Profile: Gary Auerbach
by Larraine A. DarConte
The Permanence of Platinum
I met photographer Gary Auerbach at Two Coats Trading
Co., a gallery in Tucson, Arizona, where his work had been on exhibit.
Though he was in the process of removing prints from the gallery,
he was kind enough to show me his work-8x10 and 11x14 platinum contact
prints. Admittedly, it's the first time I ever really longed to
touch a photograph-the surface of each print was like, I don't know,
velvet! They were the most luxurious, exquisitely detailed, perfectly
printed images I'd ever seen.
And no matter how good a job this magazine does of reproducing Auerbach's images [note: they are reproduced here in four-color-Ed.], it won't be able to do them justice. His platinum prints have a life of their own and need to be seen up close and personal to be truly appreciated.
Auerbach, who has been photographing for approximately two decades, began exploring permanent printing processes when he became dissatisfied with the untimely deterioration of some of his early work. "I had a pet peeve about the fact that a lot of my early silver work was already beginning to deteriorate. I didn't like that. RC paper is garbage, really," he continues, "it's for proofing, submissions, and times when the image is needed for a short period of time. Even selenium-toned, fiber-based prints have a cadre of problems related to the coating of the paper and the inability to totally clear out hypo effectively," he notes. "So, to avoid various types of degradation that occurs from the breakdown of the silver compounds, I decided I needed to find a way to make a permanent photograph."
The Platinum Cocktail
Since Auerbach resides in Tucson, where the Center for Creative Photography is located, he decided to make use of its vast resources. "I started researching how to make permanent photographs, and I discovered there were several ways to go about it, one was using carbon (for a carbon print), which produces a very beautiful print. The other way to produce a permanent print is by using the platinum metal group-the noble metals-platinum, palladium, and Iridium. These metals, which are totally inert, can be used in the photographic print-making process. I work with metal salts and light-sensitive photographic materials," he continues. "I mix them together and hand-coat them on a piece of organic material such as Crane's 100% cotton paper, and then I contact-print a negative either by using the sun or an actinic light source such as florescent or mercury-vapor lamps.
"They're permanent. They're beautiful. And everybody talks about how beautiful they are," Auerbach states, "but I keep coming back to the fact that they're permanent. And that's the most significant thing about my photography and me as a photographer. I'm a proponent for higher quality archival prints. I'm an advocate for using materials that have greater archival qualities, so that three, four or 500-years from now people can look at the photographs from this era. Because what we're producing now by the billions, is materials that will self-destruct in a very short time period. The best silver prints will last 150, maybe 200 years."
According to Auerbach, making platinum prints is so simple, even his 14-year-old son can do it. "You don't need a chemistry background," he explains, "all you need is a 'platinum cocktail'-a whiskey shot-glass, a sheet of rag paper, and a little help from the sun. The printing process is very low-tech, high-quality. It took me 2 years to learn to produce a print somewhat efficiently-after five years, rather efficiently. And after six years I have a little bit more control over it. Though my images are only 8x10 and 11x14 in size, I am 100% satisfied with my quality."
But the actual work for Auerbach begins behind the lens, in the field, "loving the big camera! That's the real work," he exclaims. The negative is the key to a good platinum print. Auerbach photographs with Wisner 8x10 and 11x14 cameras. "I traded a Hasselblad Superwide for a generic 8x10 'box' and a 450mm Nikkor lens and two film holders," he confides. "A swap. It was a terrific trade." Auerbach generally uses Kodak Tri-X film with the 8x10 camera and Ilford FP4 for 11x14 images. "Sometimes I use Elinchrome strobes in my studio; but in the field, generally I use available and reflective light."
Image is Everything
Steichen, Stieglitz, and Edward Curtis are photographers whose work Auerbach admires and emulates. "These photographers were working in contact-print methods, using platinum and gold-tone print methods. They made beautiful fine art, documentation, and sociological prints for museums"-something that Auerbach not only aspires to, but has accomplished.
"My photography deals with people and architecture. Native Americans are a sub-focus," he notes. Auerbach earns a living with commissioned portraits for people who want photographs that will last for centuries. "The work I do on a commission basis helps pay for things. Then I have the opportunity to do my own work. (Auerbach is also the resident photographer at the Hacienda del Sol, in Tucson.) "I grew up in New York," he states, "then came out to Arizona to study at the U of A. I also came out here because I wanted to see cowboys and Indians," he laughs. "I didn't see too many in New York, but they're here. I now deal with museums because they study civilizations. For instance, my studies of the Apache Indians really appealed to the City of Geneva Museum of Ethnology (Switzerland) because it had a lot of artifacts from 100 years ago, but no real photographs of Apache peoples and what they looked like.
"There's a real transition occurring in the Native American community," explains Auerbach, "similar to all American communities, relating to generation gaps, differences, adherence to traditional ways. They aren't running around in loin cloths anymore because it's not realistic or practical. I'm trying to find interesting faces and personas that strike me to photograph. I went to a pow-wow the other day and parked in the lot while different groups of Native Americans changed into their attire, which is very elaborate. I looked at some 300 people coming and going that afternoon and I chose one guy to photograph. I took him to a spot that I pre-scouted out, spent about 45 minutes with him, and took two pictures." Some of Auerbach's Native American subjects are introductions, some he meets at events. "I've established a linkage at the reservations," he confides.
Library of Congress
That "linkage" has helped him bring his work to a much larger audience. "Recently, I went to a Society of Photographic Education Conference held in Tucson. I was prepared to go through some revues, so I had two boxes of prints with me, one of Native Americans, and the other, architectural prints. One of the people I had the opportunity to revue with was Marisha Battle, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division; she's an assistant curator there. She looked through my prints, and said 'We'd like to have some of these for the library. She helped take me through the process: I had to go through six curators-the architectural curator, the Native American curator, and two other assistant curators and a department head." Eventually, Auerbach and the Library of Congress agreed upon a purchase-donation proposition. With every six images it purchased, Auerbach donated six.
"I donated the Native American work," he said. "I didn't want moneys that were designated to go to Native American photographers for Native American photography to be spent on me. The library accepted two different bodies of work from me, and I'm continuing with this project. They'll receive another 12 prints this year."
In the near future, Auerbach intends to write a grant proposal to the Smithsonian, "to revisit some of the tribes that Edward Curtis photographed and to try and find-and photograph-some of the same families. I also want to continue to develop my work for the Library of Congress, and hopefully for other museums around the world. I love doing what I'm doing," concludes Auerbach. "And I figure, hopefully, that I've got another 20 years to go. It's been exciting so far. I believe the whole photography world is based on doing good and exceptional work and having a few lucky breaks. And if your intent is good and you're putting good work out there, luck finds you anyway."
To learn more about platinum printing, view additional works by Auerbach, and/or to order prints, visit his web site at www.azstarnet.com/platinum.
Lorraine DarConte is a writer who lives in Tucson, Arizona.