After Platinum

By Tom Millea Back to


It all came together in 2004. That was the year I closed down my Platinum workshop and knew I would never make another Platinum print. Oh, how traumatic that was after 45 years of Platinum printing. My health demanded I stop. I had become toxic after breathing in the heavy metals and hydrochloric acid for 35 years.

Add to that the technical component. The films I used were discontinued, as were many of the chemicals. I loved using a small camera and then enlarging the negative to make a final print. Kodak discontinued the film I used to make the enlarged negatives, and Polaroid stopped making the Polapan film I used in the camera. It seemed my days were numbered.

I decided to retire and live off the sale of the prints I had made for so many years. I would be like Frederick Evans, who also retired when his beloved Platinum paper was discontinued after World War I. So I dismantled my studio, gave the equipment to people who needed it and sat back to enjoy my new life.

That lasted about two months. I simply could not do it. There were too many images still inside me waiting to be made, so many images to complete and give to the world.

What to do? I really didn’t know. For a while it was a real quandary. I had been using the computer for many years, but had always rejected it as a tool because I felt it did not come up to my standards for making images. It was time to take another look. I sensed I might be able to make it work if I tried hard enough, so I took my retirement savings and put together a complete digital studio.

I asked other photographers how they felt about the digital process, and I was shocked by the response. Most felt that the digital process was not photographic. It was too easy, too mechanical, too cerebral, too artificial. It was not a tintype, a daguerreotype, a cyanotype, a pigment print, an autochrome print, a platinum or palladium, printing out paper, or most importantly, a silver gelatin print. In their minds if it was not a silver gelatin print, it was not real or pure photography. A digital print was an imitation of other processes, a bastard process, not a new and unique technique.

What seemed most outrageous was the feeling digital prints were somehow not pure the way traditional silver prints were. As if somehow a person was more of an artist if he used any other process other than digital. I didn’t know a single person who made their own silver paper; they simply went to the store for paper and premixed chemistry, or often had someone else make the print. I guess if you got your hands wet, you were a photographer.

I never thought this way. I did not want digital prints to imitate my platinum prints; I wanted my digital prints to express my vision as closely as possible. It took me years of work to get to that place, but I now feel the prints are unique and beautiful and match my vision perfectly.

Victoria, platinum print
Malika, platinum print

When I had first experimented with color photographs, I never liked the results. But I found myself really excited by the possibility of making color photographs using the computer. The color palette of the inks fascinated me. They were so rich and deep and produced hues I hadn’t seen before. I really wanted to learn how to use them.

One concern that stayed with me as I began working in color was that most photographers I knew who were great B&W artists failed when they tried to use color. It was as if they took one of their great black and white images and simply put color on top of it. I was afraid I might do the same. So I made myself a promise. If the color in my color image was not completely integrated with the photograph, I would stop immediately and go back into retirement.Victoria, platin

I began with flower arrangements and soon discovered the limitations of digital cameras and lenses. I tried every camera and every lens I could get my hands on looking for the right combination to make the images I wanted. It was back to school to teach myself all over again the basics I needed to know to be successful. I had to throw everything I knew about platinum out the window and begin again to see with new eyes and work with new hands.

One day, after months of frustration I went to a friend’s house and in his front yard was a Banana tree. A Red Banana tree to be exact. I took one look at this tree, which is really a huge fern-like plant, and realized this was my new project. Within the leaves I felt a life and death struggle that matched what was going on in my own life,  a struggle I felt deeply, and I wanted to engage it and wrestle it to completion.

This began what turned out to be a five-year odyssey. I worked almost every day. In summer fog, winter rain, early in the morning, mid-day, and late in the evening, I made images. There was no right time to photograph, there was only to photograph.

I tried several cameras. I bought Nikons, Leicas, a Hasselblad, and finally a small Canon point-and -shoot. Each camera had different lenses, and I worked with them all. Each camera and lens combination did something wonderful, but could not do something else I wanted to do, so I would sell it and buy another. I knew it was crazy, but I did it anyway. Working my way down this path seemed the only important thing at the time.

As days turned into months and then years as I continued working, I realized that my color work was unique. These were not B&W images with color added; rather the color was unique and completely integrated. I found myself completely committed.

Book of Palms I, #41, pigment ink print
Book of Palms II, #47, pigment ink print

One day I went to my friend’s house to photograph the plant again and discovered the gardener had cut it down! Cut it down in the prime of my series! I was shocked. Devastated is a better word. I said to myself, “Well, I guess the series must be finished,” trying to be philosophical about it all. However, no matter how I put the work together, it was not finished.

I have always photographed found objects, like finding the Banana tree in my friend’s yard. To go out and buy one in order to continue was something I did not do. Yet this series demanded I do it. So I did. I bought a small tree and put it in my yard. I began photographing again almost immediately, and I found the new photographs magnificent and very different from the earlier ones. So I continued for another year.

While I was creating the Palm series, I looked around my studio and realized I had boxes of negatives and slides piled to the ceiling from 30 years of work. I decided to begin scanning some of the slides and tried to make good B&W prints from them digitally.

For months of frustrating experimentation, I tried everything I could think of. Nothing worked. I would discover little pieces of the puzzle, but the final print was terrible. Answers acceptable for other people did not work for me. After printing in platinum for so many years, my photographs did not work on glossy paper. I did not see the world with a glossy surface; I wanted a rich, deep, print with a matte surface, and what I was getting was just the opposite. I worked for months testing everything I could find. Papers, inks, software, and every different combination I could think of. Each time I would run into a blank wall.

I eventually decided to find experts in the field to try to find answers from them. I would call them up and have my questions answered over the phone. With both of us sitting at our computers and doing the things together, I found the answers I wanted. Or rather I found ways to look for the answers myself. Finally the prints began to look exactly as I wanted them to look.

This was the process of learning I loved so much. No one was out there giving me direct answers; rather they were pointing me in the direction I needed to go. How wonderful that was. Craft is not an end in itself. It must always be subservient to vision.

I have chosen to use the digital process because it allows me to manifest my vision better than any other process. I cannot say it would also be true for anyone else. Your vision is process specific. There is only one process that allows an artist to actualize his or her specific vision in its purest form. There is no right or wrong photographic technique. Finding that process, finding that one technique, is critical in the making of the final image. It is the final image standing alone that counts. How we got there is simply a wonderful story.

Minor White, famous photographer and teacher, once said it takes a full ten years to learn your craft. I believe he is right. It seemed that all at once things came together. After all those years of learning and frustration, I now have completed three portfolios of B&W images and two of color. It has been a long and difficult journey, but worth every minute of it. For me, this work was only possible using digital techniques. Nothing else would work for me. So it no longer matters what other people think. I know I have brought forth my vision in the best possible way, and I am completely happy with it.

Nicole, platinum print

Product Resources: B&W images were shot with a Nikon; digital images were made with a Hasseblad H2D, Leica SLR, Nikon 5000 and a Canon G-10; Millea prints digitally with Epson 4800 and 9800 printers on Moab paper.

About the Author

Tom Millea