GENESIS platinum prints from Sebastiao Salgado

When I saw the Genesis exhibition almost a couple of years ago now, fellow students and the tutor complained among other things about the quality of the printing. The prints on show here however are black and white images made via the platinum printing process which is arguably the finest method of printing for black and white negative images although it is not so popular as other processes. The prints are made on Arches Aquarelle paper.

There is no mention here of what the process involves yet writing about another exhibition next door to this one in Somerset House, Martin Barnes who has been curator of photography at the V&A for about twenty years writes about “the ashen tones of the platinum printing process, chosen … for its superior tonal range and permanence.” He continues “The beautiful platinum printing technique flourished from the time of its invention in 1873 until the First World War. After platinum was discovered to be an excellent catalyst for making explosives it was diverted to the war effort, it’s price rose dramatically and its use in photography was forbidden.” It has however, in spite of the high cost of Platinum, been revived since then.
The prints themselves are much softer. Form is not so sharply delineated and the blacks not so black. Yet this obvious lack of contrast is perhaps more lifelike and allows for tonal detail that might otherwise be obscured. The eye is allowed to wander a little more, given more freedom to explore what is being represented.
Seeing images I saw in the last exhibition of this work is interesting because they do seem to have a different effect. The Iceberg between Paulet Island and the South Shetland Islands on the Weddell Sea which met one on entry to the exhibition at The Natural a history Museum, is as before an intriguing design yet what looks like a fortress that stands on top of the iceberg is here more apparently made of snow. The well known image of The Eastern Part of Brooks Range found in The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Centre, Alaska, USA, during 2009 which appears on the front of the Genesis monograph, is much more delicately portrayed with the valley sides looking more real and less rubbery that the exaggerated representation evident by other more accessible processes.
Does one need to be a connoisseur to appreciate all this? I don’t think so as the platinum prints have an effect of their own, a flavour anyone can taste; most viewers however are not going to take too much time considering this difference yet for those who felt the prints in The Natural History Museum did not do the work justice, they are likely to find themselves in a more positive frame of mind as they view what is on show here with the platinum versions.

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