dante stella stories photographs technical guestbook

Round and round and round
Alternatives to good photography

Do you remember the somewhat obscure Kodak publication called Pathways to Color?  I think I may make my own, entitled Pathways to Mediocrity, primarily concerning the intellectual hazards of alternative photography.  I have done alternative processes, and I have now sold many pictures made with them, but I don't subscribe to the religion.  And by religion, I mean the mysticism that elevates obsolete process to dogma.

As a preliminary question, one feels compelled to ask what is so "alternative" about alternative photography?  All of the basic processes have been in place for at least a hundred years, and when you slog through them in real life, it's easy to divine why silver printing won out in the end: convenience, predictability, tonal range, repeatability, and not least, cost.  It's certain that someone will point to the fact that some alternative process beats silver in one or two of these categories.  But history tells us that it was silver halide in gelatin for the win.  One day, digital printing will overtake it.  But for now, silver is the (well...) gold standard of fine-art photography.

So why is alternative photography staging a comeback?  Aside from some processes that provide neat colors (like cyanotypes and Van Dykes), it might be simply psychological: people stuck using digital cameras and inkjet printers can feel like they are doing fine art.  You actually can do fine art photography with nothing more than a digital point-and-shoot and an inkjet, but it seems that many people are buying into the photo-Donatist propaganda that "real" photography must either involve (1) a darkroom or (2) toxic-sounding chemicals, glass rods, eyedroppers, goat-hair brushes and exotic clay-coated papers.

There are some really good, really dedicated alternative process artists.  And they are very generous with their time and knowledge.  But a lot of enthusiasts (masochists?) have an interesting and somewhat secretive technogical fixation: chemicals, exposure methods, substrate papers, basic coating methods, home-made UV boxes, calibration of the colors for inkjet films, etc.  In fact, if you thought that people who made silver prints were techno-weenies, you would be blown away by some of the discussions in the rarified air of alternative photo forums.  But three important things seem to be lost on a lot of people.

First, photography should be fun.  If there's one thing that alternative photography should have, it's a fun factor.  No darkroom time, lots of things to experiment on, and cheap chemicals.  But the technophiles have made it decidedly not fun by propagating the ideology that a "good" alternative print consumes but six drops of sensitizing solution and slavishly simulates a silver print in every way except the underlying chemical reaction.  I guess that it never dawned on anyone that when you are using watercolor paper that costs a dollar a sheet (more than silver paper does), you should do whatever you think it takes to make something you like. 

And this runs into the second point: photography is not a mathematical exercise.  What many people are trying to do with alternative photography entails a lot of calibration and recalibration and curve-plotting and seeing what colors of ink have the best "blocking power" and so forth.  All of this is directed to perfectly mapping a 256:1 contrast ratio into media that might support 32:1.  And it is perverse. These processes have their own limits and responses, and the process of homogenizing them into mathematically perfect prints both entails massive work and diminishes the unique look the processes have.  Once you go down the homogenization path, you might as well be plugging files into Photoshop, hitting "auto levels," using Variations to get them blue or brown or whatever, and then printing them on an inkjet.  You will get a better tonal range 100% of the time.

Finally, and most importantly, the technique should serve the aesthetic and not substitute for content.  One thing that is fascinating is the use of highly complicated methods for conveying absolutely poor content - and this is a big issue with alternative photography.  Some of this is illustrated very well in the workshop leaflets that the Bostick and Sullivan mails out from time to time.  Wow.  That's a nice picture of... a chair.   This is not a unique ailment of alternative photography; it also explains the perennial popularity of the 777, pyrogallol, and even the Zone System to some extent.  People should spend more time worrying about content and less worrying about creating a perfect print of a boring picture.

Where did alternative photography go wrong?  Probably the same place that mainstream photography did: buying 100% into the dogma of "realism."  Way back in the day, the world was divided into two paradigms of photography: pictorialism and realism.  The two major proponents were Bill Mortensen and Ansel Adams, respectively.  If you read their books on negatives and prints, you'll find that most of the theory is the same - Mortensen's "gamma infinity" concept is the functional equivalent to a very basic form of the Zone System.  But in artistic outlook, they could not have been more different. 

Mortensen took pictures, printed them, hacked them, painted and pencilled them, and often created end products that were so heavily redone that they scarcely could be called photographs (think: the 1930s version of Pierre et Gilles).  He and the other pictorialists prolonged the life of some ancient processes and popularized others (like bromoil). 

Adams, for his part, liked to use commercial plates and film to create perfect negatives that could be contact printed onto commercially available paper.  Adams and Mortensen hated each other, with Mortensen and friends shutting Adams out of venues and Adams attempting to prevent the formation of a Mortensen archive after the latter's death. 

But in the end, we know whose work ended up as posters on college students' walls.  And although it would be nice to have some pictorial variety, the ascendancy of Adams is not a bad result for silver.  But it has had a very suffocating effect on expression through alternative photography - tragic because alternative photography comprehends a body of disciplines that have long been the province of pictorialists. 

It is time for alternative photography to reach out from reproduction and into more liberal expression.