THE PLATINUM PRINTROOM
A History of 31 Studio
By Professor Chris Townsend
When 31 Studio was established by Paul Caffell, it was the first specialist Platinum Print Workshop to be set up in the United Kingdom. Paul recovered a photographic process that had been hugely important at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.
William Willis had patented a viable Platinum process in 1873. His invention had become the chosen method of printing for some of the most eminent photographers at the end of the 19th century. This was especially true of Peter Henry Emerson, Edward Steichen and other members of the Secession Group such as Alvin Langdon Coburn, who claimed artistic status for their work. But later the use of Platinum went into decline and was seemingly forgotten by the 1920s.
Platinum printing is distinctive amongst modes of photographic reproduction on two grounds. Firstly, because it is chemically inert, Platinum does not react with light or deteriorate with time. Most other processes are, eventually, fugitive. Only carbon prints are equally stable. The second feature, and one more noticeable to you and I, is that Platinum prints have an utterly distinctive tonal range. There are no absolute blacks or whites: the print is produced in incredibly subtle tones of grey, so that even the deepest shadows have an expressive character and detail. The metal is absorbed into the paper rather than lying on its surface as an emulsion. This means, not only that the print responds to light differently from traditional black and white prints, but that every print of the same image, is absolutely unique, a consequence of even minimal differences in handling and personal judgements by the printer.
Platinum printing had almost vanished after World War One when the cost of the metal (used in making shell fuses) rose to astronomic levels.
In the 1960s, the American photographer Irving Penn had made a few Platinum prints, but no one had thought to properly revive the process for an age in which photography came to reach new heights and new audiences. This meant that, with no other practitioners available to help him, Paul Caffell had to learn the process virtually from scratch, from William Willis’s notebooks. “That was incredibly exciting”, Paul said. “I was retracing the original steps in the development of the process, getting a very real insight into what the process was capable of. I felt a strong affinity with Willis and what he’d wanted to achieve”.
Help came in the shape of Borje Almquist, a Swedish photographer and printmaker, who was taking an MA at the Royal College of Art. It was Almquist who introduced Paul to the potential of adding Palladium to the process, varying the amount of Palladium to control the warmth of the tones within the print.
A belief in the artistic potential of Platinum printing led the leading fashion photographer David Bailey to 31 Studio. Bailey’s famous prints of the 1960s shown in London and Los Angeles have been printed by Paul.
Bailey’s interest in the Platinum process was matched by an increasing number of other photographers searching for a distinctive and sensitive means of printing their work. By the mid 1990s this led to an expansion of 31 Studio’s business -
Max has now taken over the direction of the Studio.
One significant development for the Studio has been the creation of new editions of the work of some of the most important photographers to have used Platinum printing. In the late 1990s Pam Roberts, then Curator of The Royal Photographic Society, gave Paul access to the original glass negatives of Frederick H. Evans, held at the RPS. These negatives included Evans’s classic image The Sea of Steps, taken in Wells Cathedral in 1903. 31 Studio went on to produce a special edition of this wonderful picture for the RPS.
This project set a new trend for the Studio: whilst continuing to work with contemporary photographers on their current projects, the Studio has increasingly collaborated with the world’s leading institutions to revive the work in their archives. With the George Eastman Collection of New York, 31 studio produced an extraordinary series of editions of the work of Alvin Langdon Coburn -
An important exhibition and edition of the work of the French photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue has been printed by the Studio and they have worked for a number of years with the Lee Miller Archives, home to some of the most notable photography of the Surrealist movement.
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© 2021 Alasdair Ogilvie / 31 Studio / The Platinum Printroom