Irving Penn is be one of the few reasons images are being printed in platinum today. He was the most well known photographer to bring the process back from the brink of extinction. Archaeology is a collection of images printed in platinum using a large format banquet camera. I had a chance to view the show at the Pace MacGill gallery in New York City. Since my wallet was a little thin at the time, I could only afford the book. Even though the reproduction is very close, there is no comparison between the real platinum print to the image in the book.
Here is what I liked about the prints: they were flawless examples of the process. Here’s what I didn’t (and don’t) like about the prints: they’re flawless to the point of being a little boring.
What does that mean? Platinum prints are amazing to behold. The depth of tone and subtle information platinum can record is unique to the process. It is, in some cases, a little too much for the mind to process. Irving Penn’s prints are perfect. I couldn’t find anything I would change about the decisions he made. Irving Penn was a true master platinum printer. I counted myself fortunate to be able to see the images up close and “in the flesh”. I strongly recommend anyone who has the slightest interest in platinum printing to look at these prints. You will be amazed before you are halfway through.
The compositions were perfect, the prints were perfect and after a while I realized that Penn had, perhaps, fallen victim to the simple trap of falling in love with the process at the expense of doing what he wanted it to do. I am very guilty of this tendency. It usually happens when you see an image develop beyond your wildest imagination. Those in religious practices might call it a “moment of conversion”. For me, it’s when you get to witness an image being made that exceeds your expectations. It is both exhilarating and humbling. I usually do a little dance and make a spectacle of myself.
Platinum printing is pretty simple to get the basic mechanics down but is infinitely complicated when it comes to making a consistent and pleasing print. The learning curve is deceptively steep. Penn spent a great deal of time and money teaching himself the process from scratch using old manuals. The success he achieved as reflected in these prints demonstrates tremendous effort and expense. However, they’re pretty boring photographs once you get past all that effort.
There, I said it. Irving Penn’s Archaeology is more about the process than it is about the items being photographed. They are academic photos with perfect light, perfect printing, and perfect composition. It is a pleasure to look at them but I don’t walk away inspired or moved beyond a real admiration for the work that went into the prints.
Looking at Penn’s later work, I can see how he broke a lot of the rules he followed in this work. I admire his pushing the boundaries of platinum printing but I don’t like those images either. I’m glad he made them just the same.
I know this sounds jaded. I don’t care. I’m making platinum prints today because of the work I just disregarded as boring and academic. I fully expect to change my mind in a few years once I’ve grown up and seen the error of my ways.