An historical collaboration between a fine print studio and George Eastman House

When Pam Roberts was curator of the Royal Photographic Society’s Collection – she performed the role between 1989 and 2001 – she enjoyed a successful collaboration with fine art printers 31 Studio in the production of a limited edition platinum print of Frederick H Evans ‘The Sea of Steps’, the negative of which is in the RPS Collection. Now the same parties are embarked upon a similar but substantially more ambitious enterprise in collaboration with George Eastman House (GEH) in Rochester, USA: the making of five volumes of limited edition platinum and gum platinum prints from original negatives by Alvin Langdon Coburn in GEH’s photography collection. Each volume is in an edition of 45.

Coburn, an American, lived between 1882 and 1966, and moved to the UK just before WW1, settling in Wales. In due course he became a British citizen. His career spanned 60 years, and he donated much of his work to the RPS in 1930, but the lion’s share went, by bequest, to George Eastman House following his death. The GEH collection of Coburn’s work is said to comprise in excess of 17,000 negatives and 2000 prints – one heck of a lot of material from which to select the 25 images that make up the current project.

Coburn’s subjects were varied and included portraits, in particular notable figures of the day, some of which were published in book form. Cities and landscapes were another favourite – the pictures of London and New York featured here were all taken, or are believed to have been taken, between 1903 and around 1910. He mastered many printing processes and became influenced by some of the prominent art movements of the day, for example producing a number of ‘Vortographs’, two examples of which are published here (from the Volume 2 portfolio).

The approach of 31 Studio – fine art printers Paul and Max Caffell (father and son) and colleague Dominic Burd – has been to match Coburn’s originals as closely as possible. Using prints from the RPS Collection for comparison made this part of the task somewhat easier, however Coburn’s prints from the same negative do vary and so a view was taken to ‘capture the essence’ of what he was trying to achieve. And this was not always straightforward: for instance, some areas of the gum printing required fogging-in in order to mimic Coburn’s results.

As always the starting point for a contact printing ‘alternative’ process is the paper base and this itself posed some early problems brought to light by the double printing required for the gum platinum prints and the attendant need for maintenance of registration. The problem lay in not so much the choice of paper – Arches Aquarelle 300gsm watercolour stock – but its pre-treatment.

It is a long established practice among those who coat their own printing papers to soak and wash the paper first for, say, a couple of hours. This is to remove the size; it is not, however, as 31 Studio discovered, long enough to fully shrink the paper. With the two-hour wash they found shrinkage was taking place between making the platinum/palladium element of the image and the secondary gum bichromate print, and this made accurate registration of the contact negative for the second print impossible. After some experimentation an optimum washing/soaking time of 10-12 hours was hit upon.

In each case the source image was Coburn’s original camera negative and these came in a range of sizes and quality; to suit 31 Studio’s working methods new contact internegatives were produced from these. The film of choice for the internegs was Agfa N31P of which, having now been discontinued, stocks exist but are scarce; so films from Berrger (Linhof & Studio in the UK) and Aristatone (USA) were also used.

Of the 25 images in the Volumes, 20 are platinum/palladium prints and five are gum bichromate over platinum/palladium. It is no surprise to learn that the latter posed the greatest challenge. In addition to the registration problem, the matter of matching Coburn’s originals required experimentation – the fogging-in of some areas being just one example. The exposure for the platinum/palladium stage was reduced in order that subtle information in the image was still retained once the gum had been printed over it. Even a detail such as finding exactly the right brand of Van Dyke Brown to match the pigment used by Coburn proved less than straightforward. In all, the period of experimentation stretched over a good six months before all those involved were fully happy with the results.

Having worked so closely with Coburn’s images Paul Caffell has an informed view of the man: ‘He was a strange fellow, [Coburn developed an interest in the occult later in life] there is a darkness to his prints, creating a mood. He was innovative, a sort of Man Ray, [cf the Vortographs] allowing the accident to participate’.

And to quote the man himself: ‘I have the very greatest respect for photography as a means of personal expression, and I want to see it alive to the spirit of progress; if it is not possible to be “modern” with the newest of all the arts, we had better bury our black boxes, and go back to scratching with a sharp bone in the manner of our remote Darwinian ancestors. I do not think that we have begun to even realise the possibilities of the camera’.