece of glass and then exposed, much like a contact sheet is made in conventional photography.
The process owes much to the traditional technique of printmaking, where each image is an original, an alchemical spell cast by the sun.
Auerbach believes this aspect of photography is a distinct trait. "Platinum prints printed in different ways translate a different end result. You can make them appear similar if you're good."
What's most remarkable about the prints is the permanence. Platinum prints have the potential to last 500 to 1000 years. In comparison, black and white photographs are decay in 100 to 200 years or less. The platinum print suspends an image for immortality. This attribute attracted Auerbach. "Seeing work from the classical Italian periods and how they've lasted to be seen in today's times makes me feel that I would like my platinum photographs to last as well as a Leonardo Da Vinci pencil drawing that was made almost five hundred years ago. My platinum prints will last like that if the paper is reasonably protected."
Auerbach was a practicing chiropractor before injuring his wrist in 1990 and turning his attention to photography. He was drawn to platinum for its renewal of images that would have faded long ago with black and white. He had already seen some of his photographs destroyed with the effects of age.
He explains, "My serious hobby of photography had brought me to a point of working with silver-based photographic materials at the selenium level, using fiber-based papers. But I was confounded by the lack of quality archival capacity. Much of my earlier work, 25 years old, was showing signs of deterioration. I needed to find a way to make a permanent photograph. That happened at the Center for Creative Photography here in Tucson. I found the platinotype and studied many of the great turn of the century photographers and their printmaking. It became obvious to me that the final translation into the print is the magic."
He began his platinum photography work at a small studio in Tucson, located in the Hotel Congress. After he learned 4x5 and 5x7 formats, he finally was able to advance to large format when he found a used Wisner 11x14 camera in 1992.
His background in health care led him to seek a Congressional run. Though he lost, he gained insight. "I realized the biggest shortcoming of my experience had been the two years I missed not doing my photography," he said.
Now Auerbach is resident photographer at Tucson's internationally renowned Hacienda del Sol Resort. He hangs his work there on a permanent basis and the resort's restaurant exhibits his platinotypes.
The pioneers of platinum photography inspire his work. He studied images like Edward Steichen's Flatiron Building as part of platinum's history. Photographers Alfred Stieglitz, Clarence White, Gertude Kasebier, and Holland Day have all influenced his work.
The portraiture work of Edward Curtis also resonates with Auerbach's own work with Native Americans. "I especially relate to the images taken in the Southwest- the Apache, Navaho, Pima, and other tribes."
Another photographer he admires is Irving Penn. "More than any other living photographer, his work impresses me. He's worked in platinum since the early 70's, and his portraits of people from all over the globe are remarkable."
Auerbach works in large format, producing 8x10 or 11x14 negatives. Less than 30 photographers worldwide work in large format platinum portraiture. The large format camera is not exactly made for point and shoot. "Weighing probably 12 pounds for an 8x10 and 40 pounds for an 11x14, I really have to want to make a photograph. I don't do casual platinum photographs," he said. Despite the size, he still carries the camera with him at all times when traveling.
One feature the camera does offer is a wide lens and the freedom to capture an image without cropping. Auerbach appreciates the sharp view of his subjects. "One of the most beautiful moments of taking the photograph with the large format camera is the opportunity to view the scene on the ground glass. Viewed with both eyes open, the image is easy to see and appears brilliant in color. So many times I've said to whomever is nearby, "If I can just replicate the beauty that I see in front of me..."
While traditional photographers can manipulate a negative in the darkroom, Auerbach's negatives must be nearly perfect. "The making of a good platinum print is in the making of the negative. If I have a good platinum negative, I can get a great platinum print. If I have a mediocre negative, I'll never get a GREAT platinum print. The image can be great and the impact still there, but I'm talking about the technical quality of the print." While any size negative can be enlarged to make a print, he prefers large format negatives. "I don't get the same quality of a print from an enlarged negative," he said.
Photographers are said to paint with light, though platinum photographers seemingly dip their brushes in the fiery corona of the sun. Print papers must be handcoated with an emulsion before exposure, a combination of platinum and palladium metals.
Auerbach likes the simplicity of preparation. "It's liberating not having to use a darkroom. You can socialize as you print. The use of the sun and contact printing is all very tactile, especially the handcoating of the paper."
Platinum prints use light as an expressive medium, generating a palette of warmly gilded textures. Auerbach has studied light in order to translate its essence into his photographs. "I understand how light needs to work with my subject. I know how to expose my negative in order to capture the light for printing in platinum. This has taken a number of years to get right. As a general rule, I overexpose hopefully, as underexposure is the death of my negatives."
Seemingly spiritual and technical at the same time, the platinum process allows the photographer to control the nuances of light and dark in an image. While an alchemist tries to change metals into gold, the platinum photographer must evaluate a subject with a painterly intuition, capturing sunlight and shadow in a chiaroscuro mix.
Even with the Internet and digital imaging, the photographer must master the basics in order to achieve a quality photograph. Auerbach acknowledges this. "We as photographers have only light to work with. At least a traditionalist like myself. The computer has added a whole new dimension for many people, and that's fine with me. I'm very involved on the Internet so I don't feel technology is passing me by."
Auerbach is aware of the symbiotic relationship a photographer has with light. A print sparks a synthesis of chemicals and sun, stirring blank canvases to transform. Auerbach also recognizes this connection. "Light is the magic that makes a photograph happen. In 1969 I spent six months working with Murray Hammond in New York City. He had a large studio and did men's fashion, food, and product photography. It was there that I was trained to use both natural and artificial light."
The origins of photography can be traced back to prints made with the sun, a process called heliography, or writing with the sun. The sun becomes a partner in platinum printing, though only if the photographer understands the metamorphosis of light from dawn to noon, and all the variances in between.
"When you print by the sun, you're chasing a golden disc across the sky. The exposure is changing all the time, as do atmospheric conditions. Because the sun is so far away, it's in essence the ultimate point source of light," said Auerbach.
His skill is capturing sunlight at the right moment. "Sunlight varies during the day- 10 AM sun vs. noon vs. 2 PM, etc. I normally print between 11 and 2 because that gives me the most consistency. You can also try in the beginning just using an old Sylvania sun lamp. It will cover a 4x5 negative with no problem. An exposure at high noon with a good dense negative in the 1.6 to 1.8 range might take 2 ½ minutes. That might go to six or seven minutes after two or three in the afternoon. You can use a light meter to judge."
Platinum prints convey a crisp sharpness, a delicate tonal scale composed of crystal and solar cinders, images saturated with the luster of a Renaissance painting. A print can seem like an ancient papyrus baked in the sun, or a gold-dusted page from an archaeologist's travels. The glimmering tones are in a sense a reflection of sunlight, a fusion of fire united with earth, elements as natural as they are sacred.
To Auerbach, the platinum print's complexities are balanced by its aesthetic rewards: "The ability to choose different watercolor and cotton papers to print on. The matte surface. The luminosity that can best be seen and is hard to reproduce. A depth, almost three dimensional at times. The clarity- when Edward Weston said there was nothing better than an 8x10 contact print, the only exception to that is an 11x14 contact print!"
Auerbach's camera may not have a gold shutter, but his vision is trained to see a scene in the splendent tones. He visualizes his subjects in platinum before he takes a photograph, "even down to knowing which paper I might want to print on," he said. This inherent eye is the artistry of experience and experimentation. "Someone who knows his printing will be in platinum will shoot and develop the negative differently with that in mind," he said.
Auerbach's image "Terisimo, Morning Light" seems to exude a quiet illumination, as if the viewer is looking in on a daily rite of passage, the morning light streaming into a dark corner of the room. It's a reverential moment of a man paused in reflection, his face formed of stone and the weathered beams of light that sift through dust to find him.
The permanence of platinum makes every portrait a lasting legacy. Auerbach knows how intrinsically valuable his images are. "Platinum portraiture is a natural and archival technique, able to last centuries for families."
It also requires patience and an ability to relate to your subject. "When I do a portrait, the person comes in with some preconceived idea of what they think they look like. You can fail right there if that's the prevailing thought. I let people know I want to explore their being, to allow me to be totally with them with no distractions. It's very interactive and challenging, and you have to move quickly when in critical stages," said Auerbach.
The atmosphere of his portrait settings contributes to a more relaxed pace. The large format camera appears as if a relic from ages past. "It's very intimate with your sitter, almost like an antique store setting. I try to keep them inquisitive about the process, and it works. Having been a chiropractor probably hasn't hurt my ability to get people at ease. The equipment is also less intimidating than a high-speed Nikon blazing away," he said.
A portrait is on a higher aesthetic plane than a mere snapshot. It's a documentation of ancestry, a thread woven through imagery. For Auerbach, a portrait is often a fragile practice for both photographer and subject. "When I do a session, if I get one portfolio piece, I'm pleased. I let people know that until I see a negative, I don't know if I have it. En Shah Allah, as the Moslems say- If God is willing. I often hold my breath as I take my first look at the negatives."
What's often admired about great portraits is a sense of soul, a transcendent energy made visible in a person's expression or eyes. To Auerbach, "The eyes are the focal point of a portrait." With platinum portraits, the eyes may link families, a feeling of recognition felt as future generations see themselves twined in time.
In the portrait "Tiffany- Arapaho," a young woman seems poised in a rapturous gaze. Perhaps she was caught at a moment of transition, emerging before our eyes from child to woman, her shawl wrapped around her as wings. Her expression is beatific, awaiting transcendence. The image glows, as if the girl's form is struck with an aura of twilight, heavenly and ethereal.
With every portrait, Auerbach attempts to utilize platinum's unique characteristics. "There's a luminosity of a platinum print that has always been valued since the 1880's in portraiture. It makes the skin have a normal texture with the grain of the paper almost like skin."
In another of his images, "5 Apache Children," five Native American girls stare into the camera. There's an intimacy between them, a bond that separates the viewer from their world. Their eyes carry the innocence and curiosity of children, but they seem to be from another era. The image's background shows a place of shadowy trees and sunlight, a land where the girls will play and live, their tribal dresses decorated as their beauty matures. And like the land, their skin could be made of dust, ashes of ancestors that have fallen and sing within the girls' spirits.
Auerbach enjoys his work with Native Americans. "They aren't paying me, so they don't feel they control what I do. I can experiment," he said. He would like to photograph some of the tribes Edward Curtis photographed, revisiting the cultures that thrive into the next century.
Auerbach's photographs are exhibited at several U.S. galleries. In Tucson, his permanent work is displayed at the Hacienda del Sol Resort, and in January he will have a show at The El Presidio Gallery. He also has work at Santa Barbara's F Stop Gallery and Salt Lake City's Aperture Gallery.
He achieved an important honor in September when The Library of Congress acquired 12 of his photographs. He remembers the moment he found out the Library was interested in his work: "In March, at The Society For Photographic Education conference, the curator for The Library of Congress viewed my work during a portfolio review. After seeing four or five images, she looked up at me and said, "I think the Library is going to want your work." I was very taken back."
In October, his Apache series was accepted for exhibition at Switzerland's Ville de Geneve Musee d'Ethnologie.
Auerbach's images create a powerful presence. He urges anyone interested in platinum photography to read his article Platinum Printmaking Made Simple. "It's a primer for someone coming from silver-based photography to the alternative process route," he said.
While there's no magical formula for getting a perfect print, he believes that he has come close a few times. "Ultimately, it's getting the negative with an image that has emotion and impact. A well made platinum print will translate the scene you photographed with luminous tone qualities that will stand not only the test of the viewer, but the test of time."
Auerbach's imagery has already conceived the roots of brilliant rays. As an orb of sun blooms and wanes through its cycle of centuries, it will awaken a history of images grown graceful in golden papers.
Photographs, From Top To Botttom: