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April 10, 2014

Photographers Larry McNeil and Will Wilson Go for the Platinum

WillPrints
Will Wilson's finished platinum print portraits. Used with the permission of the artist. 

Photographers Larry McNeil (Tlingit/Nisga′a) and Will Wilson (Diné/Bilagáana) have been invited to speak about their platinum printmaking at an international symposium on the science, conservation, significance, and continued application of the historic photographic process. Presented by the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works in collaboration with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), National Gallery of Art, Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the symposium will take place on October 22 and 23, 2014. The two photographers are scheduled to speak on the first day of the two-day program. Tours of photo collections held by the National Gallery of Art, Library of Congress, and the National Museum of American History and workshops on the the chemistry of platinum and palladium photographs are offered on October 21 and 24.

NMAI has acquired platinum works from both artists and is currently preparing an exhibition of these important photographs. Opening on June 7, 2014, Indelible: The Platinum Photographs of Larry McNeil and Will Wilson reminds us of the role platinum photographs played in late-19th- and early-20th-century representations of Native Americans. The exhbition further argues that McNeil and Wilson challenge this problematic history by integrating the process into their contemporary practice.

Elders
Larry McNeil and Shawna Hanel, his assistant, with a test platinum print of Elders. Used with the permission of the artist.

In preparation for the show, the two photographers have been hard at work in their darkrooms. Platinum paper used to be manufactured by photographic supply companies and was basically ready to use right out of the box. In fact, platinum printing was considered easy to do. This is no longer the case. The platinum process is now difficult and dangerous. McNeil and Wilson have to make their own platinum paper by mixing light-sensitive chemicals in a darkroom and applying the solution to the paper. The photographers use a printing frame to put the sensitized paper in direct contact with a negative, then expose the frame to light. Upon exposure, the image from the negative burns itself onto the paper in reverse. McNeil and Wilson must monitor the development of the print so as not to produce an over- or underexposed photograph. After exposure, they return to the darkroom to dunk the print in a chemical fixing bath.

I asked Will Wilson to describe the work involved in using a digital image to create a negative for platinum printing:

A contrast curve is the tonal relationship ranging from black to white. Establishing the contrast curve for a digital negative depends on several factors: the paper to be used for the final print, the platinum/palladium ferric oxalate ratios, the developer, the light source, and the negative substrate material combination. Humidity also impacts the curve. 

With my homemade platinum solution, I sensitize a Stouffer test wedge, which measures a gradient of tones in five percent increments from black to white, to do a series of tests to find the time that gets me to the dMax—the shortest time to develop the perfect black. I record this. Next I expose another test wedge at my perfect-black time, and this anticipates the entire tonal range of a platinum print. I let the new test strip dry and then scan it into Photoshop. 

Photo
Will Wilson's digitally derived negative of his self-portrait. Used with the permission of the artist.

In Photoshop I use the eyedropper tool while viewing the contrast curve of my scan to measure the contrast values at each of those five-percent increments. You “build your curve” by inputting these values into an inverted version of your contrast curve, which radically changes its shape. You apply this new curve to your test wedge and reprint. Now you run another test strip, scan, and measure. This time your contrast values should give you a curve that is much more linear, with a steady, predictable progression from black to white.

Based on this test you tweak the first curve you built and test again. Hopefully you are very linear at this point. Now you use the curve you built with its tweaks, applying it to all of your digital negatives, and you should be golden for your particular combo.

One more thing: Bostick and Sullivan of Santa Fe and photographer Ron Reeder should be credited for leading me down this particular wormhole. 


Larry McNeil recently posted to his blog on the cutting-edge technology he uses in aid of his platinum-printing and his thought process for titling his newest work, which will appear in Indelible.

The photography symposium has received support from the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Gallery of Art. For a complete schedule of the symposium and to register, submit payment, or apply for scholarship funding, please click here.

Indelible: The Platinum Photographs of Larry McNeil and Will Wilson will be on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., from June 7, 2014, to January 15, 2015.

—Heather Shannon and Will Wilson


Heather Shannon is photo archivist at the National Museum of the American Indian and curator of Indelible.
 

Will Wilson, a Diné photographer who grew up in the Navajo Nation, studied photography at Oberlin College (BA, 1993) and the University of New Mexico (MFA in Photography, 2002). In 2007, Wilson won the Native American Fine Art Fellowship from the Eiteljorg Museum, and in 2010 was awarded a grant from the Joan Mitchell Foundation. From 2009 to 2011, he managed the National Vision Project, a Ford Foundation funded initiative at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, and helped to coordinate the New Mexico Arts Temporary Installations Made for the Environment (TIME) program on the Navajo Nation. Wilson is part of the Science and Arts Research Collaborative (SARC) which brings together artists interested in using science and technology in their practice with collaborators from Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia Labs as part of the International Symposium on Electronic Arts, 2012 (ISEA). His installation Auto Immune Response was on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York in 2006. 

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