Exhibition: ‘A Subtle Beauty: Platinum Photographs from the Collection’ at the National Gallery of Art, Washington

Exhibition dates: 5th October 2014 – 4th January 2015

Curator: Andrea Nelson, assistant curator, department of photographs, National Gallery of Art



Alfred Stieglitz. 'The Last Joke - Bellagio' 1887


Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864-1946)
The Last Joke – Bellagio
Platinum print
Sheet (trimmed to image): 11.7 x 14.7cm (4 5/8 x 5 13/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection



I am too sick at the moment to really say anything constructive about platinum prints except one word: wow. You only have to look at the tonality and the sensuality of the prints to understand their appeal. Driftwood, Maine, 1928 by Paul Strand is my favourite in this posting.


Many thankx to the National Gallery of Art for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.



Laura Gilpin. 'Ghost Rock, Colorado Springs' 1919


Laura Gilpin (American, 1891-1979)
Ghost Rock, Colorado Springs
Platinum print
24.2 x 19.1cm (9 1/2 x 7 1/2 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, The Marvin Breckinridge Patterson Fund



Renowned for her landscape photographs of the American Southwest, Gilpin was mentored by Gertrude Käsebier and trained at the Clarence H. White School of Photography in New York. This luminous photograph exemplifies Gilpin’s skill in producing expressive works with a wide spectrum of tonal values.


Frederick H. Evans. '
York Minster, North Transept: "In Sure and Certain Hope",' 1902


Frederick H. Evans (British, 1853-1943)
York Minster, North Transept: “In Sure and Certain Hope”
Platinum print
27.46 x 19.69cm (10 13/16 x 7 3/4 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Carolyn Brody Fund and Pepita Milmore Memorial



Evans was known as the master of the unmanipulated platinum print. For him, a perfect photograph was one that “gives its beholder the same order of joy that the original would.” In this work, light, more than architecture, is his subject. As light fills the space of York Minster Cathedral it dissolves the weight of the massive stone, creating a reverential, timeless mood. Evans also took great care in the presentation of his photographs, often embellishing his mounts with hand-ruled borders and watercolour washes.

Text from the National Gallery of Art website


Evans was described by Alfred Stieglitz as ‘the greatest exponent of architectural photography’. Evans aimed to create a mood with his photography; he recommended that the amateur ‘try for a record of emotion rather than a piece of topography’. He would spend weeks in a cathedral before exposing any film, exploring different camera angles for effects of light and means of emotional expression. He always tried to keep the camera as far as possible from the subject and to fill the frame with the image completely, and he used a small aperture and very long exposure for maximum definition. Equally important to the effect of his photographs were his printing methods; he rejected the fashion for painterly effects achieved by smudging, blowing or brushing over the surface of the gum paper print. His doctrine of pure photography, ‘plain prints from plain negatives’, prohibited retouching.

Text from the MoMA website


Karl Struss. 'Columbia University, Night' 1910


Karl Struss (American, 1886-1981)
Columbia University, Night
Gum dichromate over platinum print processed with mercury
24 x 19.4cm (9 7/16 x 7 5/8 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation through Robert and Joyce Menschel


Alfred Stieglitz. 'From the Back-Window - 291' 1915


Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864-1946)
From the Back-Window – 291
Platinum print
24.1 x 19.1cm (9 1/2 x 7 1/2 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection



Influenced by Peter Henry Emerson’s understanding of photography as an independent art form, Stieglitz became the driving force behind the development of art photography at the turn of the century. He founded the Photo-Secession group in 1902 with the aim to “advance photography as applied to pictorial expression.” This view of the buildings in New York behind Stieglitz’s famed Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession at 291 Fifth Avenue is an exceptional example of a platinum print with rich, neutral grey and black tones. The diffuse glow of the lights is enhanced by Stieglitz’s choice of a smooth printing paper with a subtle surface sheen. (NGA)

Around 1915, Stieglitz began photographing the view out of the window of his gallery, a practice he continued through two relocations of his business. In this photograph made from the window of Stieglitz’s first gallery (known as “291” for its address on Fifth Avenue), the legacy of Pictorialism hovers in the rich, evocative atmosphere he coaxes from the nighttime scene, even as the play of angular forms declares the modernist impulse for the exposure. (Text from Metropolitan Museum of Art)


Paul Strand. 'Driftwood, Maine' 1928


Paul Strand (American, 1890-1976)
Driftwood, Maine
Platinum print
24.3 x 19.2cm (9 9/16 x 7 9/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Southwestern Bell Corporation Paul Strand Collection



Strand was a committed advocate of the platinum process and made platinum photographs well into the 1920s and early 1930s. Driftwood, Maine is printed on Japine paper, a photographic paper with a chemically altered surface, which resembles parchment. First introduced by William Willis’ Platinotype Company in 1906, Japine platinum paper provided deep blacks and a lustrous surface sheen that Strand found ideal for his modernist abstractions.



Rare platinum photographs that played a pivotal role in establishing photography as a fine art will be presented at the National Gallery of Art. On view in the West Building from October 5, 2014 through January 4, 2015, A Subtle Beauty: Platinum Photographs from the Collection will include two dozen works from the Gallery’s renowned collection of photographs. Presented in conjunction with a symposium organised by the National Gallery of Art and sponsored by the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, this exhibition features compelling prints by Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), Edward Steichen (1879-1973), Gertrude Käsebier (1852-1934), and other prominent Pictorialist photographers.

“Photographers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were captivated by the lush appearance and rich atmospheric effects they were able to create through the platinum print process,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. “With their extraordinary tonal range – capable of capturing the deepest blacks, warmest sepias, and creamiest of whites – platinum prints quickly became the preferred process of the era.”


Exhibition highlights

Featuring 24 outstanding photographs from the 1880s to the 1920s, this exhibition reveals the artistic qualities and subtle nuances of the platinum process. Major artists such as Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936), Frederick H. Evans (1853-1943), Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966), and Clarence H. White (1871-1925), revered platinum prints for their permanence, delicate image quality, and surface textures that could range from a velvety matte to a lustrous sheen.

Focused on the aesthetic and technical aspects of platinum photographs, highlights include Stieglitz’s From the Back-Window – 291 (1915), an exceptional print with neutral grey and black tones capturing the diffuse glow of lights in the buildings behind the artist’s galleries at 291 Fifth Avenue; Evans’ superb York Minster, North Transept: “In Sure and Certain Hope” (1902), an affective work whose subject is light more than architecture; and Steichen’s evocative Rodin (1907),  combining platinum with gum dichromate to create a painterly, multilayered portrait.

Press release from the National Gallery of Art website


Clarence H. White. 'Mrs. White - In the Studio' 1907


Clarence H. White (American, 1871-1925)
Mrs. White – In the Studio
Palladium print, printed later
24.4 x 19.3cm (9 5/8 x 7 5/8 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation through Robert and Joyce Menschel and R. K. Mellon Family Foundation


Alvin Langdon Coburn. 'Clarence H. White' c. 1905


Alvin Langdon Coburn (American, 1882-1966)
Clarence H. White
c. 1905
Platinum print
24.2 x 19.4cm (9 1/2 x 7 5/8 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons’ Permanent Fund



Coburn presents fellow photographer Clarence H. White holding a tube of platinum paper in much the same manner as a painter would hold a palette. Because the paper support contributed greatly to the overall appearance of the platinum print, photographers experimented with a range of handmade and mass-produced papers that varied in texture and colour.


Clarence H. White. 'George Borup' 1909


Clarence H. White (American, 1871-1925)
George Borup
Platinum print
25 x 20cm (9 13/16 x 7 7/8 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons’ Permanent Fund



A self-taught photographer from Ohio, White became an important leader of the Pictorialist movement. A member of the Photo-Secession, he exhibited widely and later founded the Clarence H. White School of Photography in New York in 1914, a school that helped define and establish Pictorialist ideals. White took this portrait of geologist and explorer George Borup the year he returned from an expedition to the North Pole.


Frederick H. Evans. 'Aubrey Beardsley' 1894


Frederick H. Evans (British, 1853-1943)
Aubrey Beardsley
Platinum print
13 x 90.2cm (5 1/8 x 35 1/2 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Paul Mellon Fund



A major figure in British Pictorialism and a driving force of its influential society The Linked Ring, Frederick Evans is best known for his moving interpretations of medieval cathedrals rendered with unmatched subtlety in platinum prints. Until 1898, Evans owned a bookshop in London where, according to George Bernard Shaw, he was the ideal bookseller, chatting his customers into buying what he thought was right for them. In 1889, Evans befriended the seventeen-year-old Aubrey Beardsley, a clerk in an insurance company who, too poor to make purchases, browsed in the bookshop during lunch hours. Eventually, Evans recommended Beardsley to the publisher John M. Dent as the illustrator for a new edition of Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur.” It was to be Beardsley’s first commission and the beginning of his meteoric rise to fame.

Evans probably made this portrait of Beardsley (1872-1898) in 1894, at the time the young artist was achieving notoriety for his scandalous illustrations of Oscar Wilde’s “Salomé” and “The Yellow Book,” two publications that captured the irreverent, decadent mood of the European fin de siècle. A lanky, stooped youth who suffered from tuberculosis and would die of the disease at the age of twenty-five, Beardsley, conscious of his awkward physique, cultivated the image of the dandy. Evans is reported to have spent hours studying Beardsley, wondering how best to approach his subject, when the artist, growing tired, finally relaxed into more natural poses. In the platinum print, Evans captured the inward-looking artist lost in the contemplation of his imaginary world, his beaked profile cupped in the long fingers of his sensitive hands.

Text from the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Gertrude Käsebier. 'Alfred Stieglitz' 1902


Gertrude Käsebier (American, 1852-1934)
Alfred Stieglitz
Platinum print
30.5 x 21.2cm (12 x 8 3/8 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, R. K. Mellon Family Foundation, Diana and Mallory Walker Fund, and Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation through Robert and Joyce Menschel



Featured in the 1903 inaugural issue of Alfred Stieglitz’s seminal journal Camera Work, Gertrude Käsebier was hailed by him as “the leading portrait photographer in the country.” To manipulate the tones of this print, Käsebier masked sections of the negative and then used a brush to selectively apply the developing solution to the printing paper. The final result resembles a beautifully hand-worked watercolour.


Heinrich Kühn. 'Walther Kühn' 1911


Heinrich Kühn (American, 1866-1944)
Walther Kühn
Gum dichromate over platinum print
29.7 x 23.7cm (11 11/16 x 9 5/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation through Robert and Joyce Menschel



A photographer, writer, and scientist, Heinrich Kühn was a central figure in the international development of Pictorialist photography. Known for his intimate portraits, scenes of rural life, and still-life photographs, he was actively involved in groups – both in Great Britain and Austria – that espoused an alternative to a purely technical view of photography.


Edward Steichen. 'Rodin' 1907


Edward Steichen (American, 1879-1973)
Gum dichromate over platinum print
37.94 x 26.67cm (14 15/16 x 10 1/2 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Pepita Milmore Memorial Fund



Steichen positioned Auguste Rodin in a contemplative pose reminiscent of the sculptor’s most recognised work, The Thinker. By adding gum dichromate (a mixture of light-sensitive salts, pigment and a gum arabic binder) over a platinum print, Steichen enhanced the soft-focus appearance and tonality of his portrait.

Steichen was an important link between European and American artistic circles during the first decade of the twentieth century. A member of the Photo-Secession, Steichen encouraged the group’s founder, Alfred Stieglitz, to open a gallery in New York to promote the club’s work. The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (later known as “291” from its address at 291 Fifth Avenue) opened in 1905. Soon, the gallery’s scope extended beyond photography to include other currents in modern art, such as the exhibition of Rodin’s watercolours and drawings that Steichen organised in 1908.


Alfred Stieglitz. 'Hodge Kirnon' 1917


Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864-1946)
Hodge Kirnon
Satista print
Alfred Stieglitz Collection



One of the least well known and most beautiful of Stieglitz’s portraits, this photograph depicts Hodge Kirnon, a man Stieglitz saw in passing every day. When preparing to close his historic gallery “291” in 1917 as a result of World War I, Stieglitz assessed his work and life and saw that Kirnon – who operated the elevator that transported the gallery’s visitors, its critics, and its provocative modern art – had been a true fellow passenger on the momentous trip.

Satista prints refer to a print that is a composed of a mixture of silver and platinum. This is a very old process, invented by William Willis published in Sensitive Photographic Paper and Process of Making. The process was intended to be more economical then platinum printing, but being able to produce results that looked like pure platinum prints and being as permanent.


Edith R. Wilson. 'Portrait of a Family' 1922


Edith R. Wilson (American, 1864-1924)
Portrait of a Family
Palladium print
R.K. Mellon Family Foundation



With the onset of World War I, platinum metal was needed for military purposes, raising its price and severely limiting its use in commercial applications. This led to the advancement of new photographic products that relied on the more readily available and less expensive precious metals of silver and palladium. Wilson made this portrait on palladium paper during a summer course offered by the Clarence H. White School of Photography. Intended to replicate the look of platinum prints, palladium papers came in various surface textures and tonal values; however, they were never fully embraced by photographers, who questioned both their quality and permanence.


Harry C. Rubincam. 'The Circus' 1905


Harry C. Rubincam (American, 1871-1940)
The Circus
Platinum print
The Sarah and William L Walton Fund



After years of working for insurance and wholesale grocery companies in New York City, Rubincam moved to Denver, Colorado, where he learned photography from a retired professional. His participation in several exhibitions brought his work to the attention of Alfred Stieglitz, who invited Rubincam in 1903 to be a member of the Photo-Secession, an elite group of photographers whose aim was to advance photography as a fine art. This photograph of a circus performance is unusual among art photographs from this time for its spontaneity.



National Gallery of Art
National Mall between 3rd and 7th Streets
Constitution Avenue NW, Washington

Opening hours:
Open daily 10.00am – 5.00pm

National Gallery of Art website


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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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