For two Peninsula photographers, a once-endangered printing process has become a tool they can't do without.
Thursday, February 14, 2002
Photo: Tom Millea''s "Karoline, 2000" showcase the rich, dark tones for which the platinum process is revered.
An often overlooked vein of creative photography courses through the mother lode of contemporary art. The platinum process of making photographic images on paper is a powerful medium that gains its impact through subtlety, understatement and the resonance of mercurial dark tones. While most aficionados of photography know and love images created through the gelatin silver process with its beautiful range of whites to black, relatively few people have discovered the rewards of platinum. A platinum print, with its rich tones and soft edges, evokes a sense of becoming; the image is in emotional flux, congealing into a transitory, precious reality.
The Monterey Peninsula is home to two photographers who use the platinum process to their own expressive ends. Noted photographers Tom Millea and Ryuijie bring their unique sensibilities to bear on the medium and, while their bodies of work differ immensely, the reverence each holds for this medium is palpable in his work.
Ryuijie, who currently has an exhibition at the Center for Photographic Art in Carmel, has been using the platinum process for 11 years. During that time, the medium has become ever more important to him, although he continues to make prints using silver.
"There''s so much I like about platinum," he says. "The platinum process has a real three-dimensional feeling to it, and a long gray scale, a long tonal range."
In Ryuijie''s exhibition, a quarter of the images on view are platinum prints. He changes from silver to platinum "because there''s an intimacy with platinum. It''s a contact process--the prints are only as big as the negatives, so the images tend to be small; people have to get up close to see them."
Ryuijie''s exhibition reveals some of the quiet drama that takes place in a platinum print. An ivy vine creeps up a stone wall, bathed in a warm glow. A simple wooden chair sits on a patio, a bar of soft light defining its pure forms. In both, there is a timelessness and nostalgia that transports the viewer. It''s easy to get lost in them and go to a hushed moment infused with wonder.
Millea''s prints may be seen at the Levin Gallery in Monterey and the Winfield Gallery in Carmel. A trip to these galleries reveals a master at work. Portraits, landscapes and still lifes are more than they appear; the platinum medium evokes a character''s hidden personality, landscapes become primordial eruptions of form, and still lifes are recurring moments in time.
Millea, who has been working exclusively with platinum since 1971, is continually moved by the qualities of that medium''s tones. "The platinum print has the distinct feeling that the blacks and low values have a power and presence all their own," he says. He recalls the first demonstration he saw of the platinum process.
"It all began in Connecticut in 1971, when I was head of the photography department in an art school," he says. "I invited a fellow from Yale to come and give a demonstration of the newly revived craft of platinum printing. At the time, only two people in the country knew the process. When he placed the hand-coated platinum paper in the developer, the finished image appeared in seconds. I stood there transfixed! It was the most beautiful object I had ever seen in photography. From that moment I became a convert."
Millea has been the leading proponent of the platinum print for 20 years. He notes that the major figures of 20th century photography--Adams, Weston, Stieglitz, Strand and other modernist photographers--"rejected the platinum print because they felt the image was too romantic. Pictorialists were making soft focus images of romantic subjects, and these photographers wanted no part of this movement."
In their flight from soft focus imagery, the first modernist photographers influenced scores of artists as well as photojournalists, and, consequently, public taste. "The second event that struck the death knell for the platinum image was the publication of Life magazine, with its glossy images and contrasty photographs," says Millea.
The gelatin silver print dominates the current scene. Its clear lights and solid blacks are imprinted on the viewing public''s mind. But a public that had occasion to see platinum prints might change its loyalties. At the Center for Photographic Art show, one can see two Ryuijie images that illustrate the differences between silver and platinum. His "28" image, a close-up of a house number, is offered in the crystalline tones of silver and also the soft tones of platinum. The first is concrete, the second ephemeral.
Millea paraphrases two quotes that put his efforts in perspective, one from Leonardo da Vinci, the other from Goethe. "Leonardo said that black, or darkness, was the absence of light. Goethe said that darkness is a power in itself." After years of trying to reconcile the apparent contradictions of these great minds, and how their perceptions applied to his work, Millea realized that the silver process in photography recalled Leonardo''s observation, while the platinum process reflected Goethe''s point of view.
"The silver print...focuses its power on the use of light. Darkness and blacks in the print are usually the absence of light," says Millea. "One feels that light dominates the image. In the platinum print, darkness and dark tones come to life, emphasized by the fact that white tones are not glossy, rather subdued and subtle, while blacks define powerful forms.
"The platinum print is always reaching for the light out of darkness."