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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

A Magnificent Platinum Obsession

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Think about the last time you set out, determined to make photographs.

Maybe it was during your last trip to Europe, when you knew the light on the Roman Coliseum or the Eiffel Tower was going to be perfect. Perhaps it was during a fall camera club outing to a scenic rural place when the October colors were at their peak.

Maybe it was just a random day alone with your camera, when you could feel the creative juices flowing and knew that, come hell or high water, you were going to return with keepers.

If you are like me, you probably burned a lot of film – not profligately, but certainly in sufficient quantity to insure that you came back with something.

Now consider this:

When he is out shooting, even when he is shooting overseas, it is not at all unusual for photographer Dick Arentz to make only one picture a day. In fact, on a typical weeks-long trip, Dick only might bring enough film for 30 pictures.

And, he says, he always comes home with film left over.

But the pictures Dick Arentz does make tend to be magnificent, especially when they are translated into simply beautiful platinum/palladium prints, arguably the most elegant, not to mention archival, method for translating black and white photographic images to paper.

A "mini-retrospective" of Arentz's work is on display through the end of this month at Washington's Troyer Gallery on Connecticut Avenue. The photographs are effectively twinned with the striking minimalist constructions of sculptor Marie Ringwald who is well known in town not only for her personal work, but as an instructor in the Corcoran Gallery's prestigious fine arts program.

It is always a pleasure when beautiful art in different media work with, not against, one another in exhibition. And this show achieves a visual serenity that is as pleasing as it is informative.

One of the things that informs Dick Arentz's photography is its deliberation – as well as the photographer's unusual, not to say bizarre, equipment.

Arentz works in large format to create landscapes of quiet power. But not just in any large format. You get the impression that grabbing a 4x5 view camera off the shelf at a high-end camera store simply would have been too easy for this born tinkerer (and onetime oral surgeon.) To illustrate: If your brand new digital snapshooter is the contemporary of, say, a zippy new Mazda sports coupe, Arentz's two main cameras are the spiritual cousins of the Model T Ford.

He works with two vintage "banquet" cameras, each dating back to the early 1920s. These are bulky, long rectangular format view cameras that had been used primarily for making panorama pictures of patrons at formal dinners and banquets back in the days before e-mail, television and low-fat lattes. Did I say low fat? The kind of dinners at which these cameras were found tended to be seven-course affairs, in which the oyster course preceded the soup course, which preceded the beef course, which preceded...well, you get the idea.

"The larger of my cameras is a 12x20-inch Folmer Schwing," Arentz said. "The other is a 7x17-inch Korona camera of the same vintage." The modern lenses for these beasts were custom-made, the film (venerable Tri-X) custom cut into sheets by Eastman Kodak, for use in Arentz's ancient film holders.

Arentz has used these large cameras throughout the United States and Europe. His 1998 book Grand Tour, literally traces photographically the grand tour that wealthy young Europeans would make to the great cities of the western world in the 18th and 19th centuries to enrich their culture and knowledge and to broaden their visual horizons. His work on this side of the Atlantic takes a different, yet just as arresting, tack: unblinking yet also sympathetic depictions of unpeopled rural America and the west.

If Arentz has a decidedly old-world outlook about his equipment and his subject matter, part of the reason is that he is a platinum printer. In this age of all-digital, all-the-time (or so it seems to a largely film-based photographer like myself), the almost curmudgeonly attachment people like Arentz have for this most demanding of printing methods is, well, heartening. It is a reaffirmation of the very photographness of photography, that imperfect art form that, for all of its faults and difficulties, manages to give us a fairly objective report from the surface of our world.

Platinum and related palladium printing is a tedious, exacting contact printing process (hence the need for large negatives like those from a banquet camera.) To make a print, 100% cotton rag paper is hand coated with a solution containing platinum and/or palladium salts and an iron oxalate sensitizer. Once dry, the paper is put in contact with a negative and subjected to intense ultraviolet light which causes the reduction of the platinum or palladium salts to pure, stable, metal that defines the image.

Properly done, a platinum/palladium print not only has incredible detail from the contact printing process, but also a phenomenal tonal range, giving the finished image a depth that is virtually impossible to achieve in a conventional silver print. In the accompanying images, for example, I rarely have seen a more compelling photograph of a cactus – every spike defined, a simply gorgeous composition rendered in who knows how many separate shades of grey. Likewise the rural church covered in snow shows none of the chalky contrast of a silver print. Even the whitest parts of the snow-covered roof show beautiful detail.

In an interview Arentz noted that nowadays photography's reputation for accurate (dare I say truthful?) depiction of things is jeopardized already, if not lost outright, because of the ease with which images can be "improved" and manipulated digitally and electronically. He noted that "digital images may not be admissible in court" and observed that we now have gone full circle to the era before the halftone printing process when there was no wide dissemination of news photographs. That was a time when magazines like Harper's Weekly relied on the necessarily after-the-fact impressions of sketch artists to illustrate news and feature stories – the objectivity and accuracy of their work being anyone's guess.

As to the future of film, only a fool would deny the huge impact and potential of digital. But only a fool, too, would pronounce film totally dead – in the manner of those who thought photography itself would kill painting; television kill radio.

Tools and techniques that nourish the soul and fill a need – not just push the envelope of the Next New Thing – have a way of hanging on for decades if not centuries, co-existing with what was to have replaced them, long after they have been pronounced dead by well-meaning, if overconfident, critics.

I submit as (admissible) evidence the photography of Dick Arentz.

Dick Arentz, Platinum/Palladium photographs. Marie Ringwald, constructions. Troyer Gallery, 1710 Connecticut Avenue, NW. 202-328-7189. www.troyergallery.com Through March 30.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

© Dick Arentz
Platinum print of Organ Pipe cactus in Arizona shows every spike of the tall plant.

© Dick Arentz
Snow-covered church in Rico, Colorado offers a textbook example of how platinum/palladium printing can render detail even in lightest areas.

© Frank Van Riper
Marie Ringwald's constructions provide pleasing counterpoint to Dick Arentz's photographs at DC's Troyer Gallery.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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