Why The Palladio Company Went Away: The True History of its Demise

Some of you may remember The Palladio Company, which made machine coated platinum-palladium photographic paper. That was my baby. And in it’s youth I gave it up for adoption, wishing it well in all it’s future endeavors.

The idea of that company sprang from a moment of clarity, in which I had to abandon a tightly held dogma that hand coating was the only way.

When I first started hand making my sensitized stocks, it was for the simple reason that I couldn’t find anything I liked (or was good at using) on the commercial market. And I gravitated to the suavity of earlier materials, rather than the heavy contrasty style then current. Modern papers felt to me as if I were listening to an oompah band banging away at a polka, at great amplitude, in a small room.

Getting control of my technique was hard. Towards that end, I had written a data base that could calculate all the variables that went into the making of my iron-silver develop out albumen paper, and while I was at it, any other hand coated process. I used pt-pd as a proofing medium, mostly, especially after Afga stopped making printing out paper.

The data base could track dozens of variables, the source and age of the egg whites, the age of the iron sensitive solution, how the small doping ingredients interacted. What the various sizings did. What fun.

This was a great leap forward in controlling what was always a chancy process. But the failure rate was still high.

It occurred to me that for all the pride I took in hand making my own papers, the craft was in the way of the art. A heavy metal ankle weight. No high jumping allowed.

And it was clear that a machine would do a better job of coating than I could do by hand. So I spent a year building a coating machine in my basement. And had a making order of rag paper run, all 5,000 pounds of it, in order to get the stock on rolls.

I could run the machine for a day and have more paper than I could use in a year. Two years. More.  Along the way, I also figured out, in tuning the machine, a way of minimizing the amount of precious metal content in pt-pd coatings. And since the sizings kept the coatings from sinking into the fibre, Palladio had a great D max, could hold all of a 21 step wedge, and could be toned, and lastly but not least was variable contrast. Thus the Palladio Company.

So, that moment of clarity, realized, meant switching to a commercially available, machine coated, off the shelf product. I happened to be the manufacturer, as well as the consumer, but that was incidental. As well me as another.

Three things happened that told me my baby was ugly.

I often manned the help line, fielding the harder questions. The “what if I do …..” questions.  My stock answer was, “I don’t know. How about you try it and see?” Which I would repeat. A lot. Because that was the best and most honest answer.

I couldn’t understand why there was such reluctance to experiment.

It wasn’t that the paper was expensive, although it was. We included test strips, two for each sheet, so that one could make experiments at no cost.

It was a sadder state. Way, way too many of the curious were also unadventurous. Timid. More eager to talk about the realm of the possible, than dive into the much riskier maelstrom of failures, bad ideas, or wonder of wonders, something brand new. I had conceived Palladio with the hope that it would grow up and do great things. But, poor dear, it was retarded.

The other question that made me want to go buy a cat to kick: “How much platinum is in it. I hear it’s mostly palladium”. How could that possibly matter? Why the need to  imply value by the gram, rather than by the work? The answer was demoralizing.

We made the best paper we could, and used the appropriate formulae. It was mostly palladium indeed. Because it made a more beautiful print than formulae’s that had more platinum. Working backwards from beauty.

The great awaking part two, and the beginning of the end: I was teaching a work shop, and a student came up to me with a combination of triumphal pride and moral certainty. He held up a print he had made in class on Palladio paper, And a print of the same image on paper he had coated himself.

One was clearly sharper and had a cleaner more separated tonality and an obviously greater D Max. One was velvety, the other chalky, muddy, insipid. Which he pointed out; stabbing finger bouncing away. But he was pointing to his print as superior. Which it wasn’t. I took the print over to the densitometer. In all the virtues, Palladio was objectively superior. And it wasn’t that the student was after the grayer, uneven,muddier look, the low density, splotchy insipid boring look of bad craft.

He was just seduced by the joy of making it himself. No two year old who just decorated the walls with his feces could have been prouder. I though his print pathetic. But he was in love with the creative act, the drool covered cretin was his own, his son and heir, carrier of the creative DNA.

So, I came to understand the politics of hand coated paper vs. Palladio. The idea triumphing over any objective sense. John Stevenson even had a gallery which made a sneering point of not accepting work on Palladio.  Marketing from a former American Express executive. Go figure. Would that he had been so discriminating about the work itself.

There’s no reason that I should have been surprised. Nor hurt. Most photographers aren’t artists. It’s a hobby. So go in peace. But, then…

In 1991, I got an invitation to stay and play at Kodak’s Center for Creative Imaging. After two weeks there, with access to every toy $12 million could by, I knew two things. I was done with albumen, contact printing, platinum printing, Palladio, and the good old days. What I now cared about was getting digital technology to work at a level equal to where I had gotten the alchemical medium.

But that’s another story, and about 15 years of work.

Palladio survived for about another decade, with Sura Steinberg running it, David Kolody running the production, and a small staff.

Sura loved that company and what it meant to her customers. But the water at the mill we used changed, and we never found another source it’s equal. I didn’t have the time or interest to reinvent the formulae to adjust it to a new paper source. So, Palladio now had a finite lifespan. When the last 3 tons of paper were gone, it was over.

She kept Palladio alive for far longer than I expected, rationing the supply, and had a coterie of faithful customers. It was economically viable. She still gets queries. She still would like to revive it. But dead is dead.

Up until this summer, I still had one long roll of Palladio Paper. Every once in a while, David took a snip of it and made a print, just to see. It was the apex, it’s the best roll we ever made, and the last. And then it was over. It’s better paper now that when we made it more than a decade ago. I kept it around like an old dog you love too much to shoot. But it don’t fetch.

Then I got a call, an hysterical, weeping, gnashing of teeth rending of garments wimpering sort of call from Carl Hyatt. He was going through his roll, merrily printing away, working toward the end of this, the penultimate run, and much to his surprise, came upon the uncoated butt end of the roll which he had assumed was coated stock.

I knew that whatever my protestations to the contrary, I was never going to use my last roll, entombed in silica gel, sitting on a shelf.

Carl now has it, and I’ve seen the first print. It’s amazing; the paper got better with age, and he knows how to make it sing and dance. He’s working wonders with it. Lovely work.

So, it’s officially over. A good end. And good riddance.

Fuck art, let’s dance.


About rjsteinberg

From 4' x 5' albumen prints on cloth to The Palladio Company, to large format digital work in color. A long strange trip. Sidestep to NAPC, Inc. Bettern being bored.
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2 Responses to Why The Palladio Company Went Away: The True History of its Demise

  1. David Crosby says:

    Found two packs of Palladio paper in my storage closet – still sealed – I just need some guidance for the developing/clearing solutions – can you point me in the direction of a recipe? Many thanks for your energy and work all these years.

  2. rjsteinberg says:

    Do you have the label information? Velvet held up really well. Original formula, Eggshell, not so much. Worth a try anyway.

    I may (may!) have some packs of developer and clearing bath stashed in the cellar. I’ll try and look this week and will let you know either way.

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