At the end of the nineteenth century, platinum print photographs of American Indians transformed the grim notion of a “vanishing race” into a thing of beauty. The platinum printing process was invented in the early 1870s as an alternative to the silver printing processes, which dominated early photography. Silver prints were prone to fading and yellowing, but platinum prints were prized as stable, permanent, and indelible. Many photographers also preferred the platinum process’s unprecedented tonal range—from bright white to velvety black—and soft matte finish. By the end of the century, the platinum process had become a favorite of art photographers.
The popularity of the platinum print coincided with the peak of the physical and cultural devastation of American Indian nations. Exploiting the aesthetic qualities of the platinum print, art photographers presented a romantic vision of Native peoples even as they struggled against disease, poverty, assimilationist policies, and dispossession of tribal lands.
Today, art photographers Larry McNeil (Tlingit/Nisga’a) and Will Wilson (Diné/Bilagáana) challenge this legacy by integrating the historic platinum process into their contemporary work. They remind us that even neutral technologies—such as platinum printing—can serve significant ideological purposes. These artists’ works emphasize that American Indians, like the platinum print itself, have not vanished but instead remain indelible.