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Symposium: Platinum and Palladium Photographs – 21-24 October 2014

Platinum and palladium prints are among the most highly valued photographs in today's art and history collections. The wide tonal range and variety of surfaces provided photographers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century a broad palette with which to depict their most important subjects.

The collections of the Smithsonian Institution, for example, include platinum prints for photographers’ finest portrayals of the lives of Native Americans. The study of exceptional platinum photographs by photographers such as Gertrude Käsebier, Edward Steichen, and Clarence H. White, reveals cross-cutting themes, such as the role of women in society, religion, spiritualism, and fashion at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Irving Penn was responsible for the resurgence of the practice of platinum-related photography in the mid-twentieth century. More recently contemporary photographers have been eager to explore this alternative historic process. 

Conventional wisdom regarding platinum and palladium prints held that they are charcoal in hue with a matte surface, and that they are quite stable and do not fade. In recent years, however, inconsistencies have been observed. The image hue can range from sepia to blue-black, and paper supports have sometimes been found to darken, yellow, and become brittle. In some cases actual images have faded. These issues, along with other observations of the physical attributes of platinum and palladium prints, have established a new paradigm regarding the chemical and the aesthetic characteristics and permanence of these photographs. These recent insights presented the opportunity for the National Gallery of Art to initiate a multi-year collaboration to study these materials and reassess approaches for their conservation treatment, long-term preservation, and safe display. This interdisciplinary research will culminate in a four-day program of lectures, workshops, and tours in Washington, DC, to be held in October 2014.

The programs will provide an opportunity for members of the conservation, scientific, curatorial, and educational fields to glean knowledge from the NGA-led team of research collaborators. Sharing the results of the multi-year endeavor will advance the collective understanding of platinum and palladium photographs and our ability to preserve them for future generations. The speakers’ breadth and depth of knowledge and their commitment to disseminating new information will provide an essential foundation for those responsible for the interpretation and preservation of some of the most rare and important photographs in the collections of museums, libraries, and archives.

The Programme

The Platinum and Palladium Photographs program consists of three related activities, taking place over four days (October 21-24, 2014):

  • A two-day symposium of lectures will be held at the National Museum of the American Indian’s 300-seat Mary Louise and Elmer Rasmuson Theater. Distinguished subject experts will present the results of the collaborative research, focusing on the technical, chemical, and aesthetic history and practice of platinum photography. The preliminary program is included below.
  • A one-day, hands-on workshop hosted by the National Gallery of Art will explore the chemistry of platinum and palladium photographs and consider how variations in processing affect the appearance and permanence of the prints. The workshop will be held twice and will be led by Christopher Maines, Conservation Scientist, Scientific Research Department, NGA, and Mike Ware, Photographic Materials Chemistry Consultant to the NGA.
  • Tours of collections held by the National Gallery of Art, Library of Congress, and the National Museum of American History will be conducted by leading photograph historians, conservators, and scientists and allow up to 60 participants to see rare examples of historic and contemporary platinum and palladium photographs.

These events are being presented by the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (FAIC) and are funded in part by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Registration and the full programme is here:

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