In Defence of Alternative Processes

11Oct09

‘In Defence of Alternative Processes’ by Mike Ware

A polemic in response to some ill-considered editorial denigration of these minority practices.

The Medium
It is a truism that the manufacturers of photographic materials provide contemporary photographers with a narrower choice of monochrome printing papers today than they offered our counterparts in the past. Transferring the responsibility to ‘market forces’ is supposed to justify this photographic monoculture, with the implication that the great majority of consumers have no need or desire for a whole range of surface textures, colours or image-forming substances. In the interests of maximising profits the hegemony of volume production, coupled with years of unidirectional research and development, has left us heirs to a single product only: the gelatine-silver halide paper. This is undeniably a supremely convenient medium: fast, sensitive, of high resolution and consistent quality. It also shows an unparalleled homogeneity: that is to say, it is monotonous in the literal sense. Many contemporary photographers do not question the monotony of the available monochrome medium. Indeed, they have a case for arguing that within some areas of photographic practice – photojournalism, reportage, documentary and scientific work in particular – the message is paramount and the medium inconsequential. However, when we read the photographic press and look at contemporary exhibitions there is usually abundant evidence of a concern for photographic print quality. Even within the ‘silver-gelatine monoculture’ there is an awareness of the marginally differing qualities of various papers and much current testing to assess them. So there can be very few photographers who are genuinely indifferent to the way their images are printed; whether on the best archivally-processed fibre-based papers, or reproduced via a coarse half-tone screen onto newsprint, to take two extremes. Given that at least some photographic prints deserve to be treated as fine objects in their own right, then the question arises whether there can be just one acceptable or ‘correct’ aesthetic for all such objects. Should we expect every monochrome print to be black and white, with a full gradation of densities, sharp, glossy, bland and textureless – instead of, say, brown and yellow, high key, diffuse, matte and fibrous? I do not wish to reopen here the debate between the “hard versus soft” schools of print syntax, as Anne Hammond (in Aspects of the Photomechanical Print) has neatly termed them, but rather to alert readers to the danger of photographers and critics drifting (or being driven?) into a doctrinaire view of the monochrome medium: there may be more than one way to print a negative.

Indictments
Departures from the accepted norms of printing are liable to provoke rather extreme responses in those unused to them: either outright rejection of the unorthodox, or uncritical acceptance of the novel. Some objectivity is needed to view alternative photographic prints without prejudice of either sort. After all, when approaching other examples of visual art, we have no difficulty in accommodating our enjoyment to the differing aesthetics of watercolours, screenprints, etchings or oils, for instance. Objectivity, however, is not a conspicuous attribute of some writers on photography. Even in the editorial columns of the British Journal of Photography we read that “…fine art photography…is riddled with archaic printing processes.” What has given rise to this prejudice? The offending processes are usually indicted on three counts: of sentimentalism, elitism or commercialism. The fact that these are almost mutually exclusive suggests some confusion in the minds of the prosecution.

Sentimentalism
Insofar as many of the alternative processes were widely used in the 19th century, then it is easy to impute self – indulgent nostalgia, and even fakery, to their use today. Robert Adams (in his admirable Essays In Defence of Traditional Values) rightly expresses concern at this retrogressive use. However, the objection is only valid when a 19th century process is currently used to make a ’19th century image’. I can see no reason why a 19th century process should not be used to make a contemporary image. Are painters now expected to give up traditional pigments and use only acrylics? There is another side to this coin: it is quite usual to see the whole panoply of 20th century photographic technology being deployed in order to make what are, in their essential sensibilities, ’19th century images’; but these endeavours are usually applauded. The appearance of 19th century prints is substantially a product of the technical limitations (not all disadvantageous) of their time. The contemporary use of alternative processes does not set out simply to recapture this notional ‘look’: on the contrary, they may provide new and exciting results when given the revitalizing influence of modern technology and contemporary aesthetics. Relatively little research has yet been done in this direction, partly because of the prejudice that I am trying now to dispel, and partly because industry does not view such enterprises as commercially viable. My own experience has been that the restoration of lost options can even lead on to the creation of new ones. The confusion in the minds of detractors seems to stem from their inability to cope with the dichotomy in photography as a union of art and technology. The history of technology displays a progression of ideas, in which most developments can be seen to build on what went before. In contrast, no such progression can be discerned in the history of art. New art brings freshness of outlook, and although it may well entail revisiting well-trodden paths of human experience, this will be done with new sensibilities. As a tree rooted in both art and technology, photography should not allow its fruit to be judged solely by the criteria of either.

Elitism
The ‘elitist’ indictment is founded on the presumed difficulty or expense of alternative processes. Both presumptions are substantially mistaken. Many (admittedly not all) alternative processes are actually easier to carry out than ordinary monochrome silver-gelatine printing, and most are easier than colour printing. Handbooks from the turn of the century give this advice to novices: “…of all printing processes platinotype still remains the easiest to work…”; “…the ferroprussiate process is perhaps the simplest of all methods of making a print…” etc. It is true that these remarks date from a time when appropriate papers were still commercially available. Today, they must be hand-coated by the individual: a labour-intensive process but not difficult, as many workshop participants have discovered to their surprise. The labour too induces a healthy tendency to self-imposed editing, so curbing the proliferation of prints. It is surprising to hear costliness as an objection from photographers who otherwise favour the expenditure of hundreds, or more probably, thousands of pounds on gleaming arrays of hardware. Does the grudgingness with which they meet the cost of the final product of all this endeavour reveal a lack of interest in the print itself? The fact is that Gum Bichromate, Kallitype, Salted Paper and Carbon prints are all materially cheaper to produce than prints on commercial silver-gelatine paper, and even a platinum print need cost no more than a Cibachrome.

Commercialism
A motive commonly imputed to alternative practitioners is that the marketability of their work is thereby automatically increased. (Would that this were universally true!) But even assuming so, one’s immediate reponse is “What’s so wrong with that?” Are these the same critics who object to the costliness of the process? The accusation usually originates from those with a frankly commercial bias, so one is inclined to think it has the taste of sour grapes. I am sure most contemporary photographers regret that the British Public has not yet been educated in the worth of photographs as fine art. If it is true that Britons in the street are more likely to buy ‘hand-crafted’ photographic prints because they more closely fit the popular conception of ‘genuine art objects’, this surely can only be good: alternative photographic prints can then act as bridges, leading the public beyond its received notions of what constitutes an art-work, towards an ultimate appreciation of the ‘straight’ silver-gelatine print as art. The argument is reiterated -even by photographers who should know better- that the silver-gelatine print is almost infinitely reproducible in principle, and should therefore be nearly valueless. This claim is refuted by actual practice: how many photographers print their work in editions of 100 or 150? I don’t know any. Yet such numbers would be considered customary for an edition by a fine-art print maker. In photography an ‘edition’ of three is more usual, and greater than ten uncommon except for the most successful and popular. Admittedly a photograph can usually be reprinted, so there is rarely a guarantee of uniqueness accompanying a silver-gelatine print, but that is not the point here. Editioning of fine photographic prints is very time-consuming; the ‘infinite multiplication school’ seems unable to distinguish between photographic and photomechanical printing. However, in their concern to devalue the photographic print they miss the most vital benefit of the negative-positive process, which is that it affords the possibility for creative experiments and the personal development of expressiveness in the interpretation of an image. When we come to alternative processes it is found that many cannot, for technical reasons, be editioned at all. Each print is different. As a loose generality, fine photographs, whether conventional or alternative, are scarcer than prints, and some may be considered as unique, say, as watercolours. The adoption of photomechanical processes (photogravure, collotype, Woodburytype) can provide a cost, control and speed of production which permit editioning on a scale comparable with fine-art print-making practice; but even so it would be rash to suggest that the product was of little value! The only truly cheap method is letterpress halftone.

Permanence
If one is fortunate enough to sell work, then there is an obligation to ensure that the image will not deteriorate perceptibly within several decades at least, and preferably centuries. There is also a more disinterested concern for the permanence of photographs, whether intended as art or document, because history is dependent on the survival of physical objects. The issue is not without its egotistical aspects, however! Archival processing is an important topical issue among silver-gelatine workers who invest great care and effort in ensuring the maximum lifetime for their prints. Silver is intrinsically more susceptible to chemical attack by pollutants and residual chemicals than are some of the imaging substances used in alternative processes. Indeed two of these, carbon and platinum printing, were first devised as answers to the problem of impermanence which had been recognised in the silver image from its very beginnings – witness the Photographic Society’s ‘Fading Committee’ of 1855. History has now confirmed the superior permanence of carbon, platinum and gold-toned silver prints.

The Message
Technical limitations will probably always confine alternative printing processes to a minority practice compared with the ubiquitous 35mm silver-gelatine culture. Many photographers will rightly deem them inappropriate for their purposes, either technically or aesthetically. This little polemic is intended neither as a manifesto nor an apology for using alternative processes. They no longer compete with conventional printing as they did in the Salons at the turn of the century. My purpose is to widen the unprejudiced awareness that there are ways to print photographic images other than the one supported by the photographic industry, and to suggest that more control of the print can be placed in the hands of the printer, thus increasing the richness and variety of the art-science that unites us. Ansel Adams drew an analogy between music and the photographic process in which the musical score represents the negative and the concert performance, the final print. Alternative processes may enhance the expressiveness of the performance, but they can never rewrite the score.

Originally published in Contemporary Photography No. 1. ISSN 0959-6704

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