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Dan Rohn’s Platinum Prints

Article by Clint Driscoll

Local Artists – October 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

WHEN DAN ROHN and his wife, Mary, settled in Salida in 1996, they may have been new residents, but they were familiar with the area. Every August for forty years they camped and fished in Central Colorado: learning the back roads, and finding perfect camp spots, quiet fishing holes and hidden hot springs.

The move signified the end of Rohn’s career as an associate professor of art at Kent State University and, he hoped, the beginning of an opportunity to produce photographic art prints using the platinum print method. In an age when any image can be digitized and then warped, duped, colorized, decolorized, and combined with any other, he chose to specialize in one of the most demanding forms of print photography.

Rohn is a dynamic, energetic man whose interests range from music (he sang as a madrigal tenor under the direction of Robert Shaw) to gardening. “I still write with a fountain pen, practice stone lithography, and avoid computers,” he said as he sorted his extensive classical music collection — on vinyl. “All is fair in love, war, and art, but I could never create computer images as prints. I could never consider the work final because the possible combinations are infinite.”

Rohn received his BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1961 and earned his MFA in painting and printmaking from the Yale University School of Art in 1964. He was a graduate assistant to Gabor Peterdi in stone lithography and a technical assistant and printmaker at the Universal Limited Art Editions studio in Long Island, New York, where he printed for Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. In 1966 he began teaching at the Kent State School of Art and conducted the master’s program in lithography until his retirement.

Rohn specializes in photo printmaking because, as he puts it, he “talked out” painting and drawing during 30 years of teaching. “Someone once asked Vladimir Nabokov how he wrote. He told them he kept snatches of conversations he had heard on 3×5 cards and eventually put them together to form a story,” Rohn said. “For me painting, drawing, even color theory are the same — bits and pieces of information filed away. Every time I put a line or a stroke on canvas or even mixed a certain color I would say `Ah, that’s a Monet style, a Delacroix color or a Chagall line.’ I couldn’t feel as if anything I did was original. It’s like the story of the man who asked the centipede how it could walk with so many legs. After thinking about it the centipede could never walk again.”

Fortunately, a friend gave Rohn the Daybooks of Edward Weston, an early platinum print photographer. Rohn was impressed by the tonality of the images. “I had always considered photography a nice hobby but here I saw art equal to an etching or lithograph; the platinum process sets limitations so the image cannot be created or enhanced by a chemical trick.”

The platinum process has been around since the 1870s. Platinum and palladium (white gold) suspended in an iron salts solution are light sensitive. When the solution is applied to almost any grade of paper the elements imbed themselves in the paper fibers. After exposure, the paper is developed in a mild acid solution which dissolves the iron, leaving the platinum image.

In the standard silver nitrate process the silver “floats” in a gelatin or plastic coating on top of the paper. As a result, over time the silver fades and tarnishes. The platinum image, since it is embedded, cannot fade. According to Rohn, platinum images salvaged from sunken ships look as good as the day they were printed. The finest prints are created on 100% rag archival papers on which the artist has hand-applied the solution.

THE DRAWBACKS of the platinum process (or challenges, depending on your point of view) are, platinum solutions are not as light sensitive as silver and develop very slowly under ultraviolet light. The negative image cannot be projected onto the paper using an enlarger; each print requires direct contact between the negative and the paper. If the artist wants an 8″x10″ print, he or she must have an 8″x10″ negative. Of course that means using a camera capable of holding film that size. Rohn uses an 80-year-old Century Universal 8×10 field camera with uncoated lenses. The camera was rescued by one of his students from the Dumpster of an Ohio newspaper office.

There is also much less leeway in the developing process. The different grades of print paper available in standard photography allow differing contrasts. The use of filters when projecting the negative image will block certain shades or enhance others (Ansel Adams was famous for his use of these development techniques). In the platinum process none of these tricks can be used. What the camera captured when the shutter snapped is what will develop no matter what the artist perceived or wishes were there.

“Platinum prints are like stone sculpture,” said Rohn. “You must deal with what the camera and process give you, just as a sculptor must allow for the veins, faults and color changes of the stone. That is the challenge, to give yourself limitations yet still end up with beautiful results.”

The results can be wondrous. Because of the relatively slow development of the print, highlights are not masked as darker tones become more intense. This allows a great range of tonality — subtle gradations and stark contrasts which, combined with the natural matte finish give a sense of depth and clarity. The same effect cannot be found in standard photos unless they are “fudged” as Rohn puts it.

“In a sense, photography has no past. I can photograph in peace,” said Rohn. “The camera is the highest form of seeing and the process cannot be fiddled with. There is a finality when the shutter says, `snap.’ The eye and the camera are not friends but at times they agree.”

To find that agreement is Rohn’s quest as an artist. He often returns to the same subject, hoping to capture new, undiscovered or unnoticed nuances which he or the camera missed on previous attempts. It is not coincidence that the artist who most intrigues Rohn is the late Italian Giorgio Morandi who spent his life painting and drawing the same objects over and over. “Morandi was so counter to what is happening now. For me, as for him, shapes become old friends whose variation is created by light and angles.”

ROHN’S IMAGES invite long, contemplative views. There is always a central object but there is so much surrounding it which cannot be taken in with a cursory glance. As Ron Bengston of the Akron Art Museum put it during a show of Rohn’s work, “Just as Rohn returns to the location of these images to photograph over and over again, we are compelled to repeatedly search their surfaces.”

Rohn has spent the last 25 years crossing the country photographing in Yellowstone, along the Oregon Trail, at the Edna St. Vincent Millay estate in New York and at numerous sites in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and North and South Carolina. His retirement is the time to get to work. The Rohns’ modest Victorian home is only one-third the size of the house they left in Ohio. His developing and studio space is limited, but he is beginning to produce more prints. “I’m five years and 500 negatives behind,” he said, “But the outlook is marvelous.”

His work is found in many private and public collections throughout the country, and can be seen locally at cultureclash gallery in Salida.

Clint Driscoll is an art groupie who lives in Buena Vista. Not only are he and the camera not friends but brushes, pencils, pens, charcoal, pastels and clay don’t coƶperate with him either. He recently entered local politics with his appointment to the Town Board to fill out the term of a Trustee who resigned.