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Going Platinum

Gary Auerbach's old technique creates photos for the future.

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In 1990, Gary Auerbach was doing a chiropractic adjustment on a client he describes as a "really big man."

Auerbach had been a chiropractor for 14 years, but he was working with a strained wrist he'd had for two. Suddenly, something snapped. He'd dislocated the wrist.

As a chiropractor, Auerbach was over. But Auerbach the photographer was about to begin.

"One day, I was practicing (as a chiropractor). The next day, I was out of practice. It was a permanent injury. It didn't register at first with me," Auerbach says, reminiscing over a cup of coffee at a local café. "But all things lead to unique opportunities if your eyes are open."

At 42, married and with three young children, Auerbach was hardly ready to retire. As he thought about what else to do, photography was the obvious answer.

"I'd been doing photography all my life," he says, even putting himself through chiropractic college as school photographer and as a commercial freelancer. "I had to figure out what kind of photography I wanted to do."

Nowadays, Auerbach is known for his finely printed platinum art photographs, particularly his evocative portraits of Native Americans and nighttime architectural shots. The Library of Congress has collected his work; locally, some pieces are on permanent view at the Hacienda del Sol hotel and the museum of Mission San Xavier. But when he hurt himself, he knew nothing of platinum photography. He only knew he didn't want to return to the madhouse world of commercial photography.

As a young man, after fighting another injury (this time in his neck), he'd taken a year off from the accounting program at the University of Arizona, and worked in his native New York as a photographic go-fer. He spent frantic days adjusting lights and clothes for men's fashion shoots, and found himself "so burned out at the end of the day" he was too tired to do his own photography. "It showed me what New York commercial life is like. It's awful."

Returning to calmer Arizona, Auerbach finished up his accounting degree at the UA in 1971, and went to work in San Francisco. But after a couple of years of crunching numbers, one day he had a chiropractic conversion, inspired by a view of the roadways and suspension cables strung out across the Golden Gate Bridge.

"I thought about the spinal column and the nerves," he says. "I thought rather than going to see a chiropractor, I'd be a chiropractor."

Auerbach set up shop in Tucson. He quickly became involved in professional chiropractic associations and traveled the world proselytizing for his new field, taking every opportunity to photograph along the way. When he injured himself, he realized that some of these relatively young photographs were fading.

"My early work was already showing signs of deterioration," he remembers. "I didn't want to do an art form that's going to self-destruct."

The photographic niche Auerbach found was platinum printing, a laborious technique at least 125 years old and decidedly at odds with today's mania for digital. He taught himself how to do the painstaking technique, joining a tiny coterie of contemporary platinum photographers, including Keith Schreiber of Tucson and Dick Arentz of northern Arizona. Besides platinum's pleasing aesthetics--its sharp detail and rich array of tones--its permanence attracted Auerbach. His platinum prints, he says, should last anywhere from 500 to 1,000 years.

Auerbach began his investigations of more permanent forms here in Tucson.

"I picked up a book on Edward Steichen, and I started going to the Center for Creative Photography to study the collections," he says. "I learned there are three main ways to make permanent prints--carbon, platinum and cyanotype. After seeing the different types of prints, I decided on platinum."

Auerbach studied early photographers in depth, focusing on Alfred Steiglitz, Edward S. Curtis and Steichen, as well as Western photographers Karl Moon and Frank A. Reinhart, who specialized in Native American imagery.

"It took me a year to learn," Auerbach says. Because platinum must be contact-printed, with the actual negative pressed against the paper, "the image is only as big as the negative."

First, he did tiny prints--just 2.5 inches square--spreading them out over the kitchen counter. He didn't like the quality he got when he tried enlarging them, so he moved on up in camera size, from 4 by 5 inches, to 5 by 7, to 8 by 10, and finally 11 by 14, the size of most of his current prints. He has to mix the chemicals himself, using an eye dropper to achieve a precise ratio of platinum palladium metal salts to ferric oxalate and chloride. He uses only thick watercolor paper, instead of slick photographic paper, and coats it with his alchemical brew.

Printed in soft charcoal rather than the more conventional sepia, his "handmade" prints achieve a wonderful range of tones. His portrait of Tohono O'odham poet Ophelia Zepeda not only captures the loveliness and intelligence of her face, it's also a sumptuous symphony of shadows and lights, etched by fine lines. "Teresino, Morning Light" pictures an elderly Taos man sitting by an open window inside his house. The light pouring in softly illuminates the profile of his aged face. In an outdoor picture, "Teresino at the Ancient Cemetery," the old man sits at the edge of a cemetery covered in snow, its crosses tilting crazily toward the earth.

Auerbach sees himself as part of the historic tradition of photographers photographing Indians, though he likes to think he's stamping the tradition with a "Gary Auerbach slant."

"The Native American photographs are the most important work I do," he says, and he hopes his artful documentary photographs will become part of the historical record.

He's aware of the problematic history of whites photographing Indians, but, he says, "I'm totally respectful. I do no 'grab' shots."

Many of his Indian subjects choose to dress up for their portraits in traditional clothing. Unlike Curtis, who gets accused of manipulating his Indian subjects and dolling them up in his own well-used costumes and props, Auerbach says, "I have never dressed anyone up." Sometimes he photographs Native Americans in their olden-days' dress, and then again in modern jeans and T-shirts, recording both their heritage and their contemporary lives.

For instance, in a formal portrait worthy of Curtis, Tiffany Prater, a young Arapaho woman, appears dressed in traditional blanket, jewelry and braids. She turns up again, this time in a tank top, short overalls and sneakers, in "Two Generations," an outdoor picture shot on a treeless western slope. Next to her is Bob Red Elk, an Assiniboin, an older man in full-beaded regalia.

Auerbach says he often follows the lead of his subjects. It was Teresino, he says, who asked to be photographed near the cemetery, where he soon would be laid to rest.

"Teresino has now passed away. I have captured his spirit. Future generations will know him. I'm not like Avedon looking for the grotesque. I try to reproduce beauty."

And hope it lasts a thousand years.

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