Master Of Platinum

An interview with fine-art photographer and expert platinum and palladium printer Dick Arentz
© Dick Arentz

The “Blade”, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona, 1983.

Honored by the Arizona Arts and Humanities Commission as one of the 20 most significant artists in the state, platinum and palladium printer and monochrome photographer Dick Arentz brings into the new millennium formulas and techniques from the late 19th century.

“I learn from my students,” Arentz said with a twinkling eye and gratified tone. He not only compiles his own findings, but he also incorporates the testing and discoveries of his students. This is why his book, Platinum & Palladium Printing, Second Edition, is known in online forums and industry magazines as the most comprehensive book on the subject.

Arentz today chooses images to print using platinum and palladium, as well as Piezography processes, which display ambiance and other behaviors of light and texture. He keenly observes and portrays the exquisite in daily life. However, Arentz wasn’t always a master printer.

Arentz didn’t get into photography until he was 35 years old, and then only as a hobbyist, at first. He started out as an oral surgeon. Early in photography, he traveled from the Midwest to California to visit with and take workshops from Ansel Adams. He also attended most of the graduate seminars at the University of Michigan, where he taught in the dental school.

At the university, he studied under Phil Davis, who at the time started to develop his popular book, Beyond the Zone System, a needed supplement to Adams’ well-known system of sensitometry. Arentz got involved because he had just returned from a workshop with Adams. Arentz said that Davis pointed out the shortcomings of Adams’ system.

“He addressed the failure to accurately track changes in ISO due to film development time,” Arentz said. Beyond the Zone System sold seven editions through Focal Press. Getting started with Davis as a mentor helped Arentz decide what direction to take in photography.

© Dick Arentz

Yellow Maples, Bernheim, Kentucky, 1988.

Outdoor Photographer: What did you learn from Davis about photography that made the most impact on your approach to the medium?

Dick Arentz: In the early ’70s, as academics began to assert their control, the giants in the teaching of photography such as Adams, Minor White, Henry Holmes Smith, Philip Hyde and others, were seeing the end of their direct influence on the medium. It was the era of the “snapshot.” I remember looking at endless photos of the students’ significant others sitting naked on a bed. Davis was obviously disinterested and began refusing to review portfolios.

He took me through some of the non-silver processes. I made my first platinum print in 1973. Later that year, I moved my family to Flagstaff to open a practice where I would have time off to photograph. In 1980, I went from Flagstaff back to Ann Arbor to help Davis further the platinum process. The catalyst was a commission he had received to reprint a portfolio of Karl Struss, a photographer and the first Academy Award winner in cinematography. Davis and I went back to the original literature of 1873-1875, particularly that of Captain Pizzighelli and Baron von Hubl. We re-created their formulas and duplicated their work. I was hooked.

OP: What inspired you to transition first into being a part-time and then a full-time photographer?

Arentz: The dream of becoming a full-time photographer was quickly extinguished by the presence of three little hungry mouths to feed. I know many photographers got their start with the help of working spouses or family money. I had no source of funds and it seemed unfair to have my wife leave her position as a full-time mother when I had such earning capacity. When I chose to relocate in Flagstaff, I knew that the population would probably not support a full-time specialty practice. Initially, I was in the office four days a week, which allowed three for my photography. I also taught part time at Northern Arizona University and used that salary to subsidize my photography. I went eight years, from 1973 to 1981, without selling a print.

Following my 1980 visit with Davis, I withdrew from silver printing. I attempted to answer many of the unanswered questions and old wives’ tales about platinum printing. When I got started, it appeared that I couldn’t quit, as answers led to more questions. After three years, I felt that I was ready to exhibit my first Pt/Pd prints. With that, my career took off and it became apparent that I needed more time for my photography. I brought in a young partner in 1981 and went to a half-time position myself. Eventually, my surgery practice subsidized my income from photography. I finally retired completely from my practice in 1996.

© Dick Arentz

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, 1986.

OP: Early on, did you study the masters such as the Westons, Ansel and others? Who had the most impact on you?

Arentz: Although I never met Edward Weston, his writings had a significant effect on how I viewed photography and my own work specifically. I also had a contact with Minor White, who expanded my mind even further. By the time I finally met and studied with Ansel Adams, I had some definite ideas where I was going. Although much of my early work was traditionally landscape, I gained confidence to add a bit of myself into each image. There was a then overworked term worth reconsidering now. It’s that of a “photographic metaphor,” wherein the printed image becomes something more meaningful than the subject. This concept we owe to Edward Weston and his contemporaries.

OP: You said my father was a major influence. Having taught with him for years, how did you influence each other?

Arentz: I had three mentors named Phil, all born in approximately 1920. The first was an oral surgery resident. The second, of course, was Phil Davis, who gave me the necessary technical expertise to become a photographer. I got to know Philip Hyde during the canyon workshops we co-led in 1977-1979. Afterward we became good friends. Your dad was the opposite of the beastly Robert Louis Stevenson’s character Mr. Hyde: kind, considerate and generous, except to those poor souls who intimated somehow that photography was an easy subject to learn and practice. Then, Phil Hyde metamorphosed into Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde complete with fangs, leaving his subject quaking in the onslaught.

When I called Hyde to describe the humiliation I had undergone while trying to acquaint the folks at the University of Arizona Photography Department with the subject of photo sensitometry, he said, “March to your own drummer.” That saying has accompanied me every time I was reminded that my work didn’t meet the present trends of the art.

OP: Did you discuss silver printing compared to platinum and palladium with Dad? Did you talk about black-and-white versus color?

Arentz: One of the things that made your dad a great color photographer was that he started in monochrome. Working in only shades of gray or sepia develops a sense of structure, which is lacking in many colorists. An interesting exercise is watching some of the Ted Turner colorized versions of black-and-white movies. It detracts rather than adds. Conversely, try putting on a color film and remove the color. In most cases, it becomes deadly boring. There’s no structure. That can’t be said of a Hyde photo.

The similarity between Pt/Pd printing and color dye transfer is that they’re both crafts that demand hands-on implementation. When there’s a craft usually there’s caring. There are also imperfections, the “warts,” that come with non-mechanical processes.

© Dick Arentz

Indian Wells, California, 1984.

OP: How do you choose your photographic subjects?

Arentz: Prior to my Bernheim Fellowship and three years’ work in the mid-South, I began to prefer the “hand of man” in my images. I noted this while doing the Four Corners Country, 1978-1981, where my early photographs of natural landscape began to show structures of varying types.

I consider my 1988-1991 work in Kentucky, West Virginia and the adjacent areas some on my best. I was breaking free of the western landscape that, for me, was becoming stale. This change was further enhanced by my work in Ohio related to my Columbus Museum of Art Fellowship. I thrive on change, but in tiny steps. I’m not going to revolutionize the field of photography. I’m more like the Energizer Bunny plodding on. On that note, I returned to photographing in Europe, which I began in 1978. It represented to me another refreshing change in subject matter, so much so that I’m still immersed in it 30-some years later.

OP: What’s your approach to photography, and what are you intending to express in your photographs?

Arentz: For some photographers, particularly early on, there seems to be a need to “justify” an image. This is partly due to the academic influence, where verbalization is encouraged. A good image doesn’t need to be spoken to. I don’t like to talk about my images in descriptive terms. My goal is to connect with the sensory perceptions of the viewer. My observation is that with the rapid acceleration of norms and overstatement, and the shortening of attention spans, much of the contemplative aspects of the arts are being lost. I’ve said that the secret to understanding a Weston photograph is to pour a bit of single malt scotch in a tumbler, put on Bach and look at each image for a minimum of 60 seconds. One develops a sense of awareness that comes with practicing three acquired tastes.

OP: Large-format photographers online have commented that your book is the quintessential volume on platinum and palladium printing. What did you set out to do in your book?

Arentz: As I said, I began to show my Pt/Pd prints after three years of research. Later, in 1985, I found the temerity to write down my experiences learning from my students in dozens of workshops, first in a three-page outline, then in a spiral-bound booklet and finally in the form of the present second edition of Platinum & Palladium Printing. What makes my book unique is the compilation of years of work and practical experience by my many students and myself.

Certainly, my scientific background helped in doing my research, using a logical series of methods, as well as the understanding of the chemistry and other technical matters. One of the side pleasures was to blow holes in some technical books written by MFAs. One example is Overexposure: Health Hazards in Photography, an alarmist publication written by two authors, the most scientific of which had an MA in public health. It scared art students and others with no scientific background to the point that they became fearful of some of the processes. I devoted a major portion of one chapter of my book to discussing the safety of chemicals with Reasonable and Prudent Use.

Fairy Glen, Wales, 1986.

Fairy Glen, Wales, 1986.

OP: As seen in your books, you find beauty in subtle ways and in places most people would never notice it. How does the platinum and palladium process aid in the execution of your unusual vision?

Arentz: Following your father’s advice of “marching to your own drummer,” whenever I think of the possible salability when focusing on a subject, I’m able to put that out of my mind. My purpose is to communicate and elevate. Obviously, I was aided by having a degree of financial stability. However, I could never pander to public trends. I would rather do something else. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I haven’t achieved more notoriety.

OP: My understanding is that the title of your book, Italy Through Another Lens, has a double meaning: You not only saw Italy in a different way, but you also switched from large-format film to digital. Do you plan to continue to use a large-format camera at times, or have you gone over entirely to digital?

Arentz: I had been making silver contact prints using Azo and the Weston Amidol method of development. So it wasn’t a major task to begin with another contact printing process. I was also able to go into my library of negatives to find those suitable technically and visually for Pt/Pd printing.

The “feel” of my work is the result of practicing a contemplative form of viewing and composing, as well as avoiding the digital trap of over-sharpening. In some of my European work, I was aided by a particular Leica lens made in Canada that had aberrations when used at the maximum opening of ƒ/1.4. I add flare to approximate uncoated view camera lenses. I believe that I exposed my last sheet of film in 2003 and I’ve gone entirely digital.

OP: What aspect of learning digital and making digital images to the same exacting standards as large-format photography has been difficult for you? Is it much harder or more complicated to make platinum and palladium prints from digital photographs?

Arentz: Good digital photography isn’t easy. Those who think that it is haven’t fully explored it. It involves learning and mastering a new language, not just to become proficient, but fluent. Understandably, photography involves only a segment of Photoshop and the related tools. It’s easy to be careless. I approached it with respect and, just as with Pt/Pd printing, I didn’t exhibit until I thought that I was ready. Just as with platinum, it took a number of years. In addition, I had a great tutor, Mark Nelson, with whom I teamed up to do workshops. As before, I learned from the students, more so because I’m not of the digital generation. In fact, at the beginning, I thought that a pixel was some sort of handle or something.

© Dick Arentz

Water Lilies, Kapaa, Kauai, Hawaii, 1987.

OP: Back when you were working in large-format film, you made an average of one image a day. How many do you make a day now? Have you carried over some of the large-format approach to your digital work?

Arentz: I’m still rather contemplative. Now traveling in the UK, I went five days before I made an exposure. However, when I see something I, too, practice “diarrhea of the camera.” Interestingly, it’s usually the first that are the best.

OP: What is Piezography, and how is it produced? How does this new direction complement your platinum and palladium work?

Arentz: This is a comprehensive subject. Historically, I began to print from digitally generated negatives as others did. For about six years, I taught workshops on the subject with Mark Nelson. I believe that the Pt/Pd print made from an in-camera negative was the “benchmark” to emulate. I also soon learned that, for me, it was an unapproachable goal.

My wife, also a photographer, passed away in 2011. I arranged for a memorial exhibit of her work in 2012, which I would print. Hopefully, we would sell the images to help fund a scholarship in her name. It became apparent that the cost of a Pt/Pd print made it unaffordable for most people. I began to further explore Piezography, which uses seven carbon inks, rather than color inks, in a dedicated Epson inkjet printer. I was impressed, particularly because I had come to the conclusion that, with my work, a Pt/Pd print made from a digital negative wasn’t an adequate substitute for a film negative. I found that a well-made Piezography print had a character all its own. It wasn’t a substitute for something else. Of course, it doesn’t have the platinum pedigree for marketability. Again, I got into mastering a process. And, again, as with good digital work, it wasn’t easy.