So several months back, I was approached by Oxford University Press to try and put together a photo text book on alternative processes in photography. I’ve hemmed and hawed on it a bit, but have started putting a few chapters together for the editors to review. And a few months back, I posted here a very early draft of an introduction for the book. I have posting a more recent draft now. I am giving the book a working title of Photographic Visions/Photographic Possibilities: An Alternative Process Manual. It’s long-ish, at least for a blog post, and I’ve left out the footnotes here, but if you have any comments please feel free to let me know. I’ve included some of the photographs I’d like reproduced in the introduction should the book come to fruition.
It was close to twenty years ago, but I still remember it vividly. I was taking a week long, intensive workshop on photographic printmaking taught by Frank Gohlke. We spent our time together working on advance silver gelatin techniques – bleaching, toning, using print brighteners – and were also introduced to a few other of what we called alternative processes – palladium, kallitype, and cyanotype. I know that learning these techniques at this time proved important, as many of them have continued to be apart of my life’s work, but that’s not what I remember most.
About half way through the workshop, at the end of a long day printing, Frank pulled out some boxes of photographs he brought along to show us. This was an important time in Frank’s career; Measure of Emptiness was recently published, and he was still involved in making his photographs of Mount St. Helens, rephotographing some of the original landscapes he made during the his initial survey of the eruption. He showed us his prints from these projects. And then he also showed us pictures he had collected from friends and colleagues – Eric Paddock, Lois Conner, Robert Adams, Paul Caponigro, Walker Evans – and as he spoke of these pictures, he was full of wonderful wisdom, intelligence, and love. It hit me like a ton of bricks, and I know I had to know more about it.
Close to this time, I landed my first job in photography, working in the photography department at the Colorado Historical Museum. My first day there, the chief curator in the department, Eric Paddock, came down with a small selection of 20×24 glass plate negatives made by William Henry Jackson and the Detroit Publishing Co. He gave us two days to print the negatives. There were three of us working in the darkroom, and it took all of us to handle and move the negatives. These were a remarkable couple of afternoons, to see the skill and technique that must have gone into making such large negatives, to see this view of landscape in Colorado I had known all my life, and share in these experiences in helping to make the prints. That really sealed the deal; I knew I was a black and white photographer.
Working in the museum offered a number of other great resources and learning opportunities. In addition to housing the William Henry Jackson and Detroit Publishing Co. archives, it was here I first saw photographs by Timothy O’Sullivan, Laura Gilpin, and Lee Friedlander, as well as my first albumen prints, tintype albums, and carte-de-viste.
It was several years down the road before I set up my first photographic studio. I was young, recently out of college, and working for minimum wage. I knew from these past experiences that I didn’t need expensive equipment to make photographs. I was living in Denver at the time, and knew it would be easy to print my photographs under the sun. I bought an inexpensive 4×5 camera, then went to a junk-yard north of the city and got a used, stainless steel sink, and finally salvaged construction materials from my Dad’s business for countertops, and built my first darkroom for around $100.
Despite my lack of resources, I wanted to make pictures as well-crafted as those photographs Frank showed us that afternoon. I made gum bichromate and platinum/palladium prints under the sun. I did this on my own for several years, working with simple resources, and trying to make beautiful printed photographs about my home in Colorado.
Each fall, I tell my students that despite the fact that each of them has a camera in pocket (is it possible to buy a phone without a camera now?), none of them know as much about photography as they think. To illustrate this point, I turn my classroom into a camera obscura (a trick I learned from Abelardo Morell while working with him during my years in graduate school). It’s not a difficult – make the room light tight, and then make a small, circular hole for light to come in – and yet, without fail the students are dumbfounded. I then go on to talk about how we reached photography today, showing them different cameras and talking about the evolution of photographic techniques and processes.
There are more photographic possibilities and processes available to the photographer than most recognize. It’s been over 170 years since Talbot and Dageurre secured patents for the first photographic processes. And in those years, the drive to make pictures has gone down many roads, and many processes have come and gone. What we today call alternative processes typically references to photographic techniques that now or never had any commercial applications. Despite having no commercial appeal, so many of these processes continue today because they provide unique ways to feed our imaginations and to reflect on our experiences.
I firmly believe that real photographic literacy today means looking at and knowing as many photographic guises as possible. In my teaching practice, I try not to prioritize any photographic technology; I introduce and encourage techniques from the 19th century to the present. In this transitional period, as photography becomes more and more digitized, I often regret how quickly and easily we forgot what we once knew. I believe that the more tools and techniques one has as a photographer, the greater the photographic vocabulary, and thus the more possibilities available.
Photographs, in my mind, are still objects, and I make a distinction between photographs and images. The image is an essential part of the photograph, perhaps the most essential part, and yet the photograph is an object that exists in a physical form. What is represented in a photograph is always an essential part of its meaning – and I repeatedly emphasize to my students that this is the most important part of any photographic inquiry – but the process with which the photograph resolves also gives it meaning. As the maker, you develop your own relationship to an image through process (and I do believe this helps give life to the picture), but also how the photograph looks and ages is part of how we derive meaning from an image. In pursuing my work over the years, I’ve always tried to find new ways to emphasize my inquiry into what the form of the photograph can be.
In teaching photography, I like to encourage the same from my students. Any real practitioner is going to make unique contributions to any photographic process, and use the rules and procedures as guidelines and suggestions, ultimately finding a unique approach. Alternative processes really necessitate such thinking. The processes are more idiosyncratic and particular than most of the mainstream photographic techniques, and typically the students I see excelling the most in my courses are the ones that can read the text and follow directions, and then learn from the materials and processes themselves.
I finished my graduate education in photography in 1998. Digital photography had arrived, but most of the photographers I knew and studied with still weren’t taking it too seriously. A short time after that, digital exploded on the scene.
The repercussions of that are many. Clearly the field is totally different now, at least in regards to the materials that define the popular uses of photography. There were and still are contrary opinions and movements, however, and schools of photographers responded to the development of digital imaging by going back and redefining how they’d conceived of photography from the beginning, as a chemical, handmade process. Prominent artists like Chuck Close and Adam Fuss rediscovered daguerreotypes; Abelardo Morell was pursuing his camera obscura photographs (pictures about primitive photographic phenomenon); and Sally Mann began working in wet plate collodion. Such trends and movements continue today, as with the continued march towards digital photography, lots of practitioners find their needs met working with unique handmade techniques and large format cameras.
A study of the history of photography shows that similar bubbles and trends in which alternative process work emerged to help define the medium have happened time and again. In the early 20th century, a school of photographers we call the Pictorialists emerged. The Pictorialists – with leading photographers like Henrich Kuhn, Robert Demachy, Clarence White, Alfred Steiglitz, and Alvin Langdon Couburn leading the charge – sought to have photography legitimized as a fine art. To do so, they tried to make photography look like other fine arts, working primarily with classical themes about landscape, women, children, and love, and employing a number of the handmade alternative processes, using different paper supports to help facilitate a painterly look. Many of the photographers who later led the transition into Modernism – among them Edward Steichen, Edward Weston and Paul Strand – began working in the Pictorialist vein before ultimately rejecting it in favor of the emerging Modernist aesthetic. Today, the Pictorialists are often trivialized, largely because the ignored the unique characteristics of photography in their imitation of other artistic forms and appearances, but nonetheless this work helped pave the way for a broader cultural understanding of photography as a fine art.
Again, in the early 1970’s, alternative process photography played an important role in defining the medium’s identity. The 1970’s are often called the Golden Age of Photography. The medium under went a number of important transformations at this time. The debate as to whether or not photography could or should be considered a fine art continued, though people like John Szarkowski and Nathan Lyons provided important leadership, working on important collections and organizing insightful exhibitions that demonstrated what the medium had to offer the greater cultural discussion. Additionally, photography emerged in universities and art academies across the country, and it became part of MFA programs. Photography was still relatively cheap to pursue, and even cheaper to collect, and important cultural resources were given over to help voice the growing potential of the medium and its audience. Influential photography programs like The Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of New Mexico had students and faculty developing work in alternative processes, with new and innovative work being produced by photographers like Betty Hahn and Todd Walker. And then in 1979, William Crawford published his important book The Keepers of Light, perhaps the first of many texts and working manuals devoted to alternative process photography.
Any photographic process has a history longer than recorded by its invention or patent. Part of my fascination with photography is how is mixes chemistry, optics, and art, and the development of any photographic process we know today it the result of contributions from all of these fields.
Each of the chapters describing the different processes begins with a brief historical introduction. In no way are these intended to be complete or decisive histories, but I do think it is important for any practioner to have some sense of the history of her/his medium. There is plenty of more to be found if you are interested in looking further into any of the processes.
Important to note here, too, is that each of these techniques requires a hands-on approach to mixing and using chemistry (there are distributors that sell pre-mixed kits, however you can save a great deal of money by learning to mix and handle chemistry on your own). This does require care, caution, and responsibility. Any chemistry you receive in the mail should come with an MSDS sheet (Material-Safety-Data-Sheet), though this information can also easily be found online. It is important to recognize the particular characteristics and precautions necessary for handling each of the chemicals. If you are putting a studio or workspace together at home, you should consult with your local authorities about chemical handling and disposal (not all chemicals can go down the drain).
Part of the initial attraction to alternative process photography for me was expense. High-end ink-jet printers can sell for many thousands of dollars, not to mention the other gear necessary for processing photographs. Technical, one can make a camera out of shoebox, and then process photographs under the sun; photography need not be an expensive endeavor.
In assembling an alternative process darkroom, perhaps the most important issue is a lighting source. With one exception, the printing techniques used in this book require printing with ultraviolet light. The best source for ultraviolet light is the sun. My earliest work in alternative processes was done in Colorado, where the sun was a reliable source. Depending on where you live, you might need to look into artificial lighting sources. Some practioners, even in regions with good, reliable sunlight, prefer the artificial lighting sources, mostly for the continuity they can provide. There are a number of different alternatives.
The cheapest and most common lighting sources I’ve seen are uncoated black light, florescent bulbs. These bulbs are relatively cheap, and can provide even illumination over a large area. Sun lamps, manufactured for tanning can be used, though these lamps have a tendency to create quite a bit of heat, which can create complications in printing. Mercury vapor and metal halide lamps can be used as well. Art schools are often equipped with plate burners or graphic arts printers. These units typically have mercury vapor bulbs, and are often have vacuum systems for optimal contact. These units are a great source for alternative process printing, but are quite expensive.
Once a lighting source is determined, the equipment needs for an alternative process darkroom are minimal. Sinks can be quite expensive, if you look at the stainless steel models with temperature control (if developing film, temperature control is important). I bought my first sink for about $20 in a junkyard. Many will save money by building sinks out of wood, and then lining them with epoxy or plastic resins.
The last thing I recommend for an alternative process darkroom – short of the standard equipment of timers, drying screens, etc… – is a good quality scale. Learning to weigh and mix your own chemistry can be satisfying (photography can still be alchemy), and can also save you a great deal of money.
Every term I teach my course Alternative Processes in Photography, I like to include an essay by Edward Weston called “Seeing Photographically.” In the essay, Weston criticizes photographers who get too caught up in technique. What really matters, he says, is that you are making the images you want, the images connect with your experience, and that you have enough control over the technique that you can repeat the results. Seeing photographically means understanding your materials enough that you can previsualize your pictures, and if you are really doing so, it does not matter whether the technique is good or bad, but simply that it is true to the vision.
It is easy for photographers working with alternative processes to become obsessed with technique. Many of the processes are very unforgiving of poor technique. Anything worth knowing and doing takes a great deal of time to learn and to develop any kind of proficiency. Working in alternative processes in photography takes a great deal of patience and perseverance, and yet once you have the techniques down, it can provide a totally unique and satisfying way to pursue photography and creative life. This book is intended as an introduction to the processes, and there is much more about each of them you can learn. Each parcitioner will develop his/her own approach, and in my mind this is a necessary part of owning and previsualizing a photographic process. This book will give you the tools, resources, and ideas to begin working in an alternative processes darkroom.