Open blog

Will the real Madame Matisse please stand up?
Color discrepancies are among a handful of shortcomings artists face when posting artwork on the web. Does it matter to you? What are the ramifications of your answer?
Our Art and Images on the Web: An Uneasy Conundrum, Part One

July 17th, 2014
Will the real Madame Matisse please stand up? Color discrepancies are among a handful of shortcomings artists face when posting artwork on the web. Does it matter to you? What are the ramifications of your answer?

Will the real Madame Matisse please stand up?
Color discrepancies are among a handful of shortcomings artists face when posting artwork on the web. Does it matter to you? What are the ramifications of your answer?

Peter J. Blackburn explores the hoodwinking tendencies of technology and the web in relationship to art and the artist.

Yesterday, on a whim, I visited not just one, but three art venues previously scribbled on my ever growing bucket list. First stop was the Louvre in Paris. There among the treasure trove of breathtaking pieces in the collection was recent work of a well-known French photographer. In a rather conceptual approach, he photographed Neo-eastern sculptures and bass reliefs already in the collection of the Louvre, reinterpreting art from antiquity and placing each piece within the confines of a new, contemporary perspective. Second stop was the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California where delightful vintage platinum prints by a noted portrait photographer caught my immediate attention. I lingered there for quite some time. Finally, I headed westward to Tokyo and paid a visit on the Taka Ishii Gallery where I was treated to several amazing abstracts by Irving Penn. Each stunning photograph delighted my eyes and my imagination.

Whew! What a whirlwind gallop across the globe! How educational. How thought-provoking. How inspiring! Having now inserted three more feathers in my cap, each one representing a holy shrine of sorts where art resides in sacred spaces, I can scratch them off my list and venture onward toward other extravagant ports of interest.

Today, perhaps.

Sure, why not? After breakfast I’ll double-back to Chicago.

It’s a bet by now you’re probably rubbing your head in utter disbelief.

“Yeah, that Blackburn must really be binging on the bichromate this time. Sure, he went to all those places yesterday. And I’m dining with purple fairies tonight! No one could possibly attend all those spots in person in just one day.”

Relax friend. I saw it all with my own eyes—on the web!

And everyone, even my Auntie Mabel, knows if you’ve seen it on the web . . . you’ve really, honest-to-goodness, cross my heart and spit on a nickel, seen it!

Surfing the web is just as good as being there, isn’t it? Well, isn’t it?

Hmm. You be the judge.

 

Exhibit A

Go to Google and type “Monet Impressionism Sunrise” in the search field. Then, click on “Images” which should fill your screen with thumbnail representations—scores of them, in fact, of the painting by Claude Monet entitled, Impression, Sunrise. There it is (hmm, there they are?) in a mind-boggling array of shades and hues! I find it all astonishing, bewildering—but most of all, concerning.

Could someone please tell me which one is the real Sunrise? Could it be possible that none of them are? Certainly, all of them can’t be.

Goodness gracious. I had no idea Claude cranked out so many variants of that one painting.

(Here’s a press release. He didn’t.)

 

Exhibit B

Go once again to Google and type “Jackson Pollock Blue Poles” in the search field. Repeat the procedure described above in Exhibit A and rinse well.

So I ask you once again, “Which one is it?”

So many web variants. Only one solitary work.

Oh, silly me! You’re right. Site surfing certainly is the same as globetrotting. Like when I drive to my local museum of art to enjoy River Bank in Springtime by van Gogh. There it is (er, there they are?), dozens of Springtimes, each one rendered in an altered color cast stacked up one wall, down the next, meandering through the café, and terminating near the revolving door.

[chirping crickets]

Once upon a time, back in the day, most folks would just grimace at my remarks and count them as absurd. You remember, back in ancient times (technology-wise), at the birth of the twenty-first century, when looking at photos and art on the web was a novel, even extraordinary experience. Back then, lower quality screens and first-generation technology served as a reality check. The original was still to be preferred over any screen representation. Obvious pixelation and resolution issues aided most connoisseurs in retaining a deeper appreciation, even respect, for the original, for the actual work created and intended by the artist.

They realized the art displayed on a computer screen (now, the phone screen) paled in comparison to the actual piece.

Not so today. If you’ve seen it on the web . . . you’ve really, honest-to-goodness, cross my heart and spit on a nickel, seen it!

In fact, I would bet the ranch house, all the pigs, and a barn load of bacon that many of you reading this bit of bluster would shrug your shoulders and remark, “So what? Who cares? So the colors in those web samples are a bit off. So I can’t figure out which ones are the real ones. At least I get the idea. At least I’m inspired. And the pictures look amazing!”

Oh, if only it were true— if only it would all stop at inspiration and basic insight. But I don’t believe it does, at least, not any more. As I said, “If you’ve seen it on the web . . . you’ve really, honest-to-goodness, cross my heart and spit on a nickel, seen it!

To be clear, I’m not writing to the masses. And to be crystal clear, I do champion the web as a valuable and appropriate platform for a wide range of artistic application and expression upon which I will expound later in this blog series.

No, my initial commentary is intended for artists and the like who hail the web as a be-all and end-all for art education, art evaluation, and art appreciation, all of which presents disquieting dilemmas which I hope to bring to brighter light as we progress though this series of thought. If you’re an artist working within the sphere of alternative processes, these issues should be of particular significance to you.

By the way, it’s not just color which suffers in the electronic translation—uh, make that electronic paraphrase. Oh, good heavens no! Other ailments and deficiencies abound. But the patient chart for that discussion must wait until our next visit.

Oh, and one more note—in case you’re wondering. None of those images are the real ones. They can never be the real ones. It matters not how accurate they appear. Web images can only be representative of the originals which physically reside elsewhere. The real ones are elsewhere. And while on one hand I am stating the painfully obvious to many of you, the other hand flails in frustration as to how many artists and the like truly don’t get it.

“If I’ve seen it on the web . . . I’ve really, honest-to-goodness, cross my heart and spit on a nickel, seen it!

Hogwash.

Let me close our blog segment with the following collection of words upon which I will develop further in my next entry or two. Like a photograph itself, the web can only ever, at best, portray a partial truth. Some of the time it is a deceptive truth, even a twisted truth, and occasionally an outright lie. The intended (even if only partial) truth the artist reveals or proposes in the original work, not what is replicated on the web, is where any true celebration of art should center. But that celebration seems to be waning at warp speed with every Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook snap we post. It’s reduced with every iPhone improvement, every photo app wedged in your mobile, and each enhanced display arriving at a mega-gadget store nearest you.

Hang on; it’s going to take more words to unpack this idea. Until next time, cheers.

Your comments are most welcome.


 

Blog Peter J Blackburn
Making practice your praxis

March 12th, 2014
Peter J. Blackburn argues the case for doing a bit of casual printing in-between more serious alternative process work.

Sunflower

This sunflower has been printed scores of times in gum and casein when nothing else was available at the moment. It was printed just for fun and for discipline.

A few weeks ago I photographed several historical buildings in the Dallas area, processed the film (yes, film), and have now upturned every visible artifact in my apartment searching for those confounded negatives. They are nowhere to be found. Oh, well. They’ll eventually turn up. In the meantime, here’s a bit of writing reflecting upon a few thoughts which raced around my mind during that recent film searching wild goose chase.

You see, I was counting on scanning those negatives and printing a few images this weekend. Printing is vitally important to me— and for a number of reasons. In this case, those lost negatives represent a new series of work exploring yet again another experimental approach of interpretation. The buildings, photographed on TMAX, will be scanned and then assigned a color scheme in PhotoShop suitable for gum printing. Now that those negatives are temporarily AWOL, I’ll instead grab a few leftover negatives from last year and spend the weekend interpreting anew with different pigments. It’s good practice. It might help me to develop related or even new ideas for future work. And, printing will keep my production discipline sharp.

But even if not a single negative could be found or produced, I would simply resort to photograms—walk outside, pluck a few interesting botanical forms, a found feather, perhaps, even a bit of scrap rubbish like a bottle cap, and create a pleasing arrangement. No matter. Just as the musician practices scales, I am compelled to print. Whether executing an involved series of separations, or spreading a single, solitary layer, practice is important. Practice is essential to mastering the craft. And practice, if it would amount to anything, must be performed regularly, persistently, religiously, if you will.

Are you an alternative artist who only prints images which have been meticulously created, resulting from well-labored thought, destined to become priceless masterpieces? That’s all well and good—perhaps. But may I suggest that during the in-between times you simply print anything and everything available on hand. Enjoy and learn from the act of printing. Reinterpret older work. Print for the discipline. Print for the delight!

Remember, the inspiring finger work of a piano concerto most likely began and even improved through any number of determined, dedicated, disciplined renderings of Greensleeves!


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
Playful photography on view in New York City

February 28th, 2014
Nancy Breslin visited Manhattan and found lots of experimental photography on view this spring.

I just spent a few days in New York City and, with the The Photo Review as my guide, visited a number of exhibitions.  Being short on time, I stuck to large venues rather than independent galleries.  Each place I visited had work on view of potential interest to alternative photographers, although much of it wouldn’t quite fit into “alt photo” as defined by this website.

MarclayDetailI started at the Museum of Modern Art, with A World of Its Own: Photographic Practices in the Studio.  While designed to show work taken within photographers’ studios, rather than alternative techniques, a surprising amount of the work is experimental in nature, such as a large photogram by Adam Fuss created by having a snake slither on a piece of talc-covered photo paper, or a grid of Polaroid self-portraits by Lucas Samaras. A huge cyanotype photogram by Christian Marclay is as musical in form as the presumed contents of the cassette tapes and their tangled guts which were spread on the coated paper to create the image.  The show runs through October 5.

 While the MoMA show includes work dating back to the 19th Century, What Is a Photograph?  at the International Center of Photography features work since the 1970s that has, according to curator Carol Squiers, helped “reinvent” photography.  Lucas Samaras is featured again, this time with manipulated SX-70 self-portraits, as is Adam Fuss, with three photograms that capture movement in water. Photograms by Floris Neususs include one taken with the paper placed emulsion down out of doors, with the abstracted natural forms created by flashing lights through foliage from various directions.  Matthew Brandt exhibits a large color print of a lake which was degraded by leaving it in lake water, causing the various emulsion layers to peel in places (creating an effect, on close inspection, not unlike mordançage).   Alison Rossiter processes expired film and paper (some dating to 1910), with varied and often striking effects.  Also cameraless is the work of Marco Beruer, who sands, brushes, heats and otherwise marks photo paper, creating colorful abstractions.  The show runs through May 4.

 The Guggenheim has a show of the Italian Futurists, which includes some experimental photography such as double exposures and photocollage.  Far more interesting to me, though, was the work by Carrie Mae Weems, seen  in a 30 year retrospective.  While most of her photography is “straight” in one sense, she often adds important layers of meaning through color-toning the prints and/or the addition of text. Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video runs through May 14.

SamarisAtMetThe Morgan Library has a delightful show,  A Collective Invention: Photographs at PlayPhotography is a new “curatorial focus” at the Morgan, and I certainly look forward to more of their offerings.  This show consists of a daisy-chain of images, each one linked somehow (concept, color, subject matter…) to the ones before and after.  For example, a photogram  by Christian Marclay of a hand and a vinyl record is followed by a Sid Tate photo of Lenny Bruce with a tape recorder (antiquated audio link), which is followed by a lenticular postcard of a burlesque performer (Bruce and the performer both worked in night clubs), to an anonymous “fotoescultura” (photo portrait of a soldier on a molded support, so this and the lenticular image both appear 3-dimensional), to a whimsical collage by Ray Johnson that includes a dollar bill and a photo of Josephine Baker (she and the soldier are wearing hats at jaunty angles).   I smiled my way around the room.  This exhibit runs through May 18.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, my last stop, features a surprise echo from MoMA and the ICP.  Lucas Samaras: Offerings from a Restless Soul is a solo show spanning two galleries.  On view is work in many media, but included are more manipulated SX-70 self portraits as well as a playful and colorful 6 foot panorama of his studio space, consisting of many vertical slivers of Polaroid prints.   His show runs through June 1.  And if  you go to the Met, don’t miss William Kentridge’s The Refusal of Time, a 30 minute video installation that places the viewer (and a mechanical set of lungs) in the center of metronomes, a silhouetted marching band, mad inventors, a kitchen drama, Kentridge’s erasure doodles and the artist himself.  At the end I felt like I was getting off a joyous but also unsettling amusement ride. It runs until May 11.


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
Plenty to like at “A Democracy of Images”

October 13th, 2013
There is lots for alt photographers to like at “A Democracy of Images” in Washington, DC according to Nancy Breslin.

Cyanotype by Barbara Kasten, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Cyanotype by Barbara Kasten, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

On a recent trip to Washington, DC, I visited the show “A Democracy of Images” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It features a wide selection of photographs from the museum’s collection, spanning the history of the medium. Of interest to alternative photographers are some vintage processes, both in the original form (such as early Daguerreotypes and tintypes, some charmingly hand colored) and as revisited by contemporary artists (such as a silver gelatin print from a wet plate negative by Sally Mann). The show is divided into four sections, featuring “American Characters” (mostly portraits), “The Spiritual Frontier” (mostly scenes of the American West), “America Inhabited” (including artists such as Weegee, William Eggleston and Tina Barney), and finally “Imagination at Work.” These works tend to be the most experimental, in terms of both subject and process. There is a trippy and colorful panoramic self-portrait by Lucas Samaras, made from strips of Polaroid prints. Also strikingly colorful is “Dings and Shadows” by Ellen Carey, in which a crunched up piece of chromogenic paper was exposed to different colors of light and then flattened so it could be processed. A beautiful blue and brown print by Susan Rankaitis was made by a complex process of applying photo emulsions and then montaging imagery through the use of digital negatives, photograms and projected photos. Simple but exquisite is a cyanotype by Barbara Kasten, where the shadow of a piece of screen becomes what could be a cloak or a wing.

The Smithsonian museums are currently closed because of the Congressional impasse, but hopefully they will reopen soon and this show runs through January 5, 2014.


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
Chocolate Polaroids on Display in Delaware

July 6th, 2013

Writer and photography / Nancy Breslin

After weeks of travel, Nancy Breslin finds some beautiful work close to home.

Photograph showing two of Bill Wolff's framed prints and some of his information about Polaroid cameras and film.

Two of Bill Wolff’s prints at right, and some of his explanatory display at left.

I am fortunate to do a fair amount of traveling, and just returned from time in London, Paris, and Barcelona (it was my first visit to the latter, and I hope not my last). Museum and gallery visits are high on my list of things to do, but circumstances this time left little time to view art. On arriving home, however, one of my first stops was Colourworks in Wilmington, Delaware, where I get the film from my pinhole camera processed (9 rolls on this trip). The reception area of Colourworks serves as a gallery for regional photographers, and I was happy today to find some beautiful Polaroids by Bill Wolff. Shooting with a Polaroid 250 Land Camera and expired Polaroid Chocolate Giambarba film, he has captured local streams, ponds and woods, often in fog, creating soft and dreamy brown pictures. The images are enlarged and presented as striking inkjet prints (including the purple edge residue) on watercolor paper. I’ve never used this film, so have no idea how it looks when fresh, but it looks great expired! Wolff teaches writing, and the teacher in him emerges in a display that gives some history about Polaroid (from Edwin Land through the Impossible Project) and talks about the joys and frustrations of working in this medium. If you are in the area, this show is worth a visit.

Colourworks is at 1902 Superfine Lane in Wilmington, Delaware, and the show runs through August 31. More of Wolff’s work can be seen at billwolffphotography.com or flickr.com/billwolff.


 

Blog Peter J Blackburn
Gouache: The Curiously Disrespected Gem in Gum and Casein Printing

May 29th, 2013
Peter J. Blackburn champions the case for gouache in gum and casein printing.

Rodney Dangerfield, a celebrated stand-up comedian from a bygone era, would often begin his hilarious monologues with the phrase, “I get no respect.” He would then continue with a barrage of cutting, biting one-liners succinctly describing just how deep the disrespect penetrated his world—from his wife, his kids, his friends, his doctors, even his newspaper delivery boy. A typical segment would go something like this:

“I get no respect. Last year they asked me to be a poster boy—for birth control! And just the other day I met the surgeon general. He offered me a cigarette. I gave my son a BB gun for Christmas. He gave me a shirt with a bull’s eye on the back. Yeah, even as a kid I got no respect. Every time I played in the sandbox, the cat kept covering me up. And what a dog I had. His favorite bone was my arm!”

This tricolor gum image uses all gouache pigments. I personally appreciate how it renders the metallic fountain.

Water Fountain in the Landscape, 2012.      This tricolor gum image uses all gouache pigments. I personally appreciate how it renders the metallic fountain.

For quite some time, years in fact, I’ve observed how little respect is paid to water-soluble pigments outside the realm of actual tube watercolor by many practitioners in the gum printing world. Gouache is one particular line of pigments which repeatedly gets tossed into the Dangerfield pit of contempt. Whether in past or current instructional literature, emails, or even online discussion groups, gouache is kicked around and counted as the grand loser of pigments for gum printing.

I can’t say for sure, but I get the distinct impression that much of the discourteous comments and editorials come from artists who have never even opened a tube of gouache. Or, if they had, gouache was only applied in their work halfheartedly, just looking for reasons to mock it. Then, to add insult to injury, I have seen and heard facts and figures—all correct, all accurate, all reasonable, originally intended for painters and designers, misappropriated for gum printing.

For example, is gouache opaque? Yes it is. Of course it is. Just squeeze it out of the tube and spread it around on a sheet of paper. It dries to a non-glossy, opaque tone. Painters use pure gouache to achieve bold color and graphic designers apply it straight from the tube for certain creative projects requiring flat, opaque images. Since gouache straight out of the tube is, indeed, opaque, gum printers have been told to stay away from it. “It won’t print delicate tonality. It won’t print . . . period! It’s opaque!”

But is that advice fair and valid for gum printers?  Well, is it? No, and here’s why. I have yet to find one printer who squeezes even conventional watercolor, let alone gouache straight out of a tube onto a sheet of paper for a gum print. Have you? The more reasonable application is to combine a measure of pigment—whether it be watercolor, gouache, even dry pigment—to a quantity of gum solution and a volume of dichromate solution. That act alone dilutes the pigment in a manner which renders it transparent enough—transparent enough— for gum printing. This isn’t rocket science.

I prefer gouache for bold, over-the-top color saturation. Can the usual tube watercolor pigments also render images boldly? My answer is yes. But gouache, from my perspective, can do both—and quite easily, too. It can be applied for gentle, subtle tonality and for supersaturated color. These days I rarely use traditional tube watercolor for my printing. Instead, I reach for a tube of gouache. So, I encourage the reader to try gouache and all other forms of water-soluble pigments for gum printing in addition to the standard tube watercolors.

As my parents used to tell me as a small child when I refused to eat my vegetables, “Don’t knock ‘em  ‘til you’ve tried ‘em!” I offer the same advice to you with gouache. But truth be told, I still prefer gouache over creamed peas!


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
Fluttering Memories

May 27th, 2013

Writer and photography / Nancy Breslin

Nancy Breslin is engaged by memories in the form of cyanotypes, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Installation of cyanotypes by Traci Marie Lee at the Corcoran GalleryAs traditional photographic methods wane, it always cheers me to see students embrace older processes. During a recent visit to Washington, DC, I visited the Corcoran Gallery of Art, where they currently have a number of exhibitions on display that I would recommend to any photographer, including “Roots and Links” (through July 14), “How Is the World? Recent Acquisitions of Contemporary Photography” (through May 26), “Cynthia Connolly: Letters on Top of Buildings” (through June 23), and “David Levinthal: War Games” (through September 1, although it had not yet opened when I visited). In addition, much of the gallery space is taken up with “NEXT at the Corcoran 2013,” a show of work by students who are graduating from the Corcoran College of Art + Design. Having limited time, I breezed through the student show. However, I stopped and spent some time with one installation – Traci Marie Lee’s project, called “I really was there; I was never really there,” consisting of 300 cyanotypes printed on handkerchiefs.

One failing I see in much alt process work is that the technique and imagery don’t work together: random photos printed in a non-standard way do not suddenly become compelling. I found Lee’s work so engaging because cyanotype on fabric seemed to perfectly express her idea that memory, despite our urge to hold onto it, remains ephemeral. The handkerchiefs themselves, some vintage, represent the past in a concrete (although fluttery) way. The images Lee has chosen to print can be (appropriately enough) hard to see, but included what looked like old family photos, short texts of memories, and items such as lace and flowers that might be markers of beauty that is behind us. In her statement Lee mentions her grandmother, and as I walked around and under these gently swirling photographs, I felt some connection to the artist and her past.


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
A camera obscura pilgrimage

April 26th, 2013

Writer and photography / Nancy Breslin

A pinhole photographer arranged part of her holiday around the chance to be inside a giant camera.

I just returned from a two week trip to the UK.  Most of the time was spent visiting family (we saw over 30 relatives in five cities), but on the way from Cambridge (12 relatives) to Ayr (3 more) we decided to spend a day in Edinburgh.  It is a beautiful city known for many cultural offerings, but the main draw for me was the Camera Obscura.  While this device does feature lenses, the experience is much like being in a giant pinhole camera.  Installed in a tower in central Edinburgh in the 1850’s, this camera obscura consists of a series of lenses and mirrors that project the surrounding area onto a large white surface in the middle of a darkened room.  A staff member can redirect the view so one sees, in color and great detail, everything around, from church spires to people walking on the street below.  I have been inside a pinhole camera before, but it typically takes a long time for my eyes to adjust enough for the image to appear and I never see much color (our monochrome-perceiving retinal rods are much more sensitive in low light, compared to the color-perceiving cones).  This, on the other hand, was a clear and colorful image. It was worth climbing five flights of stairs to see.

A member of the staff points to a landmark seen in the camera obscura in Edinburgh.

A member of the staff points to a landmark seen in the camera obscura in Edinburgh.

The camera obscura is on the top floor of a building which also features “The World of Illusion,” which looked a bit cheesy in the advertisements but proved to be very interesting, including a collection of holograms, an Ames room, an exhibit on different types of 3-D images, and a show of pinhole photography by Derek Reay (some of his work can be seen at http://www.derekreayphotography.co.uk/Pages/gallery-pinhole.html).

This is my cue to remind everyone that Sunday (April 28) is Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day.  That day I’ll be giving a talk about my pinhole work at the Delaplaine Visual Arts Education Center in Frederick, Maryland at 2 pm, and also taking some pictures so I’ll have something to submit to the WPPD gallery.  If you have a pinhole camera, pull it out on Sunday and join thousands of people around the world!


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
April: A Month of Pinhole Photography

April 8th, 2013

Writer and photography / Nancy Breslin

Nancy Breslin talks about two shows she is having in the month of April, both featuring pinhole photography.

April is an important month for pinhole photographers, since the last Sunday of the month is Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day. It’s an extra exciting month for me this year, since I’m having two April exhibitions, both of which feature pinhole photography.

The first one, at the Delaplaine Visual Arts Education Center in Frederick, Maryland, is exclusively pinhole. I have work from five projects: Squaremeals (“a pinhole diary of eating out”), Amenities (hotel diptychs), amusement parks, Galaxies, (a brand new project featuring hugely enlarged images of ceiling lights in restaurants, which because of diffraction end up looking like… galaxies! and coating them with encaustic adds to this effect), and finally a short video that comes from my work as artist-in-residence at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library. I’ve exhibited some of these projects before, but this is my first opportunity to exhibit different pinhole approaches together. The show closes on April 28, which is Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day this year.

two works by pinhole photographer Nancy Breslin

The Winterthur residency leads to my second show, NWAA & Winterthur: A Collaboration, which features work that Carrie Mae Smith and I did during our time as artists-in-residence at Winterthur, which is a large (174 room) former DuPont home which now houses a premiere collection of American decorative arts (furniture, silver, ceramics, etc.). The job Carrie and I had was to be inspired by the museum collection, as well as the gardens and library, and to create artworks in response. Not surprisingly, two of my five projects involved pinhole photography. For one, I photographed antique objects featuring George Washington, such as fabric, a figurine, and a dish, and paired them with similar objects featuring Barack Obama. It was meant to bring to mind how similar George Washington’s day was to our own, in terms of people seeing leaders as heroes and wanting memorabilia related to this. The second pinhole project is the same video being shown at The Delaplaine. The movie contrasts items from antique trade catalogs (some of those held by the Winterthur Library date back to the 1700s) and similar items currently in the collection (which I photographed with my Zero 2000 pinhole camera).

The show at The Delaplaine runs from April 6-28, with a free reception on April 6 from 3-5 pm. The Winterthur show is at the Chris White Gallery in Wilmington, Delaware (at 7th and Shipley) runs from April 5-25, with a free reception on April 5 from 6-9 pm.

If you are in the area, please join me! And on April 28, pull out your pinhole camera so you can submit an image to the Pinhole Day gallery.


 

Steichen's The Pond - Moonrise
Vintage Prints on View in Delaware and Washington, DC

February 27th, 2013
Some vintage “alt photo” prints are on view in the mid-Atlantic US this spring.

Gum print of John Sloan by Gertrude Kasebier

Gum print of John Sloan by Gertrude Kasebier

I’ve just been to two exhibits which feature some beautiful vintage versions of what we now call “alternative processes.”  The University of Delaware, which holds a large collection of work by Photo Secessionist Gertrude Käsebier, has a current exhibition titled “Gertrude Käsebier:  The Complexity of Light and Shade.”  The show includes a range of her styles and techniques, including studio portraits and more personally expressive work, mostly in platinum or gum.  Käsebier studied painting before venturing into photography in her early 40s, and this seems to show in her gum printing, which can stray far from a literal interpretation of the negative.    In this show I was particularly drawn to a quad of gum portraits of the painter John Sloan, in which she uses the same negative and same process to create very different prints, some very dark, some with notable brushwork.  The show continues through June 28 at the Old College Main Gallery.   http://www.udel.edu/udaily/2013/jan/kasebier-light-shade-012413.html

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, has a delightful new show up now called “Faking It:  Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop.”  I had seen much of this work before, but it was interesting to think of the images in this context.  Steichen’s  platinum print with applied color, “The Pond – Moonrise,”  may have been making the most of his limited ability to deal with low exposure.  The fake clouds in many classic landscape photographs don’t detract from their beauty, but do underline the point that photography has long included manipulation.  Unlike some obviously composited prints on display, the exhibited version of Rejlander’s “Two Ways of Life,” a carbon print made from 30 negatives, looks flawless, probably due to the softness of the carbon process.

Steichen's The Pond - Moonrise

Steichen’s The Pond – Moonrise

The show includes some expressive double exposures, such as F. Holland Day’s platinum print “The Vision,” and also some trick photography such as “spirit” photos  (supposedly capturing the ghosts of loved ones) and an amusing array of shots of people holding or juggling their own heads.   Leaving “alt photo” behind, the show continues through surrealism, Weegee’s distortions and Soviet airbrushing to contemporary artists such as Jerry Uelsmann and Duane Michals.  The show continues through May 5.  http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/faking.shtm.


 

"Shanghai Shop," a cabinet-view sized wet collodion image of a Chinese-style dress on blue-painted aluminum (source of the detail above)
Blue plate special: Wet collodion images on blue aluminum

February 11th, 2013
Elizabeth Graves satisfies her curiosity about straying from black to explore wet collodion on deep blue plates.

Detail from a wet collodion plate of a Chinese-style dress by A.E. Graves

Wet collodion renders complex fabric textures in fine detail

The history of wet collodion references all sorts of interesting substrates: early practitioners used not only clear glass and blackened tin, but also black glass, red (ruby) glass, scrap metal, paper, wood and… whatever happened to be lying around.  (Leather?  Did I read that correctly?)

Like some of those early practitioners who employed novel materials to print on just to see what would happen, I don’t resist my own curiosity for long periods of time. There’s really no such thing as making art “incorrectly” – either it works (hooray!) or it doesn’t work to one’s own satisfaction (oops!);  if it doesn’t work as intended, even a failed experiment will likely provide new information to use in the future.

I’m using history as an excuse to explain that an on-line catalog showing painted trophy aluminum in wild colors was too much for me to resist.  Finally, after creating over 100 wet collodion plates on black-painted aluminum, I was lured into another direction. I suddenly needed to know how wet collodion would look on plates of other colors.  For knowledge – for science. (I love science.) In place of my usual order of black plates, I opted for two other colors. One of those colors is peacock-blue.

Cabinet-view sized image of a Chinese-style dress (source of the detail above)

“Shanghai Shop,” a cabinet-view sized wet collodion image of a Chinese-style dress on blue-painted aluminum

Why blue?

I began my journey into alternative photographic processes through cyanotypes, which reminded me of the wonderful blue-line prints I had used in architecture in one of my many past careers, and so blue was the color most likely to tempt me. Blue is a common color in art, especially in historic pottery and fabric dyes, and so was well-suited for the texture-based topics I want to explore.  I suspect that other people will be reasonably comfortable with the idea of blue images (more than the other colors I’ll show experiments with later, which have no specific historical justifications, and don’t harken back to anything comfortably familiar).

While many contemporary practitioners use collodion almost exclusively for portraiture, for which blue backgrounds may not be appropriate, I elected to show off large format collodion’s glorious resolution by making close-ups of richly textured fabrics.  This is a subject I haven’t explored extensively in the past, and frankly hadn’t given much thought to before being mesmerized by the resolution of the fine detail in other plates I’d made.  I dug deeply into my closet, set up my homemade camera (version 1) to make “life-sized” plates of the fabrics, pinned selected items of clothing to a cork board, and mixed up a batch of my favorite developer.  Over two sessions, I exhausted every plate of the “test” sheet of blue-painted aluminum I had purchased.

The results

I’m so glad I tried this!

Blue makes lovely wet collodion plates.  While I wouldn’t use blue for human subjects, who might appear unhealthy or gloomy, the color is pleasing, and would work well for the same topics I enjoy printing in cyanotype (architecture, anything made by people, scientific subjects, seascapes, etc.).  The peacock-blue plates are dark enough for the images read clearly.  I did not need to make any special adjustments in my technique to work on blue plates – my usual collodion and favorite developer were effective.

My choice of subjects worked well, because the clothing could be any color and “read” plausibly well on blue plates.  The tiniest details in the fabric come through gorgeously, and my tactic of lighting them at a moderately steep angle from above, with the lights just above my camera, allows the plates during to capture the details and texture more effectively  than I had originally hoped.

Challenges

The only challenges I experienced were educational, and not particular to the color of the plates.  I learned that heavy white embroidery on smooth white fabric (both matte in texture) did not create a strong image, because there wasn’t enough shadow detail to create adequate contrast.  Several plates failed as I tried to adjust the exposure times to generate a bolder image, to no avail.  I’d need to revisit the lighting set up significantly to get the results I wanted there, likely employing a harsh, raking light.

Also, as is common with collodion, certain fabrics containing the color yellow were difficult to capture, as the collodion sees yellow as much darker than other colors.  A black and pale-green garment failed to read well, and I ran out of plates before determining the appropriate increase in exposure time to get the contrast I wanted, assuming it is even possible in collodion.

Am I blue?

I’m very pleased with this experiment, and plan to order another sheet of blue aluminum to capture other fabrics and different subjects that have been calling to me.  I’ll also add several of these plates to my gallery here at alternativephotography.com.

I’ll keep the other color(s) of plate I’m experimenting with under wraps until my next homemade cameras are up and running, so I can finish test-driving those with my new hardware.


 

Wet collodion ferrotype image detail of reflective CD Roms
Is what you see what you get? Sometimes.

December 6th, 2012
Elizabeth Graves remarks on the perils of digital reproduction of analog media in a un-color-calibrated age.

Wet collodion ferrotype image detail of reflective CD Roms

In this collodion ferrotype detail, the right half has been darkened 100% to accommodate a bright monitor; the left half shows the brightness level the scanner chose, which is more print-realistic.

Shiny New Digital Color

Sometime between the invention of the Internet and the advent of the highly visual World Wide Web, I worked in a design profession. Accurate color was an obsession of ours, but there was no easy way to show far away business partners what color we picked for our buildings: the was no instantaneous way to share that kind of information visually. Bereft of instantaneous digital technologies, we had an elegant solution: everyone we worked with had Pantone guides, which were precisely produced, numbered, color chip index books. You told your remote colleagues that the spandrel glass and window blinds must be Pantone Matching System 3385, they referred to their perfectly matching PMS 3385 chip, and they ensured on their end that the manufactured material would be exactly that color.

The world of instantaneous digital communications has solved many problems, but the display devices we use now are not as precise as those Pantone sets that took up so much shelf space in my youth. Our screens are so bright and shiny that I forget this, however, and sometimes trust the technology to correct itself too much.

Here are three examples of my missteps resulting from having too much faith in display technology.

Scenario 1: I admired some wet collodion images with some unusual color tones. Some had rich hints of burgundy red in the darkest areas, others had almost icy highlights. I asked the members of the collodion forum for tips on how I could change my chemistry to create the remarkable tones I had seen in the community image pool. The community was quick to reply with answers of ‘oh, that’s just the scanner [or camera] I used. The plates don’t really look like those images do.’ Also: ‘those images were scanned before they were varnished: they look different in real life.’

Scenario 2: I fired up my office computer, turned on my external monitor, looked at scans of my collodion plates that I’d used to update my gallery here at alternativephotography.com, and was appalled. APPALLED. They looked nothing like they had on my new monitor at home. Dark and gloomy, the scans of my collodion plates looked like I’d photographed them under a dim bulb at night in the bottom of a dirty well. At home, the scans had been too BRIGHT, too shiny, too creamy. I had reduced the brightness setting in my photo editing software by a full 100% to bring them back to some semblance of reality. But that “reality” was specific to my home monitor.

Scenario 3: After painstakingly adjusting my images using photo editing software, I printed my scanned wet plate images out on a dye printer at home. They came out alarmingly red.

Be aware of the benefits and limitations of digital technology

Even if you are a former color-correction obsessive like me, don’t panic! Just be aware that our digital devices don’t all see or display alike. Your awareness of this situation can minimize the color mayhem.

Keep these issues in mind:

Be aware of ambient light. You already know your prints look different in incandescent light than in florescent light, and different outdoors on sunny days than on rainy ones. What you may not realize is that your monitor, digital camera screen, and other display devices look different in those lighting conditions also! Your smartphone may remind of you of this by changing its intensity when you go into a dark or bright room with the screen on, but your perception changes, too. I know I edit photos a bit differently at night, in my dark office, than I do when the room is sunlit. I need to adjust for this.

Be aware of quirky capture conditions. Some flatbed scanners struggle to scan shiny collodion plates, so many people resort to photographing those plates instead. Be aware that the ambient light, color of the room, and reflections will have a big impact on the final image. I suspect those violets I admired on the collodion forum gallery resulted from photographing the plates in a red room. (Somewhere on-line is an image of one of my plates with the reflection of an event organizer behind his camera photographing that plate. :) ) Digital cameras also often have “white balance” problems, depending on the nature of ambient light, which can adversely affect your image.

Be sure you are using scanning software that captures your work accurately. My current flatbed scanner is better at scanning plates than my old one was, but sometimes the software doesn’t work properly, so I use a different program to run it. The other program uses different capture settings, and so the images come out differently than I would expect (brighter, paler, and lower in contrast). I’m working on a set of automated “actions” to correct for this, which I can apply whenever this software is used.

Scan your images in their final form. I’m sure we’ve all been so excited by an image that we have photographed it before it was complete: it was still wet, or hadn’t yet been varnished. Resist! Unless the point of your work is the in-process image, wait until the work is complete, so what people see on-line will match what they see in real life as closely as possible.

Calibrate your monitor. If you are going to invest time in sprucing up your images for the web or for digital entry into contests, it’s best you do so on a monitor that has been adjusted to be as accurate as possible. Art show judges are reviewing your work on calibrated monitors! Even if your friends aren’t viewing your images on calibrated monitors, you’ll be eliminating quirks that might otherwise show up on some, if not most, of those other displays.

Monitor calibration will balance out problems like I experienced in Scenario 3. My new monitor is VERY bright, and VERY blue: people are drawn to brighter, bluer monitors in shops, and retailers know this. However, if my monitor was better adjusted, my prints on my factory-settings-based printer would be more accurate, because I could have adjusted the high red levels in my scans. My monitor hid these reds from me.

Use other people’s calibrated equipment. It is often possible to rent color-calibrated equipment at commercial darkrooms, public art facilities, or educational institutions where you may be enrolled. After editing out dust and scratches at home, I have gone to rental photography studios to use their calibrated monitors and fast computers to make final adjustments to my images. I can rent time on those computers by the hour.

Make the most of the technology to show off your alt proc art!

As fine artists working in alternative photographic processes that we share on digital devices, we face many technical perils. The digital appearance of our analog images is impacted by ambient light, the scanner or camera we use to capture our prints with, and the display and output devices we use to show or print them. If we do our best to manage those variables we can control, our work will be shown in its best possible digital light to the maximum extent possible.


 

Butterfinger Squared  Tricolor gum bichromate print. This is just one of hundreds of gum prints which can't be done this way. In fact, this print is just a figment of your imagination.
“Don’t Waste Your Time” and Other Pearls of Academic Wisdom

September 13th, 2012
Come and eavesdrop on a short conversation reflecting a sad state of affairs in art academia.

Butterfinger Squared  Tricolor gum bichromate print. This is just one of hundreds of gum prints which apparently can’t be done the way I describe in my articles. So for those who refuse to see and believe, the print above is just a figment of your imagination.

Below is recorded a conversation I had with Alistair, a new acquaintance who crossed my path several months ago during an informal process demonstration. Astonishingly, the conversation is true. Just the names and certain specific details have been changed to protect both the innocent and the nearly innocent. Alistair’s words are in italic.

“So Alistair, tell me, what alternative photography work engages you now?”

“Oh, I’m actually an art student at an institution of higher education. We’ve been learning a variety of techniques and processes in my alternative photography class.”

“Sounds like a lot of fun! Have you made any gum prints yet?”

“Yeah, but they all turned out quite badly, just a muddy mess. They’re not at all like the quality of your prints. Even the professor seems to have trouble making a good print.”

“Hmm. That must be discouraging. Maybe I can give you some help. Can you briefly describe your workflow procedures?”

“Oh, it seems we were always grasping in the dark. We tried a bit of this and that just to see what would happen. A lot of time was spent sizing paper and creating negatives using that Pictorico stuff. You know, Pictorico is good but it gets so expensive after awhile. When I have little to show for all the money and effort, it makes me want to just stick with cyanotype. Forget platinum. And until now, I’ve thought of giving up on gum, too.”

“Since you enjoy my work, by chance, have you gone to the AlternativePhotography website to read my articles and such?”

“Oh yeah. I’ve even shown the professor the gallery images, too. He says that you can’t believe what you read or see on the web. Gum printing can’t be done that way. Don’t waste your time.”

[Crickets chirping]

[More crickets chirping]

And so I close virtually speechless with little else to say. Does ignorance and pedagogical tyranny run rampant in your academic circle of art and photography? Please, say it isn’t so!


 

Pathway between Gate of Five Nations and South Redoubt, Fort Niagara, Youngstown, NY
Pinhole Photography in Toronto

August 19th, 2012
Pathway between Gate of Five Nations and South Redoubt, Fort Niagara, Youngstown, NY

Pathway between Gate of Five Nations and South Redoubt, Fort Niagara, Youngstown, NY, taken by Tod Ainslie using a hexagonal pinhole camera of his own design

Nancy Breslin chases down some pinhole photography in Canada and finds some related to the War of 1812.

My summer travels this year took me to Canada. I covered lots of the country since, after flying to Toronto, my husband and I took a train all the way to Vancouver (and passing through the Rockies was magnificent). In both cities I kept my eye out for interesting photography, and was happy to learn of an exhibit of pinhole work at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. It wasn’t EASY to find the show, as I had to ask multiple museum staff members where the pinhole photography show WAS, and kept getting blank looks. The guard who finally pointed me in the right direction said I’d also enjoy two photography exhibits on the second floor, but they, alas, had already been dismantled.

 

Afterimage: Tod Ainslie’s Vision of the War of 1812, which runs through February 24, 2013, features about twenty pinhole photographs taken at historic sites related to that war between the British and Americans, some of which was fought near Toronto. Ainslie designed three cameras for this work, one being hexagonal and multi-pinholed for 360 degree panoramas. Exhibit materials noted that, while 1812 was before the birth of photography, Ainsle chose pinhole cameras to “evoke the experiences of those who lived through the war.” The choice of black and white is probably closer to evoking our contemporary imagination than the actual experience of people in the early 19th century (who weren’t, after all, colorblind): the work did remind me of Civil War tintypes with their warm tones and flawed edges. One advantage of pinhole would be the long exposure, since I presume that otherwise it would be difficult at some of these locations to get so many desolate shots, free of passing strollers and other contemporary distractions. Ainslie’s approach gives the sites a lonely and timeless beauty.


 

Blog Elizabeth Graves
The mysteries of pricing art for distant shows: a plea

July 30th, 2012
Elizabeth Graves on the mysteries of pricing art for distant shows, what research to do and guidance needed.

There’s nothing like the thrill of learning that your alternative process prints have been chosen for a juried art show! However, this thrill is often followed by a complex challenge: setting the sales price for your work at a gallery far from home, whose customers you know little about. It can be struggle, but both show organizers and artists can help make art pricing successful.

Wait, why are you showing work at unfamiliar places?

One great way to show your art to the world is to respond to “calls for entry.” These are invitations to submit art for consideration for inclusion in a specific art event, like a gallery exhibit, a display in a public facility, or even a “one night only” show at a festival. If your work is chosen, the organizers of these events often require the art to be made available for sale at the show, often with a commission (a percentage of the sale) going to the organizer, and the rest going to the artist. For many of the shows I have participated in, the organizer asked me to set the sales price for my work, and to include their commission in my price.

Information possessed by artists

On the surface, it makes complete sense that YOU should set the price for your work: you know your work better than anyone. You know the financial cost of creating your work, the time you invested in making it, the cost of framing, and the expense of shipping it to the show. You know the depth of your art career, how many awards or other accomplishments increased the value of your prints, and any past sales prices.

I’m writing to say that this may not be quite enough information.

I’ve had the excellent luck of showing prints in several venues, and I noticed a pattern: if the organizer of the show helped me set a price for my work, I had sales. If not, I did not. Once it was lower, others times higher than the prices I would have set. Somehow, they hit a magic number that worked for potential art buyers.

Why was their guidance so good?

Information possessed by show organizers

Successful art show organizers know their customers. They know what type of art lover will attend. They know the habits of their regular buyers, what professional buyers (who buy art for other people, including collectors and professional decorators) are looking for, and what kind of audience they advertised the event to.

Successful art show organizers know their regional art market. They are aware of trends in their area. There may be popular topics or themes that are especially successful in that location. They may know of festivals that attract art-collecting tourists who want to be reminded of the area, subjects which do well with families moving into new housing nearby, special interests of local collectors, and what local businesses hang in their lobbies.

The organizers know what sold last time. Organizers know what kind of work sells at their events, and what price that work sells for.

They know what will be in the show. They know the sizes and range of the work that will be included. They know the layout of the show. They know whether your tiny ruby ambrotype’s sales potential will be helped or harmed by the presence of an enormous platinum print on a huge matt that takes up a square meter, or other small prints made in other processes.

They know what prices other participants in the event have set (which is usually a component of the application).

They understand art buyer psychology. They know that pricing an artwork too low can repel buyers just as an overpricing a piece would.

They know all of these things, plus special nuances of the art business that they keep as closely guarded secrets. Relative to this, the information you have is quite limited!

Guidelines needed and research you can do

If you are an art show organizer reading this: please provide some general guidelines to your participating artists! Please at least offer to provide general suggestions upon request.  You need not give away all of your competitive business secrets. We just need some hints about the range appropriate for the specific show: you know what will be in the show, so you have some idea of the prices you expect to see paid. If you don’t want to give hints in advance, pledge to advise participants if they are at the extreme top or bottom in price.

If you are an artist, and you haven’t received any pricing guidance from an industry professional in the past:

  • ask the organizer for some tips specific to their anticipated audience.
  • see if you can learn the price of other work for sale at the venue, or in other galleries in the same neighborhood
  • attend art fairs in your own area, the kind run by galleries and professional dealers, and observe the prices for work you think is comparable to yours. (Keep in mind that artists represented by galleries charge more, since their work must cover the gallery’s expenses as well as the artist’s. Also, if they are working with a gallery, the artist may be more advanced in their career. Look up artists on the web to review their list of accomplishments and get some idea of why their prices are as they are.)

I’ve attended shows with no discernible pattern to pricing, and got the sense that visitors were confused by the inexplicable and vast price range of the work. I believe it makes a show look more professional if all of the art is priced in a way that makes sense on some level – not just that giant work may be priced higher than tiny work of comparable process and quality, but that there are no extremes of high or low prices to call the other work into question. If two lovely vandykes sit beside each other, and one is five times the price of the other, we don’t want a buyer to think the higher priced one is a rip-off, nor that there is something wrong with the lower priced one to make it such a bargain!  If the prices are so different because one of the artists has work in the Getty collection and the other is a newbie, this should ideally be disclosed.

Between receiving some good guidance and doing some research, we can worry less about the appropriateness of the prices we set for our work in distant locales.


 

Blog Elizabeth Graves
How “alt” is alt?

April 28th, 2012
Elizabeth Graves on the alt. proc. label on art – loathing it or loving it?

I am sometimes labeled as “a photographer working with alternative photographic processes” or “an alt process photographer.” I also work in conventional and digital processes now and then, but I don’t mind the label. I invest most of my creative energy into alt process photography – cyanotypes and wet plate collodion especially.

As I surf the web, I am sometimes surprised by the loathing some people have for any “alt process” label. I understand that they want all photography to be considered Photography with a capital P, with all of the amazing options we now have available treated with equal respect.

There is a catch with this hope: over the history of photography, it is difficult to find a period when all processes have ever been considered equal.

We’ve read about the historical rivalries between processes, of patent races to be the first, or the best, at capturing light, and of how one process fell out of favor and another rose to replace, repeatedly. As each process came along, the aesthetics of that process became the norm, until the process was replaced by a new norm. People adjusted their expectations to fit the newest standard, and learned to view anything else as odd. This trend has continued into the present. In the curator’s opening remarks to a speech by Stephen Shore as SFMoMA (link), the curator remarked that Shore was not taken seriously in the 1970s because he worked with large format color film at a time when color photography wasn’t considered “art.” She goes on to observe that now, it’s difficult to work in black and white.

Why? You know why. We live in a winner-take-all era, where there is one “default” standard for all things. Digital color is the default standard, and you need to have a justification for NOT using it. Sometimes, you need this justification in writing: a major international photography portfolio competition asks a question about the appropriateness of technical choices in their entry guidelines this way: “For example, is there a clear reason for using sepia-toned black and white versus a digitally enhanced palette?” Perhaps they don’t mean it that way, but… To some extent, I think they DO mean it that way. Why AREN’T you using digital color? You need a reason not to!

You understand that some subjects look especially good in certain processes, that monochrome is best to bring out the details and textures in certain subjects, while color (realistic or not) brings out other characteristics of a subject. But if you ask your non-photographer friends, you may hear the ‘only the newest’ mindset. One friend told me that he simply doesn’t “get” black and white. He sees in color, and almost all photos now are in color – in ads, on the Internet, in the newspaper, on his phone. Why would I want to make pictures that lack something that “all” other photos have?

Meanwhile, people who share his view are running art competitions. I entered some cyanotypes into a juried art competition with no past history, which was open to “all” subjects and processes. The winning entries were all color fashion photos of young women – no black and white images made it into the finalists. Actually, nothing was chosen that didn’t look like advertising, which is where visual norms are often established in contemporary cultures.

Whether we embrace them or not, THERE ARE CONVENTIONS. While some photographers are reluctant to use the “alt” label for fear it puts us into a box with “quaint” nailed on it in large, hand-carved, wooden letters, we must realize that some art jurors and members of the public view these processes as a completely different mode of representation. This is worth acknowledging. No matter how completely contemporary our work, subjects, and styles may be, the look of alternative process prints can defy conventional expectations.

I believe that standing apart from the color digital ocean can be a useful thing. It can be a niche for us to exploit, and may paint us as serious enthusiasts who are literally willing to get our hands dirty to produce something of interest. It allows us to compete for attention on the basis of standing out from the crowd, appearing “new” and experimental, even while embracing old technologies. It can even make us more fun to chat up at at parties!

Someday soon, you may find an all-cyanotype-print catalog of cheaply made, overpriced clothes modeled by underweight teens in your mailbox; celebrities may begin sitting for collodion portraits taken by hip, newly-minted photography MFAs, and those images may wind up on the cover of gossip rags; and gum prints of artisan bars of soap or garish cupcakes may become a fashionable interior decorator accessory for every room in the house in design magazines. All of the people who have desperately longed for mainstream acceptance may rejoice, as the aesthetics of our favorite processes become familiar to the mainstream. Our relatives will finally recognize our processes!

For now, however, I don’t mind practicing an honorable, niche style of photography. I’m happy that my alt processes prints are never mistaken for advertising, or for someone else’s work. I’m proud to be “alt.”.


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
Francesca Woodman’s blueprints

March 30th, 2012
Nancy Breslin visits Francesca Woodman’s exhibition and discovers diazotypes.

Caryatid diazotype by Francesca Woodman

Diazotype by Francesca Woodman, from sfmoma.org


I recently visited a show of work by Francesca Woodman at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. For those who aren’t familiar with her, she was a photographer who died in 1981 at the age of 22, leaving work which focused on the female form, including self-portraits, that were often dreamlike through the use of long exposures, mirrors, and headless cropping. Both the quantity and quality of the work surprised me: this was not edited from a 50 year career, yet image after image was fascinating. (I had a quite different reaction to the Cartier-Bresson show at MoMA recently, where I was struck that the majority of displayed images were quite unremarkable.)

Most of Woodman’s work was in the form of relatively small black and white prints, although she did experiment with larger scale for several projects. The most striking of these were life-size “caryatid” diazotype prints, referred to in some of the wall text as “blueprints.” I wasn’t familiar with diazotypes. It is a direct positive, dry-development process. A full size positive is contact printed to paper treated with diazonium salt and a dye coupler. UV light breaks down the salt, and subsequent alkaline treatment (via ammonium hydroxide fumes) causes expression of the dye in unexposed areas, creating the image. It was one means of duplicating architectural drawings. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whiteprint)

Woodman’s diazotypes are beautiful. They are also apparently a bit of a conservation nightmare. The paper was thin and designed for transient use, as further UV exposure will degrade the image. The Metropolitan Museum of Art also currently has Woodman diazotypes on display, in the form of a huge work called “Temple Project,” collaged from almost 30 diazotype prints. Conservation of this piece is discussed at http://cool.conservation-us.org/coolaic/sg/bpg/annual/v21/bp21-05.pdf.

Woodman’s work was incredibly mature for an artist of her age. One can only imagine what would have emerged if she had lived to have a full career.


 

Blog Peter J Blackburn
Putting the Prolegomenon to Bed

March 16th, 2012
Peter J. Blackburn draws the shade with a few closing remarks and extends a personal invitation to you.

Express Coffee, 2010. This diptych is a tricolor casein bichromate print. The coffee is always hot here. If you’re ever my way, stop by and get some! Read the blog for a personal invitation to you.

Prolegomenon: prefatory remarks ; specif: a formal essay or critical discussion serving to introduce and interpret. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary

If you recall, when the prolegomenon series began six blogs ago I asked everyone to clear their work area by putting away the brushes, the pigments, and the chemicals. That was so everyone could give their undivided attention to a sampling of topics which, I believe, might contain some importance to us all, whether the butcher, the baker, or the pinhole image maker. Topics which, in my mind, are introductory in nature; hence, a prolegomenon, if you will.

So, we explored the question of why, the possibility of running short on vision and energy, the role of criticism in our workflow, the concepts of sincerity and originality, and tackled a practical aesthetic snafu (fringe) typical of those faced by the average alternative artist. To be sure, those topics are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what I consider preliminary issues.

Although you might not have raised a toast to all of the answers I gave and the opinions expressed in some of those areas, perhaps we can at least agree the six issues placed on the table for dissection merit thoughtful consideration by all artists, especially artists who consider themselves emerged in a quest to grow and excel over the span of a long creative career. Wish that I had grappled with some of those same concerns more thoughtfully, more broadly years ago. It seems in our hurry to master the pounding of nails, we undercut the importance of pouring a durable foundation. One which permits a significant range of expansion and contraction, allows for heavy traffic, able to endure substantial wear and tear, and capable of supporting the ever-changing demands of a living, breathing artist.

Parting words to this series must include an expression of sincere thanks to Malin Fabbri and the hundreds artists who make this ever growing, all encompassing site possible. I would think many materials to build a sturdy foundation for any alternative photographer could be found here among the buried catacombs of process descriptions, technical articles, and of course, the artist galleries where fine examples of almost every technique abound. Also located here are avenues of discussion and interaction. If you’re new to art and alterative photography, you will soon discover with each process comes a variety of approaches almost as numerous and diverse as the artists who practice them. And with diversity comes the likelihood of a collision — a collision of ideas which inevitably leads to spirited debate characterized by hair-raising opinions and defended-to-the-bitter-end convictions. I find that to be normal, even healthy.

My aspiration is to remain your friend in spite of any disagreements expressed. There’s an Old Testament proverb, “Iron sharpens iron.” When friction between two pieces of tough, unyielding rods of metal strike each other with momentous force and persistence, as long as the ultimate goal is kept in view, the process can be beneficial to both objects and artists alike. And what is that goal, you ask? To provoke each other to think, to stretch, and to reach for higher and lasting achievement as the days, weeks and years pass by. Of course, being people endowed with emotions and dignity, our banter should always be submitted in a spirit of benevolence, in so much as possible. I trust that someday we can acknowledge some of the success and growth attained in our work can, in part, be attributed to our colleagues here on this site who took the time to converse, to challenge, and to cheer us on.

I wish to close by inviting all of my readers to contact me by way of email:

should you ever pass through the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. We can set up a time to rendezvous at one the several La Madeleine restaurants conveniently dotted throughout this area called the DFW metroplex. La Madeleine is wonderful a chain of casual French bistros. Good, all-you-can-drink French roast coffee, delicious pastries and food, and a quiet atmosphere (no TVs or bar) for interrupted discussion make this a great venue. Usually soft classical music is playing, too. Anyway, the invitation is always open—and your coffee is on me! Bring a portfolio of work and I’ll bring one, too. Just send an email and we’ll set it up!

Well, plenty more blogs are simmering in the pot. After doing gum and casein printing for quite some time, I’ve lots of savory broth to dish out around our little Algonquin-like roundtable of the web. So stick around and we’ll go at it again next time. Until then…

Peace.


 

Blog Peter J Blackburn
A Prolegomenon for Gum Printers and Other Visual Alchemists: Trying to See What You See in Fringe

February 20th, 2012
Join the discussion as Peter wraps up the series by fighting a border skirmish. Better wear a helmet.

Dear Reader—the following article is written in a decidedly provocative style. My purpose is to stimulate discussion, especially from opposing perspectives, concerning a practical, somewhat unsettled issue. Artists, including alternative photographers, grapple with a variety of practical problems in their workflow on a regular basis. As this prolegomenon series is geared toward beginners exploring our realm, I trust the prickly predicament I have chosen for our debate will serve as an able representative from the Thorny Wicket Department. Please know that I sincerely respect the many gifted and dedicated artists on this site and elsewhere who firmly stand on the other side of the fence. If I didn’t, this preface of forewarning would not have been written. Thank you. Peter J. Blackburn

1) Voilà!—that fancy fringe, over brushing, flashy pigment border—whatever you want to call it—presented for your viewing pleasure without the annoyance of any pointless, denigrating, imagery. Enjoy! 2) Alternative photograph with fringe. What do YOU see in fringe? Talent? Creativity? Beauty? Enhancement? Dollar signs? Contrivance? Distraction? Noise? Yeah, I use to make fringe, too. 3) Alternative photograph sans fringe. There now, stop crying. Blow your nose and go back to swooning over number 1. You’ll feel better in a jiffy. But would you mind closing the door on your way out? I’m staying right here.

 

Have you ever tried to listen to music, watch television, or read a book in the midst of a room full of screaming, fighting, ill-mannered children? How utterly frustrating to say the least! But that’s exactly how I feel when I come across an alternative photograph surrounded by what seems to be yards and yards of extraneous fringe. You know, that swirling, spiky border of leftover emulsion flung around an image like a Jackson Pollock revival. What might otherwise be a stunning or evocative print seems miserably embedded within a pit of convulsive pigment. Numerous examples can be spotted among the alternative galleries: gum, van dyke, cyanotype, platinum—any process which lends itself to a brush, hake, or foam roller. I can’t begin to tell you how often I drag those pieces into PhotoShop for the sole purpose of cropping out the busy fringe leaving a pristine print to enjoy in peace. Whew! What a relief from all the commotion.

And when it comes to fringe, countless are the times I’ve asked myself the same question. Why don’t I see what the creator sees? I suppose the fringe is there for good reason, but what is it? Why exactly did the artist choose to leave all of that distracting border stuff anyway? Is the erratic over-brushing essential to the interpretation of the subject? Does the fancy fringe somehow enhance the image? Could you even call that enhancing? So often I look, and look, and look some more to find a rational answer. Is the artist trying to make some sort of “this is a handmade print, not a digital doodad” statement with all that exaggerated brushwork lining the border? On the other hand, maybe the artist thinks a bit of sabre-toothed edging around a picture is a timeless and tasteful tradition. Perhaps the printer is secretly a frustrated painter. Or could it be that too many artists helplessly slither into the fringe framing fraternity as a consequence of living by the ‘ol cop out, “everyone else does it” mentality or worse—employs fringe as a first-aid device to remedy a pale and ailing print?

From an even more sinister viewpoint, it might be that a few alternative artists reserve fringe as an up-the-sleeve, fake-em-out maneuver which easily bumps a small picture into the big picture category, or better still, can transform an ordinary giant into a whopping behemoth. Are those the motives? And if so, are they valid?

I don’t know. Honest. I really don’t know.

What I do know is that if a fringe-choked photograph seems to catch my eye, I instinctively grab my PhotoShop blackjack and mercilessly chase (crop) those “annoying kids” out of the theater. “And stay out if you know what’s good for you . . .”

So, I have a few questions for all of my fringe-loving friends. Isn’t photography—all photography—a celebration of the IMAGE? And doesn’t the IMAGE usually END at the borders? And isn’t it ALL about the content of the image from the borders inward, rather than the boundaries outward? Now I will concede that in rare instances the artist can and will cross the margin to plant information pertinent to the photograph as a whole. This is especially true as photography merges with digital imaging techniques. But those occasions, I believe, are an exception rather than the rule. Well, I might not figure out what you see in compulsive hem painting, but I tend to see it as noise, distraction, and more significantly, as competing visual ornamentation trying to heap as much attention upon itself as the central imagery. Since when should outside-the-border-brushwork rise to the same level of attraction and importance as the principal print?

And yet, Freddie the Fringeloader,* the loud, oft times drunken guest who crashes every party making a complete spectacle of himself, is a celebrated enigma in this peculiar world of alternative photography. Hmm, is he really celebrated or just tolerated? No matter. When he invariably shows up, I politely snatch my coat and head for the door—“No, stay there, I’ll see myself out, thank you.”

What some relish as Shakespeare’s Juliet, I find revolting as Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Horror of horrors, to hear the words uttered by a well-meaning, well-heeled client, “Oh that gorgeous brushwork around your pictures is just to die for—so expressive—so pretty! Darling, how do you it? My, you’re so imaginative.” But the real painful insult to injury comes when that same Mrs. Iva Lotamoneybucks makes absolutely no mention whatsoever—none, zero, zip, nada—upon my actual, genuine photographic substance. So help me, no praise is better than fringe praise. And listen—when your supporters esteem the brushwork over and above your actual image, the time has arrived to seek other employment.

Expressive brushwork? Oh yes, how silly of me—almost forgot. “I received perfect marks in the Expressive and Imaginative Brush Wash Engineering course at the photo academy,” says the man to the patron with his tongue firmly inserted into cheek. Actually, I know some expert house painters who can slap a smooth wash over a primed plank complete with astounding flourishes swinging a six-inch bristle. Funny, but I’ve never met a single alternative artist wishing to identify himself with the likes of the Dutch Boy or Sherwin-Williams. Wonder why? No, I suppose some of our lot would rather envision us following in the romantic tradition of a J. M. W. Turner or even a Bob Ross! What’s up with that?

Sorry, I just can’t bring myself to accept fringe as part of any meaningful photographic endeavor. For blankets, perhaps. Photographs? No. As a photographer, the toil is all about the depiction, the subject, the story as told through my viewfinder—not the extraneous, not-much-to-do-with-the-image outer brushwork. Fringe is nothing more than a residual artifact serving about as much purpose as a belly button, another residual artifact. And while a navel might be cute and amusing to glimpse on occasion, quite disconcerting is a culture where the naval shares an equal magnitude with the face!

Look, it all bears down to one final question and here it is. Can you give me one good reason—just one—why your photographs, alternative or not, can’t stand solely on their own—four—corners?

[ CRICKETS CHIRPING ]

When I came to grips with the implications of that same searing question myself some years ago, fringe and all its Cover Girl hokum was abruptly pushed to the curb kicking and clawing every miserable inch of the way. Come to think of it, I remember hearing a Rod Stewart ditty cranking from the kitchen jam box as I managed to yank it those last gritty footsteps. “Wake up, Maggie, I think I’ve got somethin’ to say to you . . . you stole my heart and that’s what really hurt. . .” How apropos!

My plea to fringe lovers everywhere is to think carefully through each and every reason you choose to leave that . . . that . . . mess for all humanity to gaze upon. Oh, don’t worry, you’ll never run short of applauding spectators where fringe is concerned, but never forget that more than a few will most certainly wince.

This little satirical tirade, presented as a thought-provoking conclusion to this six-part prolegomenon series, was meant to reveal a few noteworthy cons of over-brushing for the novice printer to ponder. Of course, there could be a few pros to ponder as well. Yeah, there could be. Likely so. However, I’d rather issue a cordial invitation to our distinguished legion of fringe fans everywhere welcoming them to voice their own opinion right here, right now—which is just fine by me. “Equal time,” I always say.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to hightail it for the hills pronto—I discern an enraged posse of fringe followers gathering by yonder Starbucks. I don’t imagine they’ll be in any mood to treat me to a Double Chocolaty Chip Frappaccino, do you? So as I bolt for the exit, let me retort those famous words uttered by the persnickety W.C Fields in his unmistakable twang. “Get away from me fringe . . . you bother me.”

Okay, it’s your turn to speak out. I invite all who wish to cheer or jeer to do so in the comment section below. Beginners in alternative processes are especially advised to ponder both sides of this sticky, gooey, no one is right or wrong issue. See you next time—I hope! 

*This name is a parodied from a television character, Freddie the Freeloader (pictured above), regularly performed by popular comedian Red Skelton more than fifty years ago. Freddie was a whimsical, wandering bum who managed to win the affection of his audience in spite of his uncouth antics. I use the name to personify the fringe, not as a reference to any particular artist—heaven forbid!



 

Blog Elizabeth Graves
Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery: Thoughts on Faux-Alt-Process Digital Images

February 5th, 2012
Thoughts from Elizabeth Graves on why new digital imaging technology is often used to imitate the appearance of old, chemical photography.

faux digital cyanotype

Faux-alt: imitation cyanotype effect

This may have happened to you: you’re trying to remember the name of an ingredient for an alternative process recipe (“something oxalate?”), and so you search for a phrase like “how to make a cyanotype.” Your results come up, and you discover that some of those results are software tutorials. In fact, they appear to be software tutorials written by people who have never seen a cyanotype in their lives, because their instructions on how to “create a cyanotype” merely mean converting a digital color photo into a hazy blue digital mess.

What gives? Why on earth would someone using a US$3000 software package want a poor digital imitation of a blue photographic print they could have made for a few bucks in real life?

I have a few suggested explanations.

Wet Chemical Photography Shaped our Collective Memory and Our Sense of History

When most of our now-alternative processes were first invented, they were THE technology available for making photographic images. They defined what photography looked like. They had a huge influence on how we saw ourselves and the world, how we documented history, and how we captured collective and personal information to preserve for the future. We have all studied photographs made with wet chemical processes that have influenced our perception of our place in the world. Our history books and family albums are filled with images made with wet chemical technologies: it sometimes feels like those images are fragments of history in their own right. Digital imaging hasn’t yet had a chance to make such a deep, long-term impression on us.

Digital Imaging Is a Young Technology Without Its Own Distinctive Look

Digital imaging rose long after wet chemical photography had established what images SHOULD look like. For casual snapshot shooters, digital didn’t appear to break new ground: it is serving as a substitute for something we already had. It is faster, it is easier, it has amazing potential, and has great utility… But it hasn’t yet defined itself as something that gives us visually different results from the technology it is replacing.

The New Technology Is Being Used Differently

Wet darkroom photographers used to photograph sparingly, because of the expense and effort of making an image. Digital imaging has made photography a happy, near-constant compulsion… which leads to a lack of the self-editing used in older technologies. It’s hard for the new images of our lunches and new shoes to stand up well when compared to the old images of world leaders, documentation of grand monuments, and critical events in the lives of families – births, graduations, weddings, and deaths. We may take “important” photos with the new technologies, but they are only a small fraction of our image-making, which is somehow diluted by daily use.

Digital Technology Is Easy, Accessible, and Common

Digital imaging is so easy that people sometimes discover they accidentally engaged in it while drunk, half asleep, or while fumbling for keys in their briefcase. While the results may be in focus and appropriately lit without any real effort, it’s hard to think of the results as “special” on their own. The underlying technology seems nearly miraculous, but so did the chemical version of the technology. And the sheer quantity of these easily taken images seems to devalue them, like a case of oversupply of a once valuable commodity.

If I told you that more than one million digital images were taken of the ritual associated with the current US President taking office, you wouldn’t be surprised, and you likely wouldn’t care to see them – you’ve already seen many, without even trying! Those images were easily made, available, and too common to seem really special unless we made them ourselves. But if I told you that a daguerrotype was taken of that same event, wouldn’t its rarity inspire your curiosity? (If it does, see Jerry Spagnoli’s Last Great Daguerrian Survey of the Twentieth Century: Inauguration.) A daguerrotype is difficult to create, difficult to arrange for, and very, very rare. All of those factors make a daguerrotype of a historic event seem far more valuable. Which type of image do you think will wind up being considered a treasure worthy of being kept in the national museum?

There is a Nostalgia for Authentic Physical Things

Software has been created not only to imitate now-alternative photographic processes and near-alternative photographic processes (such as conventional black and white, which no manufacturer has yet bothered creating a dedicated digital camera for), but even specific modern film emulsion imitations, instant and integral film imitations, random old print in a box in the attic imitations… Many photographers use software to attempt to achieve the look of something material – “real” – from the past, which, sadly, they often don’t have enough familiarity with to imitate effectively. Scandals break out in journalism over whether such ‘imitation looks’ are intended to deceive or manipulate viewers by invoking the symbols of older, substantive things… Even if they do so as ineffectively as the fuzzy blue image that a software teacher is trying to pass off as a cyanotype.

Someday, digital imaging will grow up and define itself in new and amazing ways. It’s still a young technology, with a lot of growing to do, and so it’s not surprising that it sometimes has an identity crisis. I think that, when it is mature, it will not dress up as other things, but will stand proudly as itself in the distinctive look it will have established, without feeling shabby beside handmade, alternative process prints.


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
Teaching Winter Session, Week 5

February 5th, 2012
Nancy Breslin is teaching alternative photographic processes at the Uni. Here we can follow her five week course. Week five and the course is finished.

We’re done! Teaching a class over winter session isn’t as hectic as teaching two classes over winter session (which I have done), but it still goes by in a blur.

There were two assignments due this week: paper presentations on Tuesday and final projects on Thursday. For the former, the students could choose any alternative photo process that we weren’t doing in class and report on how it is done, including any safety concerns, and talk about a photographer who has used that process, while showing a sample of that person’s work. I’m always glad to be introduced to the work of new artists, and the students all learn from one another about some of the rich options beyond what they’ve already tried. I also hoped they would see how easy it is to find instructions online, so they’ll feel comfortable trying new techniques on their own in the future. We heard about bromoil, anthotypes and tintypes, among others.

Final critique

Nancy Breslin's students look at final projects on the last day of the course.

But the highlight of the week was the final critique. The challenge was to create a set of prints, using any one or more processes from the semester, for which the subject matter was enhanced by an alternative approach. The original images came from digital, lensed and pinhole cameras, and the prints represented most of the techniques learned in the last month. Some of the students could have used more time, to maximize print quality or to expand a series, but everyone had engaging ideas and ended up with some novel work to add to a portfolio. Artist’s statements (a necessary evil for working artists) accompanied each project, and there were comments that some of these did genuinely enhance the appreciation of the work, which was after all the goal.

You can see a sample piece by each student at a group gallery on this website. Several of the class members plan to continue working with alternative processes, so hopefully we’ll be seeing more from them here or at other sites in the future. It has been a pleasure introducing these hand-made techniques to new artists, and I found myself getting a creative burst during the class as well.

If you’ve been reading along, thanks for joining us on our quick but fruitful journey.



 

Nancy Breslin Blog
Teaching Winter Session, Week 4

January 31st, 2012
Nancy Breslin is teaching alternative photographic processes at the Uni. Here we can follow her five week course. Week four and the finishing line is approaching.

My class is getting close to the finish line. The challenge has been to squeeze a semester’s worth of alternative photo into an intensive five week period. Week four saw the completion of several processes, leaving ahead a week for open themed projects.

gum print

Gum bichromate over cyanotype, by UD student Brandan Henry.

For our critique on Tuesday we looked at gum bichromate and pinhole camera prints. As gum and pinhole are two processes that I’ve been using a lot in my own work, I was looking forward to the results. I have always tried to avoid being a teacher who creates clones: I’d rather see students take techniques that I’ve introduced and use them in their own compelling way. Two good examples of this were a gum print of a bowl of chili and another of a student’s foot in a red sneaker, surrounded by undergraduate chaos (CDs, highlighters, an alarm clock…). Despite my obsessive photographing of meals with a pinhole camera, and the fact that my desk is always in chaos, I don’t think either of these ideas would have occurred to me as subjects of gum prints, yet both worked really well.

Gum printing had been a struggle for much of the class, even though I use a streamlined method (we use Fabriano Artistico 300 lb paper and do not size with gelatin/formaldehyde, which saves on time and toxicity), but most students got good results for a first attempt.

One source of frustration this week (with gum printing as well as the other processes that need large negatives) was that some of the transparencies were getting stuck in the Epson 4900 printer. We’ve been using Arista brand, and I couldn’t find a solution to this online. I tried several things, such as a custom profile for thinner “paper” and longer drying time, yet each day one or two would catch in the lower corner and crinkle up. Nathan Sherman, who handles equipment and technical issues for our department, suggested cutting the leading edge into a gentle curve (similar to the top notch the manufacturer uses to indicate the printable surface), and since then we haven’t had problems.

Thursday meant another critique, this time of silver gelatin prints. The students were asked to use regular black and white photo paper to create either lumen prints, or solarized photographs in a “surrealist” vein (I had given a short presentation on the work of the Surrealists last week). Subject matter was again pleasantly varied: clocks, hands, and grimacing faces among the solarizations, and feathers, plants, and lace among the lumen prints. The other thing due was a draft of an artist’s statement for the final project. I know that many insist that the work should “speak for itself,” but as an artist I regularly have to submit statements, so students should learn how to write them. I’ve also found that, at times, writing about my work helps to shape what I am doing. And maybe it’s my background as a psychiatrist that convinces me that bringing unconscious motivation to light is usually a good thing.

January is almost over, and this class will soon end. But the best (the final project critique) is yet to come.


 

Left
A Prolegomenon for Gum Printers and Other Visual Alchemists: Last Call for Radicals, Rebels, and Revolutionaries

January 26th, 2012
Peter J. Blackburn reveals that stimulating nine letter word for art and offers a frank discussion as to the implications it evokes.

Left: The Red Wall on Walnut Street, 2008 Right: Paper Whites, No. 3, 2010

Above are two dichromate photographs. On the left is a color-rich, reasonably sharp casein bichromate print. To the right is a gum bichromate piece of similar quality. Both were produced in gouache on unsized Fabriano paper from paper negatives generated by an ordinary paper copier. And both were exposed under typical everyday sunlight. I’ve been printing images such as those almost every week for many years. Please understand, the methods are not chosen simply for economy alone. There are actually well considered reasons for my workflow which cannot be elaborated upon in this particular blog. Still, I’m quite sure some of you will judge my printing perspective as unorthodox, primitive, radical—or even worse! That’s quite alright. I trust we can still be friends. Those familiar with my writing on this site will know that I’ve not disclosed anything new.

Actually, what I find rather remarkable is that according to formal teaching and conventional wisdom presented to me twenty years ago when I began my excursion into alternative photography, these kinds of prints employing those kinds of techniques cannot exist. It’s not possible. In fact, were I to take seriously certain material written even more recently, I would pitch all of my gear, burn my remaining art paper, pour the leftover gallon of gum down the sink, and lug every portfolio over to the big green recycling bin. That’s right, the one with the smiley face. Imagine all of the toilet paper Kimberly-Clark could roll from that contribution! Wow, what a sap I’ve been to waste years of time and money.

Let me dig out and explore just two of the numerous handy-dandy examples in my file. One very popular volume published in the late 1970s and still venerated today states quite bluntly, “Traditionally, transparent colors (the author is referring to watercolor) have always been used and are required for continuous tone images. The gouache colors produce strong solid colors that often remove the unique subtle characteristics of gum printing.” (Emphasis mine.) As you might imagine, I take exception to the “we’ve always done it THIS way” attitude expressed by the author—that, and some other heavy handed directives hammered in the same book. The fact is, gouache has been my preference for over 90% of the gum and casein work I generate. I can’t imagine printing without it and I find it irreprehensible to discourage others from at least exploring the gorgeous possibilities of gouache. Although the images on this page, indeed, testify to the bold possibilities of gouache, subtler hues and gentler tones are also rather achievable. In fact, all manner of tonality is feasible with gouache. However, I’ll let my work on this web site speak for itself.

But discussing gouache and pigment—that’s not my point. The point is coming later. Let me continue.

Furthermore, subtle characteristics are not by any stretch of the imagination unique to only gum printing. Again, simply peer into the treasure-trove of artist galleries throughout this cavernous site. Subtle tones are everywhere to be found in nearly every process. In fact, I tend to consider the subtle look as sort of a “default mode” in many alternative processes. Don’t take me wrong; I admire subtlety. Yet, I also believe it a relatively straightforward task to generate soft, restrained, and misty imagery in gum. Virtuosity, in my eye, lies in creating work containing lovely tonality, yes, but also providing highlights which are especially bright and luminous, where shadows reveal secrets, and where sharpness rivals conventional photographs. Watercolor, gouache, dry pigments—ALL are quite capable of yeoman duty when those qualities are the task at hand! Oh well, how much good information can one expect from a book containing two—only two—gum images? Kind of skimpy for a gum-dedicated instruction manual, don’t you think?

Moving along to another volume, this time well illustrated and written by our friends across the pond in 2000, it is found inscribed among the glossy pages that to make a gum print I need to purchase “a small bottle of glue (the sort sold by office suppliers such as Gloy or Stephens). Don’t bother with the traditional gum arabic. It is difficult to prepare and needs a preservative to make it keep.” (Emphasis mine.) Have you ever read anything so outlandish? Fortunately, I never fell for THAT one. Thankfully, neither did Demachy, Coburn, or Steichen.

So, had I heeded the counsel of those words and succumbed to the misguidance of several other well-meaning manuscripts, the images on this page and, for that matter, my complete oeuvre would not nor could not exist. Or, as stated in the manner of Dr. Seuss—

Not here, not there. Not now, not ever.
No prints. No pictures. Goodbye forever!

You see, I’ve always had my heart set on embracing the bright, capturing the vibrant. But all I ever heard echoing in my ear was, “Gum can’t do that, sweetheart. Go fetch yourself some Ilfochrome if you’re that color crazed. And while you’re at it, dearie, would you mind taking out the trash?”

Pig water.

Look, here’s what I am trying to say. To excel in YOUR chosen alternative process, to push the envelope of YOUR imaginings, you ultimately must resort to a revolt. Ah, yes, and that brings us to (ring the bell) our nine letter word for art—r-e-b-e-l-l-i-o-n. Unless you wish to be the head digit among the paint-by-number crowd, or wallow in anguish over some “impossible” roadblock backing up traffic within your chosen alternative sphere, then mature development of both vision and process requires some unrestrained, good old-fashioned rebellion. Is where you want to go in your preferred medium worth a struggle? I hope so. Join the masses and start a quiet riot now. The American Revolution wasn’t achieved in a day or even a year! Likewise, I suspect your own uprising will require significant time to ignite and burn, blazing a trail within your heart, mind, and work.

Go ahead. Read your books. Learn from those articles and lectures. Listen to the teachers and respect your mentors. But remember this, my friend. One day, some day, you must bend to the right or to the left, up or down, even inside out, if you are to forge your own unique path. And you must think of that veering as a form of rebellion. Polite rebellion—civil rebellion—gentle and sincere rebellion—not quite an Occupy Wall Street type of rebellion—but rebellion nonetheless.

Bending means to challenge the status quo! Rid yourselves of “shop talk jive” which restrains you from emerging and advancing. Embark on a search for new means, improved systems, outside-the-box materials, and a distinctive mindset. And remember this, too. Many processes contain fastidious, more than you care to count, mind-twisting variables. And that precious detail alone renders as sheer, utter lunacy the notion there is only one, two, or even just three ways to “correctly” perform any particular process. Don’t let ‘em box you in or tie you up! The best way is the mode which works for you, and often enough that mode evolves as a result of your own hard labor, creative adaptation, revision, tweaking, reinventing, seizing of the moment, and, on occasion, downright mutiny.

So, in your quest to achieve extraordinary art, start now to question—question everything, even the paper it’s scribbled on! Questioning is good; doubting is better; but outright rebellion is oftentimes best.

In the next blog we will conclude this series by answering the question, “Do I see what you see?” Until then, your comments and insights are most welcome. Please start the discussion—cheers and jeers!


 

Teaching Winter Session, Week 3

January 21st, 2012
Nancy Breslin is teaching alternative photographic processes at the Uni. Here we can follow her five week course. Week three had students working with Holgas, cyanotypes and vandyke browns.

cyanotype prints

Cyanotype prints done by my students this week.


I find January a depressing month (I hate cold weather), but it does pass quickly when I’m teaching a five week winter course.

We began the week with our first formal critique, looking at cyanotoypes and Holga contact sheets. Everyone had some success with the former. In view of the weather and the short time frame, the students were welcome to use photographs they had taken for previous classes, and the imagery was quite varied, from wild animals to flowers to portraits to landscapes to cupcakes. A bad image printed using a cool process is still a bad image, and I think they made good decisions regarding what would translate well into a hand-made blue print.

The Holga work was a challenge at this time of year, with little color and lots of gloom. Yet it was a first opportunity for most of the class to work with medium format film, and two students mentioned the advantages of needing to think carefully about each shot, since you only get twelve, which is so unlike the free endless shooting that one can do with a digital camera. Some students really took advantage of the playful nature of these cameras, using double exposures and blended images to good effect.

Darkroom  Holiday Lights

Holiday lights make paper coating easier and this way the darkroom feels magical to me.

Midweek was a rush to complete Van Dyke brown prints and to start monochrome and 3-color gum prints. The VDB critique was on Thursday, and it was interesting to compare some pairs of prints where one negative had been tried with both cyanotype and VDB. Friday was an open lab day for independent work. Most students were focused on gum printing, although some were working in pinhole or trying lumen printing or solarization. Working on several processes at once has advantages (less competition for the UV units or the b&w chemistry sink) and disadvantages (paper coating is harder under safelights, but the holiday lights will ruin silver gelatin paper, so everyone had to compromise at times). I’m looking forward to Tuesday’s critique of gum prints and pinhole prints, since those are my personal favorites.

After week one I mentioned the visit to class by a reporter and photographer from our local paper, doing a story about winter session at my university. The article was published on Sunday at http://delonline.us/ADdqf9, and features several pictures of my class.


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
Teaching Winter Session, Week 2

January 14th, 2012
Nancy Breslin is teaching alternative photographic processes at the Uni. Here we can follow her five week course. Week two is a bit smoother than week one.

Week two of my five week crash course in alternative processes felt (to me at least) a bit smoother than week one. While the first few days were mostly introduction and demos, now we really needed to get down to business. Few students had been able to print digital negatives last week (we share the digital space with another class on some days, which limits opportunity) but, by extending class by an hour, everyone had three negatives printed by the end of Tuesday. The remainder of the week was a free-for-all: Holga negative scanning, coating paper, UV exposures, washing cyanotypes and VDB prints. I did a few more demonstrations, with mixed results. After explaining that lumen prints skip the developer and stop baths, I absent-mindedly plunked mine right into the developer. But my layers of magenta and then yellow gum over cyanotype had perfect exposures.

Gum print by photographer Nancy Breslin

My demo gum-over-cyanotype print was successful (whew!); a student's VDB print is washing behind it.

Because of the compacted nature of the class, some projects are mandatory, and others are optional. For instance, the students have a choice between creating a three color gum print or building and working with a pinhole camera (since both take time over multiple class periods). I needed to know where to allocate class time but the students kept dithering on which of these to do. Finally I asked the gum people to stand over HERE and the pinhole people to stand over THERE. It surprised me that only one student is opting for pinhole, but the open final project will give everyone a chance to try it if they like, and I hope some will.

This is the first time I’ve introduced lumen printing into this class. One of the student choices is between creating a diptych of lumen prints or one (in a surrealist vein) using solarization. Incorporating silver gelatin processes at all into an alternative class might have struck me as odd a few years ago, but for some of my students this will be their only darkroom experience (although I hope to tempt them all back for more).  I figure that their time in the darkroom – working under safe lights, learning a bit about enlargers and paper chemistry – may at least give them all tales to tell their grandchildren (as I’ll be able to tell mine about using punch cards in my intro to computing class at Rutgers in the late 1970’s).


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
Teaching Winter Session, Week 1

January 6th, 2012
Nancy Breslin is teaching alternative photographic processes at the Uni. Here we can follow her five week course.

Since 2001 I have been a part-time  instructor in the Art Department at the University of Delaware. My favorite course to teach, no surprise, is Alternative Photographic Processes. Before last spring I had always taught it as a 5 week course. UD has regular spring and fall semesters but also 5 week winter and summer sessions, designed in part to accommodate the popularity of its study abroad programs. Last spring was the first chance I had to teach Alt Photo as a full semester class, and that was great. But this winter I’m back to the task of squeezing those 14 weeks into 5.

Nikon vs. Cat Camera

Nikon vs. Cat Camera: no contest!

Fortunately (for me and the students) I have a small class of eight. Fewer students mean more time with each, but I suppose that this week most didn’t feel they had enough of my attention, since we had so much to do. I started the first day with the history of photography, with both slides and a show-and-tell from my collection of historic prints such as stereocards, tintypes and a daguerreotype. I then introduced them to the processes they’ll be learning: cyanotype, VDB, and gum printing, working with pinhole and toy cameras, and some alternative silver gelatin approaches (solarization and lumen printing). The next day focused on the digital negatives they will need for some of these processes, as well as how to coat paper and load 120 film. Today everyone made an initial cyanotype, which we did outdoors despite the cold weather and the access to UV units (I want everyone to feel empowered to continue some these processes in the future without having to invest in pricey equipment). I demonstrated how to mix gum chemistry, and wrapped up with a visit to the camera obscura. After 10 minutes in the dark they came out smiling. Today had an added complication, as a local paper is doing a story about winter session classes, so we were joined for part of the class by a journalist and a photographer. My head was spinning, and the last student and I finally left over an hour after the end of class time.

I love all sorts of alternative approaches, so can’t help showing the students some things that aren’t formally part of the class. Yesterday I showed some anthotypes I had done (along with Malin’s great new book), and today I brought in two fun cameras – my Blackbird Fly (most of them had never handled a twin lens camera) and my Necono Cat Camera. The newspaper photographer was taken with the latter, and wanted a good shot of it. I used the cat camera to shoot him while he shot me.


 

Blog Peter J Blackburn
A Prolegomenon for Gum Printers and Other Visual Alchemists: Criticism from a Canine Perspective.

January 4th, 2012
Join the discussion with Peter J. Blackburn as he chews on the bone of criticism!

Prolegomenon: prefatory remarks ; specif: a formal essay or critical discussion serving to introduce and interpret. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary

With anxious anticipation, the day had arrived for me to spread my photographic portfolio on the narrow display ledge mounted along the entire perimeter of the classroom. You see, I had enrolled in the required photographic business and practices (PBP) course where us photo greenhorns were put through the rigors of developing a working business plan, exploring marketing techniques, and preparing a portfolio which clearly demonstrated our creative ability and professional expertise. Being an aspiring, although economically challenged, shutterbug-in-training I funneled considerable cash toward first rate camera gear, accessories, and studio equipment much to the neglect of proper finishing supplies. Consequently, my misappropriated thrift left me defenseless against the venomous barbs, rabid epithets, and the general critical shellacking of my dear fellow classmates.

From a series entitled, The Italian Designers, here are two of fifteen images critiqued on my ignominious day of reckoning—in that PBP course long ago. As an aside, these images, created more than twenty years ago, were produced in a darkroom with Kodak film, paper, and chemistry as typical practice. Ah, those were the days, my friend.

For what seemed like an eternity in slow motion, I endured every chastisement, each rebuke, every verbal lashing and curse word in the book — even a few new ones invented by the more resourceful students just for the occasion. Had I simply been taken to task for my inferior presentation or did a barrel of banshees bust out from the neighboring darkroom to conduct a military court marshal having found me guilty of reckless mounting and matting? I don’t know for sure, although warily I still keep vigil for a firing squad to appear at my front door.

No, it wasn’t so much the actual photographs which appalled them as it was the less than professional manner—the downright clumsy means I had matted the work. Using an inferior low budget mat cutting tool, the bowed and crooked cuts were obvious to everyone—everyone except me. Oh, I suppose I had noticed the glaring gaffs, but chose instead to ignore them in the hope that the images themselves would carry the day. Oh, was I so very mistaken. It was an egregious blunder I would regret with gritting teeth for quite some time.

Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the devastating deluge of condemnation. It was par for the course. The three or four students who went on trial prior to me had also experienced a sound and sure tongue whipping leaving one overwhelmed soul slumped in a jumbled heap, sobbing. Like blood thirsty sharks engaged in a feeding frenzy, each presentation was mercilessly challenged—the order of each image, the composition, the print quality, density and sharpness, the size and format, light and shadow, tonality and luminance, processing flaws and faults. We nitpicked through each and every detail right down to the signature. It wasn’t pretty to see and quite dreadful to hear. In the days ahead the agonizing ordeal would be repeated for each and every classmate, or rather inmate—all fifteen of us. No one was spared. The residual trauma is something I rarely discuss. And yet with the passing of time, I have come to appreciate those terrifying, unforgiving days as a useful, perhaps necessary trial by fire.

When I look back at my photographic training, I can pick out at least one distinct concept or lesson from every course which has remained with me over the years. That PBP class is no exception. Those days of severe examination and testing helped to create a mindset which now automatically and ruthlessly evaluates in a systematic manner each and every piece of work I intend for public consumption. My usual regimen is to temporarily hang completed pieces on a dedicated wall rack labeled, “In Process,” before my signature is duly inscribed. I prefer a bit of time to pass, a sort of aging process to occur, which allows for continued assessment and scrutinizing before the image is finally released. To be sure, I have ever since carefully mounted and matted all my work according to strict standards without exception. Corners are never cut in the finishing department lest I heap Arabian nights of mental condemnation upon myself.

Regrettably, this rather hardnosed outlook has carried over to all my photographic viewing. It seems a casual glance can never be granted to any particular photograph, regardless of the source. Family shots emailed from my parents, party or wedding snaps from friends, the latest happenings sent by relatives all tend to make me cringe and squirm in my chair like a panic stricken Kindergarten child who just sat on a red ant nest. But I digress.

Criticism, whether from within or without, can function as either a bark or a bite. A barking dog is a warning dog. Alter your intention! Change your direction! Modify your action! Take heed or suffer the soon-to-come consequence—a vicious, nasty bite! Healthy criticism should function like the growling bark of a dog, alerting us to take notice of possible errors and misalignments in our vision, the implementation, and finishing touches. Each bark should act as both a shrewd guide nudging us further along toward new territory and as a sharpened chisel chipping away all which hinders our progress, leaving behind fruitful, rewarding work.

Poppies, 2010. Casein bichromate print. The bark and bite section of this essay is dedicated to my French bulldog, Poppies, who helped me to formulate the idea. What a pal!

Barks can also serve as an opportunity for celebration, like the greeting yelp of our dog when we arrive home from an extended absence. Happy barks can simply be a moment we enjoy some aspect achieved in our creation—the delightful appearance of a chosen hue, some unexpected, but welcome texture we have managed to produce, or relishing in the accomplishment of a complex, protracted portfolio. Indeed, our penchant for spotting the negative must be balanced with an affinity for recognizing the positive. Criticism and appraisal must be two ends of the same dog bone.

But what about the bite? Need I lament all the poor souls who self-destructed, dying slow deaths over caustic disapproval disguised as beneficial criticism, or others who simply frittered away a lifetime in a septic tank of debilitating depression as casualties of graceless, off-the-cuff remarks which left lasting, gaping wounds to fester untreated? And that is precisely the point. Whether the barbs were self inflicted or unleashed from without, offered with the best of intentions or purposely launched to exact enduring pain, you must act as your own stop gate permitting the sound of alerting barks while repelling the impact of cruel bites. It’s the bites which can devastate from within. Unfortunately, those vocal bites—perhaps inflicted by a harsh parent, a well-meaning colleague, or an abuser hiding behind academic credentials—can occur suddenly, unexpectedly.

So, let me post a familiar warning sign right here for all to see—Beware of Dog.

Sadly, I have learned that artists, as a species, exhibit a tendency to eat their young. Therefore, my advice to you, dear reader, is to listen, take note, and act accordingly as you discern the source, the intent, and the value of each howl of criticism. Learn to place criticism on a tight leash by never permitting judgments to seize control of your heart or wander aimlessly through your mind.

Let me propose, too, that some of the most precious and prized admonitions be sought from within—let them come in the form of guiding, directed questions and evaluative self-examinations rather than knee-jerk reactions. Do you take time to spread your work on the table or floor for honest assessment, performing vital editing decisions? Do you feel comfortable with culling inferior, substandard, less than desirable work from your portfolio? Do you have a standard for what is inferior, substandard work? Is the standard workable? Is it realistic? By what means did you establish your standard(s)? Are you able to bring a critical eye to every detail of every image and take positive, corrective action? Here is a short list of specific questions I find helpful to ask of myself as a work is in progress, from conception right up to exhibition. Perhaps you might find some or all of these questions helpful to you.

Is the format I have chosen for my image, i.e. horizontal or vertical, the most appropriate for this piece? What is the relationship of the area occupied by one shape to that of the others? Is the relationship clear or implied? Does texture play a role in this image—should it? Do elements appear rough or smooth, hard or soft, flat or glossy? Do the colors harmonize or provide valuable dimension to the overall work? Are the tonal values effectively rendered? Is the work balanced? Are there effective changes in size and direction of elements, or transitional changes which add interest to the image? Are elements repeated for visual effect? Is there effective diversity or variation between colors, textures, and tones? Do one or more elements seem to govern the remaining elements helping to bring interest and focus? Does the placement of the elements coincide with the idea being expressed by the piece? Do my visual components work together to bring about a cohesive whole? Am I bringing my highest level of skill to the work? Is the creation executed in a manner which is unique to the idea expressed? Can evidence of creative thought be recognized in the piece? Does the piece intend to provoke thought or encourage passivity from my audience? Finally, has this piece brought me further along toward a deeper understanding of both the physical process at hand and of the concept(s) expressed in this particular print and the overall portfolio?

In a broader mode, do you take time to think through cohesive projects? Do you keep a record of those thoughts, building upon them, discussing them with trusted friends and associates, engaging in related research, creating smaller works to serve as guides for larger or more complicated pieces? Is questioning, learning, and dreaming an intricate part of your modus operandi?

I close once again with a noteworthy quote from Oscar Levant, a musical phenomenon whose life was cut short, in part, as a result of depression caused by cavernous wounds inflicted through imprudent critical thinking. He said, “It’s not what I am that bothers me, it’s what I failed to become that hurts.” As living beings, each of us is in the midst of personal development—growth which, I trust, is advancing in a positive direction. Will the creative work yet to come only reveal repeated, persistent failure? Is the reluctance to engage in measured self evaluation setting you and me up for future suffering, regrets, and second guessing? Or will our efforts manifest original, imaginative labor, a worthy struggle, an evolution of vision? I believe an affirmative answer to the later will require, in part, regular spoonfuls of supportive, nurturing criticism. So—here’s to your creative health and all best in the New Year!

Feel free to leave your thoughts and comments. Quick, can you think of a nine letter word for art? Join the discussion next time as we include that provocative term among the concepts addressed in this continuing prolegomenon series.


 

Blog Peter J Blackburn
A Prolegomenon for Gum Printers and Other Visual Alchemists: I Gum, But I Don’t iGum

November 30th, 2011
Peter J. Blackburn discusses the concept of sincerity in our work especially as it relates to modern technology – feel free to leave your comment.

Cin, 2010 Diptych This tricolor gum bichromate image is from a portfolio of work devoted to my enduring love-hate relationship of contemporary technology. The title serves as both an abbreviation of the phone brand (Cingular) and a play on words to convey my perplexing attitude toward cell phones in general.

 

Prolegomenon: prefatory remarks ; specif: a formal essay or critical discussion serving to introduce and interpret. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary

So help me if another person, well meaning or not, hands me a cell phone to show off some “must see” picture or “really cool” shot, I will immediately slip into a straight jacket and eternally bang my head against this tripod mounted Rolleiflex posing next to me. Seriously! Phone images, thumbnails, and all the mini marvels stored on wacky-whiz pods everywhere might enthrall the masses, but they simply leave me shivering in the cold.

Speaking of shivering, are you not aghast by all the phone apps for photography, including alternative processes? One app simply asks you to feed your digi-widget an image, press a micro button, and out cranks a cyanotype blue picture complete with brush fringe and faked imperfections. Oh, please help us all. Has the planet been commandeered by a renegade brigade inflicted with ADD?

If you are reading this essay, then you’re probably part of the alternativephotography.com community. A gathering of photographic artists who appreciate, embrace, and celebrate the SINCERITY of our processes, our materials, and select portions our photographic heritage. We tend to approach our work with honesty and integrity, where the final print is far too important—much too revered to be entirely dependent upon automatic, electronic, techno-toys. I would like to believe our work originates from the heart, not from the mindless impulse to indulge in the fads and fakeries of the moment, tempting and beguiling as they are.

For me, nothing compares to beautiful cotton paper and raw pigments combined with a deliberate rational course of action and sincere physical—analog, if you will—effort. When I see a well executed van Dyke, gum, or platinum print, I think of the time, sweat, and tears an artist spent to give life to that piece. The best prints are birthed from a dynamic conception, not merely booted from some computer desktop gadget. And when I hold that print in my hands, allowing the light to gently reflect the subtle textures and sublime tones, I am personally touched in a way which leaves all the ubiquitous iPhoto-graphs as cold, repugnant twaddle.

Does the rendering of our alternative images as electronic representations on the web equally disturb me? Well, to be honest—yes. Yes it does. We tend to equate all we see on the web as the sum total value of an image when in reality what is portrayed on our monitor is grossly inadequate. We not only lose the ever so essential tactile experience and subtle traits of an electronically rendered image, but the photograph itself has, I believe, even lost a significant measure of dignity. And yet, if it were not for this site and the treasure-trove of photographs embedded within, the span of my alternative photo knowledge would be deeply diminished. Nevertheless, if we who claim to understand and value the FINE in fine art cannot control our own fawning tendencies toward cheap web image chicanery, then how can we criticize all the blight, all the banal contraptions embedded throughout this technical free-for-all, and the vast, unwieldy visual slums splattered from one URL to the next—Facebook included? Perhaps if our monitors took more of the shape of a kitschy circus tent instead of an authoritarian rectangle, it would be a bit easier for us to keep a proper perspective—and a healthy distance.

Oscar Levant, the gifted and idiosyncratic pianist of another generation once said, “There is a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased that line.” Likewise the line between brilliance and lunacy in the frenzied world of technology is constantly morphing and moving—driving issues such as SINCERITY back to the far reaches of some cavernous garage featuring countless entrances, but few if any exits.

Whether you agree or not with my viewpoint here is not the issue. I am fully aware of the Pandora’s Box I have opened. Nevertheless, as part of this prolegomenon series, I only wish to especially encourage the beginning artist to consider the role of SINCERITY in your work. Modern technology certainly has an appropriate place, although the exact location seems to move from place to place like the little rubber ball in an elusive three-shell game. The question is will it serve you as a legitimate tool or detour you toward uncertain paths which could undermine your goals? Do you consider the results of your toil as mere “Show Time” in the tradition of P. T. Barnum or rather as a humble opportunity—a unique privilege to manifest thoughtful, creative, and SINCERE imagery which sustains or even raises the cultural and spiritual bar of your audience? Can safe harbor ever be granted to faux of any sort in alternative photography? I suspect this issue will be just one of many perpetual tensions which will try your patience and frazzle your wits. If you are to become a serious artist, then welcome the tension now and let the grappling begin.

I know others will wish to add to this discussion and so I invite my readers to join in with their own helpful insights. The next prolegomenon topic will address the value of criticism and self evaluation. See you then.


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
A Perfect Day (Except for the Clouds)

October 23rd, 2011
Nancy Breslin enjoys teaching the cyanotype process, taking a step back from the “easy” digital photos.

A print made at the Strathmore camera-less photo workshop.

I had a great day today, giving two camera-less photography workshops at Strathmore, a visual arts center in Bethesda, Maryland (just north of Washington, DC). In the morning I taught children how to make cyanotypes using paper that I had pre-coated. I let them loose on the grounds to collect plant samples, but they could also choose from flat objects I had brought along, including lace, cut paper and puzzle pieces. It was very overcast, so they had to be patient, but many of the prints came out beautifully.

Then I met with a group of adults. They began by coating their own paper with the cyanotype sensitizer (in a room lit by a string of holiday lights – I personally love the magical feel that lends to alt process work), and I gave a talk on the history of photography as the paper dried. The students then created cyanotype and lumen prints, with a choice of freshly picked leaves, lace or pressed flowers. With coating, arranging, fixing, rinsing, and drying spread over two floors of the Strathmore mansion, it was bit chaotic (but I had great help from Strathmore staff). The light was again less than ideal, but I think everyone could see the potential in these techniques, which are great for those without darkroom access who nonetheless wish to work with a non-digital photographic process.

I find teaching a joy, except for the grading, so teaching a workshop is heaven. It was very gratifying for me to see these methods so well received. As bombarded as we constantly are with fast, easy photos, taking the time to create a hand-crafted piece of photographic art is something more people should have the chance to do. I thank Holly Haliniewski of Strathmore for making today happen.

Beginners guide to cyanotypes
Blueprint to cyanotypes – Exploring a historical alternative photographic process
by Malin Fabbri and Gary Fabbri
A well illustrated step-by-step guide to cyanotypes.

A lot more information on the process, chemicals, coating, exposure, printing, making negatives, washing and troubleshooting is available in this book.

Strongly recommended for beginners

 


 

Blog Peter J Blackburn
A Prolegomenon for Gum Printers and Other Visual Alchemists: Suddenly Vertigo

October 14th, 2011
Peter J. Blackburn discusses the ongoing personal challenges some artists experience throughout the course of their career. This essay is part two of a continuing series. Your responses are appreciated!

Prolegomenon: prefatory remarks ; specif: a formal essay or critical discussion serving to introduce and interpret. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary

For the first time in my memory I did the improbable. I stopped printing. With the snap of a finger and two shakes of a lamb’s tail, I simply stopped printing. Gone went the gum and—poof—went the paper. That, my friend, was more than three months ago. There I stood washing a fairly large diptych in the sink—a monochrome pair, in fact, which is somewhat a rare occurrence in my mostly tricolor practice. As I watched the bits of unexposed black pigment detach from the paper and float down the drain, like I’ve witnessed thousands of times before, a sudden unexplainable feeling—more like a sweeping impulse, a kind of vertigo—overcame me within the course of a few moments. I simply couldn’t wait to finish the print and put it away—all away—far, far away. In a manner of speaking, I pitched all my images and materials back in the vault, swung the huge, heavy door closed, gave the combination tumbler a quick spin ‘round the dial, and walked away with a tremendous, quite audible sigh of relief.

Storm Drain Grate (diptych), Dallas, 2011. I found it amusing that ‘vertigo’ should strike during the washing of this particular gum print.

Wait. Actually, if truth be told, the experience could more accurately be described as tossing all the stuff in the back of a car trunk, releasing the handbrake, and shoving the wretched behemoth over a dark abyss. There now. That’s the picture, all right.

Are you surprised? I was. Still am. Well, sort of.

My usual custom is to break from printing during the winter when cold weather and limited UV opportunity make sun exposures uninviting. But this most recent abandonment of my practice began in July, one of four prime printing months when I usually expect to produce dozens of tricolor images each week. I have always printed each and every summer without fail. To simply lock it all up—out of sight, out of mind and forget about it all—was highly irregular and quite baffling, indeed.

Our prolegomenon series began by asking the question why. Why do you create? Your responses were thoughtful, provocative, and very much appreciated. Now, I move further along to the questions of why and how do you continue to create? How do you respond to diminished energy levels, distractions, fatigue, jaded vision, lackluster performance, jumbled ideas, creative confusion—and burnout? Will you be just as thrilled and just as fulfilled when print number ten thousand is in the wash as when you rinsed that very first one way back when? Why do you keep going? And what happens when, like me, you hit the wall—when just the mere sight of a brush, a tube of pigment, even a camera, precipitates a bout of churning nausea.

Sometimes an artist will plod along in work and activity until a complete exhaustion forces an abrupt end. Others take a long trip to other lands in a concerted effort clear their palates. And there are those who renew their strength through conversation and interaction with fellow creative colleagues on a regular basis. I know one photographer who insists on scheduling moments of silence and isolation to keep his creative energy rejuvenated.

Having no time for a breakdown, and little funds for a trip abroad, I chose to deal with my rogue inclination to cease all printing at once and until further notice by simply using the rest of the summer to enjoy other areas of interest, reading being one of them. While at the library the very next day my eye caught a display book featuring a biography of Alfred Hitchcock. A long admirer of his films, I snatched the book off the shelf along with a few pertinent movies and spent some time exploring the creative mindset and methods of this most enigmatic phantom of cinema suspense.

From Blackmail and Sabotage to Rear Window and Family Plot, I devoured one masterful piece after another. Several were viewed more than once. As a color gum printer, I am drawn to early Technicolor and love the splendid hues in Rope, Dial M for Murder, and Vertigo. Still, I gained a new appreciation of black and white though Strangers on a Train and the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. It would take little effort to peel off several quick paragraphs relating to you how the delightful imagery and thought-provoking reading knocked around new ideas in my mind, how my vision was renewed and refreshed, and how the unexpected Saboteur of my summer printing agenda actually helped to create new goals and ignite fresh energy. Oh, that Bernard Hermann could have written a score for one of my gum series as he so aptly wrote for Mr. Hitchcock. I know—keep dreaming—but, boy, what a dream!

If you are just beginning your chosen alternative process or have been working at it for quite some time, I imagine seasons of lulls, detours, and crippling shutdowns will come your way. Perhaps one is just around the corner. Do you have a Lifeboat to uphold you though those times? Sustaining a long and consistent career is no Easy Virtue. Face it, printing in chrome, platinum, iron, and silver can, in the long haul, be Murder! —both when we get into a Frenzy over frustrating process issues, and when we find the will to go on with our work challenged, even short-circuited with a sudden case of Stage Fright.

Now it is your turn. Describe some of the circumstances which have driven you to become temporarily Psycho in your career. Have you experienced dry seasons, times when you felt like giving up, occasions where you questioned going on and considered throwing in the towel to pursue other interests? What are your sources of motivation, refreshment, and encouragement when the road gets bumpy and you find yourself at a dead end?


 

Here is one of my most earliest gum prints.This was made back when the why took back seat to the how, somewhat to my detriment.
A Prolegomenon Series for Gum Printers and Other Visual Alchemists: The Enigma of Why

September 16th, 2011
Peter J. Blackburn tries to figure out why we make images. Please leave your answer at the end of the article!

Here is one of my most earliest gum prints, circa 1989.This was made back when the why took back seat to the how—I suppose somewhat to my detriment.

Prolegomenon: prefatory remarks ; specif: a formal essay or critical discussion serving to introduce and interpret. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary

Let’s begin by setting aside our brushes, clearing the worktables, and turning off each exposure lamp. Over the course of the next few blogs I wish to invite the reader to focus upon thoughts, ideas, and concepts, some of which I see as foundational blocks within our work. I speak of the kind of issues many artists grapple with during the course of an entire career. Those who began their artistic pursuits through more formal or academic means will perhaps find these blogs as old territory. However, as I peruse our web site, it is clear we are a diverse lot populated by creative whiz kids drawn here via byways, avenues, and circumstances not connected to standard academic devices. To their credit, some have never darkened the door of any photography 101 class, let alone jump through the fire hoops of an MFA. With that in mind, let us take a walk though some introductory ideas which I believe can affect the direction, quality, and purpose of our work—ideas which I have and continue to struggle with from time to time.

The first item of business I wish to broach is the pesky, ever so slick and slimy, question of WHY. Why questions have the tendency of never being satisfied with just a face value answer. Why can be a penetrating and permeating beast lingering in our minds and driving us out of them. Why can and has paralyzed many an artist who never came to grips with satisfactory answers capable of satisfying the brute. Why tries my patience. Why is so annoying. Answers, intended to forever silence all my whys, in short order can become nothing more than trite, temporary remedies—at best, painfully ambiguous and frustratingly erratic.

Lest my readers are shaking their heads in wonder as to what I am rambling about, let me ask directly—“Why do you make images?” WHY do you make images? Why do YOU make images? Why do you make IMAGES? Over the past twenty odd years of producing prints and meeting creative spirits along the way, I have raised this question with them. Answers abound. Some noble, others are in varying states of deficiency. Here is a well-rounded sampling—

• Earn money
• Thrill of competition
• Gain recognition
• Leave a legacy
• Keeps me off the street
• Impress my girlfriend
• For the challenge
• Bring enjoyment to others
• It’s my way of being emotional
• It’s cool
• A creative way to meet other people
• A creative means to avoid other people
• It is a calling; a compulsion
• I like working with my hands
• Hearing the acclaim of others
• I enjoy the aesthetic attributes of my chosen process/art form
• My form of personal therapy
• Earn acceptance from others
• To pass my elective alternative process class

So again I ask you for your answer. Why do you make images? For that matter, why do you make alternative process images? Well, what about it? Do you know the answer to those questions? Wait a moment, do you really need to know? Is it important? Will the answer or lack of an answer make a difference? Have you ever even thought of why? Does the mere thought of why tempt you to jump off a bridge? Have you banished why from your mind or do you welcome the mental discipline of knowing exactly why you produce alternative images and use that knowledge to your advantage?

Oh, I’m constantly asking the why questions. The answers are always changing, refining, and morphing. I find myself at times agonizing over why as I brush on gum layers, as I stand over my washing trays, even as I place my signature on a print. Rarely am I at true and lasting peace with any of my conclusions. I tend to always challenge my answers—to prove them. In my career, keeping the why questions constantly in focus and in a state of revision has kept me on track, sometimes kicking and screaming.

If you’re looking for answers to your why questions, I bring none. That’s not my place. Instead, I invite the reader to make comments here in reflection upon their own journey. Why do you embrace creativity through alternative processes? Is knowing why important to you?


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
Entrance through the gift shop?

July 4th, 2011
Nancy Breslin goes to Ireland and London and finds pinholes in the gallery shop rather than on the exhibition wall.

Nancy's husband, Peter Caws, photographed her during a pinhole exposure at the cafe of the National Museum of Ireland.

My husband and I just got back from a month away, mostly in Dublin and London. While some of the time was spent visiting family, we tried to squeeze in museums and galleries, particularly keeping our eyes out for interesting photography. We did see some memorable work. At a show of photo graduates from the Dublin Institute of Technology at the Gallery of Photography in Dublin, I was particularly taken with images by Ciuin Tracey and Clive O’Donohoe. At the Tate Modern in London I was introduced to Taryn Simon’s “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters” (through Nov. 6) and the Victoria & Albert Museum currently has a survey of contemporary South African photographers (through July 17). These were just a few of the shows we visited but, sad to say, the closest I came to finding any trace of pinhole or alternative process (aside from some 19th century work, such as at the “London Street Photography” show at the Museum of London, through September 4) was in museum gift shops. Buy a Holga! Or sun-print paper! One of the most entertaining shows we saw was “Watch Me Move” – an extensive (but oddly uninformative) display of animation at the Barbican in London. The shop was full of books and knick knacks related to animation. And for some reason they were selling pinhole camera kits.

I’d rather see pinhole and other alternative photography on gallery walls. We know there is lots of great work out there. But I suppose a presence in the gift shop is better than nothing.


 

Blog Peter J Blackburn
The Legend of Casein: An Epilogue

June 17th, 2011
Some concluding thoughts on casein printing and a couple of prints, too!

Read the previous post here.

Up to this point all of my casein images, including this one, have been made utilizing cottage cheese curd.

Of the many morals I could extract from my true-to-life casein fairy tale, allow me comment upon just one which can be summed up in a single word — determination. Resolving to stay true to passion and principles can make all the difference in the world. The resolve in my case was exercised on several levels. I was, and still am, resolved to exclusively use the sun for printing. My resolve kept me on the straight and narrow leading me to work though the difficulties by revisiting and improving upon a process I had previously tossed aside. I would encourage the reader to stay focused in your work, keep your eye on the goals you have set for yourself, and never allow crusty, creepy dragons to easily overtake you without a valiant fight. Let dragons be an impetus to help you advance, not surrender or even compromise!

Moving along, I imagine some have been patiently waiting to learn how to make a casein mixture for printing. Not willing to completely divulge quite yet exactly how I produce my own batches, may I instead direct the reader to Laura Blacklow’s excellent article on casein pigment printing. However, my one suggested tweak would be to replace the milk-made curd created in step one with 3 or 4 ounces of commercially made, fat-free cottage cheese. Rinse the whey (milky white liquid) from the curd. The curd is casein. Then continue with the remaining steps in her instructions.

There you have it—outlandishly easy if you ask me. Just that one modification to the milk printing instructions—using cottage cheese— went a very long way toward helping me defeat the dragon long ago. Over the years I have considerably modified those instructions further to better suit my own needs. Feel free to do the same.

And now, with your indulgence, I wish to stand on this rickety old soap box and make one last, rather sobering and a bit contemplative concluding remark.

I suspect some of my trilogy readers are wondering, “OK, why all the theatrics and drama over casein? Did you really need to fritter away three blogs on some fairy tale foolery? Come on—dragons and heroes? And what’s up with the Gershwin jazz?” Well, I must admit writing fantasy essays for a website as this does seem a bit misplaced—out of the ordinary, for sure. We’ve become so accustomed to every click of the mouse careening us from one technical, formula-packed, how-to exposition to the next, and the next, and the next. Don’t take me wrong. Building an ever rising Mount Everest of pure and applied knowledge on this city block we call alternativephotography.com is fine and dandy with me! But with each shovel-full have we become as the dingy factory portrayed in the great Chaplin film, Modern Times, mindlessly unloading one process dissertation after another, unpacking one recipe after the next oblivious to other creative genres of expression for our work? Oh please, surely not! How I long to be the Little Tramp who dares to pull the lever and stop the infernal assembly line if only to commence the ensuing mayhem and madness. Perhaps then, in due time, we might advance to the more princely task of recording intimate self discovery and articulating refreshing, innovative dialogue which celebrates our hard-earned endeavors.

Truck and Sky, 2011. Recently, I have been producing casein prints made from feta cheese. This photograph is the first one I created using fat-free feta.

Let me pose this delicate little question in another way. Are we actual flesh and blood artists equipped with an ample assortment of inventive manifestations for our work or are we merely lumbering laborers, lurkers, and lackeys who stumble by this site to peep behind the curtain and gawk at how the magicians turn their tricks? I realize those words make for a harsh admonishment, but try the shoe on for size anyway.

It’s like this. Who I am on the inside somehow filters up to the surface of my life and into my prints. Heaven forbid, if ever I had to choose between my pen and my art as the sole means of expression, art would win. That sentence tells it all. Visual art plays such an inescapable part of my identity. However, there must also be room for convictions and emotions which both encompass and expand beyond, far beyond, the nuts and bolts of our precious processes. Thankfully, both my prints and my pen can and do serve as a voice. And with my pen the trilogy—a personal trilogy—had to be written not as just another mundane paint-by-numbers rag, but as a humble, ever so human tale. Tales exude life and breath. Tales evoke visceral notions and ideas. Without tales, there is no mythos, and at best, an incomplete legacy. And besides, only dead men are regrettably doomed to tell no tales.


 

Blog Peter J Blackburn
The Legend of Casein and the Cruel Dragon: A Hero’s Welcome

May 3rd, 2011
Peter writes the conclusion to an autobiographical trilogy telling the tale of how he became acquainted with the casein process.

If you missed part 2, read it here.

Here is a fresh batch of casein suspension ready for use. Casein can be extraordinarily forgiving in both preparation and practice.

Those bewildering bedazzling thoughts pelted the gum printer one after another in rapid fire. One idea grabbed hold of the next until it dawned upon the frazzled gum printer that the dragon’s evil cruelty could soon come to an abrupt end. First, he remembered those early days when he worked his way through Langford’s chapter of five processes including those horrible milk prints. But—those prints, he remembered, were printed on a cloudy day. Although the milk prints lacked life-giving contrast and eye pleasing saturation, at least an image remained on each paper. No question about it. There was an unmistakable, fully formed image, by George, by Gershwin! By comparison, a gum print attempted on a cloudy day would have just melted off the paper and drooled down the drain. How odd that those milk-made pictures clung to its paper support for dear life. If he could only find a way to improve contrast and saturation, the determined gum printer might shatter the hindering spell of the cruel dragon.

Then he remembered the word casein. Casein means cheese. Huh? It means cheese. What? Read my lips. Literally, casein means cheese! Cheese? Did someone say cheese? Of course, photographers are always saying, “cheese,” but this time it’s for real! “So why in blazes was I told to make it from dried milk or powdered concentrate? Hmmm,” he murmured out loud. It all seemed so obtuse. “Cheese? Why not cheese? OK, cheese it is,” he blurted out with an air of surety.

The decision to use cheese led to the next insight when he remembered that most of the casein information he relied upon was based on seminal work and patent information written at the birth of the twentieth century nearly a hundred years ago! In fact, Robert Scherer’s 1906 volume, Casein: Its Preparation and Technical Utilisation, and other sources of the time provided the inquisitive gum printer with much intriguing information which remained tucked away in the back of his mind. Good information, indeed. Good, that is, for the time in which it was written! It occurred to the gum printer that civilization had come a long, long way since 1906. People back then had good reasons for making cheese from powdered milk—reasons which today are optional rather than obligatory in many parts of the world. Consumers now enjoy the benefit of modern technologies and conveniences which make possible the purchase of high quality, fat-free, grade A cheese quickly, easily, and cheaply. Cheese is everywhere—well, almost. And, come to discover, some cheeses are practically pure casein. Pure casein! Imagine—genuine casein as close as the nearest supermarket. Well, bust my buttons! Think of the possibilities!

Bada bang. Bada boom. Bada bing!

It was a mad, unstoppable dash to that beautiful kitchen refrigerator where inside sat a container of fresh, glorious cheese rich in pure white casein. Applying information he had learned from those milk prints and the useful texts he had read, the amazed gum printer soon fashioned a creamy smooth, charmingly luscious casein suspension from virtually no equipment and the simplest supplies. From the very first batch he began to create sensational prints on cloudy, lackluster days. In spite of dire threats, fire-breathing binges, and wrathful rages, the cruel dragon proved no match for crafty, clever casein! Every print was crisp and defined with excellent saturation and contrast. Each casein image appeared snappy, bold, and rich in faithful reflection of the printer’s negative and style. That those prints were exposed under grey, overcast skies meant the end of the dragon’s tyrannical mayhem! Soon, the vanquished dragon slithered back to his creepy corner in yonder hill to reconsider his foul disposition. Work could once again resume under full sun or cloudy heavens. “Hurray! Hurrah! Casein is our hero! Long live casein!” shouted the villagers who no longer had to endure the unceasing lament of the gum printer.

The rejuvenated printer now acquired a new best friend who held valuable assets capable of broadening his creative endeavors. Images could now be made on dimmer days as casein has a bit more speed and sensitivity than gum. Casein images are more robust while soaking in water, allowing for more aggressive manipulations. Casein prints can be blotted dry without fear of damage. Furthermore, when desired, by adjusting the AKD dilution ratio as a supplementary size, casein can behave just like gum in the water development stage. That is, a casein layer immersed in water can become just as soft and pliable as gum depending upon size allowing for creative techniques traditionally reserved gum printing. Oh, the advantages are plentiful, the liabilities so few! Needless to report, everyone lived happily ever after—including the rehabilitated cruel dragon. He now runs an umbrella co-op two kingdoms to the south along with his partner the big, not-so-bad-anymore wolf.

So now, if you will excuse this exhausted storyteller, there is a parade about to march down the street and I wouldn’t dream of missing it. You see today is Casein Day in our realm. All the villagers have assembled along the gum-slick, casein-coated boulevard to get a glimpse of the handsome hero and celebrate victory over the cruel dragon from days gone by. Bring on the music, start the laughter, let there be dancing in the streets! Surely there is much to celebrate. Listen! Do you hear it, too? The joyous printer is sweetly crooning a very merry tune even now. Lend an ear as he sings and dances down the wide and wondrous lane!

Printing in the sunshine and ‘neath the cloudy skies—
Nice work if you can get it, and you can get it if you try!
Just imagine someone printing from a hunk ‘o cheese,
Just imagine printing as fast as a horse’s sneeze!
Oh to work with casein,
sighing sigh after sigh . . .
Nice prints if you can make ‘em—and if you make ‘em,
Won’t–you–tell–me–how?

The End.

And continue to read the epilogue.


 

AN EPILOGUE TO FOLLOW.


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
Another Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day

May 2nd, 2011
Nancy Breslin reports from Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day 2011.

Pinhole photograph by Nancy Breslin

For the past ten years, the last Sunday in April has been Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day. Because that coincided with Easter this time, it turned into Worldwide Pinhole Photography Week. People around the world had between April 23 and May 1 to take a picture with a pinhole camera and post it at http://www.pinholeday.org/. While there is still a month to get them online, you can already see the work of over 1300 photographers, using anything from matchboxes to high end digital cameras (with pinhole body caps). I just took a quick look at ALL of the work so far, and it is an amazingly varied collection. There are pieces by students and workshop participants who are taking their very first pinhole photos, and also images by professional artists. The majority are in black and white, captured on film or photo paper, usually inverted but sometimes presented as a negative (or a diptych of positive and negative). At least two are in 3-D (#255 from UK and #1283 from USA). There seem to be lots of people on porches and an unexpected number of stuffed animals. Boats, cameras, children (sometimes unusally still as in #92 from Australia, or caught in movement as in #869 from USA), city scapes, landscapes… there’s a little of everything. You’ll see some great color: a patchwork wall (#1279 from Thailand) and a pink toilet (#1533 from Hong Kong) or a single pear (#588 from the USA). Memorable black and white shots include sneakers (#1463 from USA), a giant fork (#552 from USA) and a skull ring (#434 from Brazil). Not surprisingly there are beautiful spring flowers, such as a sea of tulips (#232 from USA), a distorted arrangement in a vase (#203 from Japan), and a single tulip bowing to the ground (#1383 from USA). One of my favorites is a self-portrait of Therese Brown and a babka (#840).

I myself ventured out first thing on Sunday morning in my bathrobe, and photographed blossoms in our apple tree (#1328). We were expecting rain and I didn’t want to miss my chance.


 

Blog Peter J Blackburn
The Legend of Casein and the Cruel Dragon: In the Grips of the Beast

April 6th, 2011
The plot thickens as Peter continues his dramatic trilogy describing how casein became his superhero to the rescue!

If you missed part 1, read it here.

Dreary, overcast skies—the Cruel Dragon for printers who rely upon the sun for UV exposure.

Life in the gum kingdom was for years a haven of creative bliss for the productive bichromate printer. After much research and experimentation, he had settled upon potassium dichromate, AKD enriched Fabriano papers, and an assortment of pigments capable of creating a wide range of tones and hues. And best of all, he could use the sun— that magnificent, cost-free, spirit-lifting sun! The sun shone almost every day in the happy gum kingdom. When rain finally did arrive, the necessary showers didn’t last very long. During those brief rainy moments the exhausted printer could take a well-earned break to photograph in the studio and prepare negatives in the darkroom or on the computer. Soon the fiery sun would return and all could hear the cheerful printer humming the old standard, “Blue skies smiling at me. Nothing but blue skies do I see…” Make no mistake; the gum production workflow became a well-planned cycle of image capture, preparation, and printing, with the sun playing an irreplaceable roll.

Then suddenly and quite oddly, in the middle of summer no less, the skies quickly grew black with enormous clouds filled with thunder-clapping rain as far as the eye could see. The worried printer could hear the villagers scurry by his studio window screaming hysterically and weeping, “The dragon! It’s the dragon! The cruel dragon is upon us all! Run for your lives!” Immediately, the terrified printer looked up and saw an angry, dragon-shaped sky and heard the deafening deluge of rain pounding on his rooftop. “The dragon? What dragon? Surely this won’t last very long. It never does,” he consoled himself. “The sun’ll come out tomorrow; I’ll bet my bottom dollar that tomorrow there’ll be sun! After all, my kingdom is part of the great and sunny state of Texas!” he confidently assured himself as he soundly drifted off in slumber.

Indeed, the next day came, but with it, so did the pouring rain. And it rained, and it rained, and it rained some more. When it wasn’t raining, the skies were filled with ominous clouds and misty damp permeated the air. Even the quality of light became miserably dreary. “Oh, surely this must be the work of that cruel dragon all right! Never have I seen anything like this—never,” said the discouraged printer on the telephone to a sympathetic friend. Of course, the gum printer tried to keep busy as best he could. There were always negatives to pin register, paper to shrink, and prints to catalog. But oh, how he longed to gum print under delightfully cheerful sunny skies.

But sunny skies were not to return. No, not for quite some time. To everyone’s horror, that cruel dragon was relentless! One cloudy day blurred into the next. One overcast week multiplied into two. Out of frustration, the impatient printer tried in vain to make gun images on cloudy days. But when it came time to soak the prints during processing, each and every underexposed gum layer just slithered off the paper and down the gum slick drain! Oh, how dreadful! How costly, too! Throughout the kingdom all could hear his wailing and pleading, his moaning and lamenting, his absolute delirium! No longer was he content to pass the time making image preparations. He simply had to gum print and the sooner the better!

As the sunless, blue-less skies lingered through the month and into the next, the now cross-eyed and unshaven gum printer began to see fuzzy mirages of those ever so precise, ever so sparkling, ever so shiny commercially made UV lamps. How convenient! How reliable, and always at the ready, too! One by one they danced and twitched before his eyes along the ceiling of his workroom as if part of a never ending circus parade. “No. No, it can’t come to that,” he stammered as sweat poured down his brow. “Where are you sun? I need you now! What has become of you? Will the grip of this loathsome beast forever imprison you?” It was then he began to realize the titanic desperation of his dilemma. Day after day, week after week, he had not a single gum print to show. The mountainous backlog of color-separated negatives waiting to be printed grew larger by the day. How much longer could he endure the deprivation? Gum printing in the kingdom was at a complete standstill with seemingly no remedy and little hope. Never had he experienced such utter despair.

Then one murky afternoon as the bewildered gum printer slouched against the backyard fence contemplating his ignominious fate, a series of thoughts occurred as like a blinding flash from a Vivitar 283 in full power! “Of course, of course!” he shrieked and immediately dashed into the house, down the hallway, straight for kitchen where in the corner stood that big, beautiful General Electric refrigerator! Might it be that something inside possessed the magic key which could unlock the grip of the cruel and wicked dragon? There was not precious minute to lose!

TO BE CONTINUED.


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
AIPAD Shows in NYC

March 19th, 2011
Nancy Breslin reports from the AIPAD shows where she found more than a few gems.

AIPAD show 2011I spent several happy hours on March 18 at the Park Avenue Armory in NYC, attending the AIPAD shows. The Association of International Photography Art Dealers brought 70 top flight galleries together under one roof. Talk about being in a candy store!

Work ranged from a Fox Talbott photogenic drawing and vintage daguerreotypes to contemporary work (Starn twins, Cindy Sherman), with many of the usual suspects in between (Brassai, Weston, Cartier-Bresson, Kertesz, Atget…). As expected, I was particulary drawn to alternative work, and there was plenty. Dan Burkholder had some stunning platinum and palladium prints over gold leaf, both urban scenes and isolated stands of trees. Cy DeCosse had lovely large prints of fruit and flowers in platinum and in gum, and the same gallery also featured Joy Goldkind’s bromoil figure studies. I had not seen Abelardo Morell’s new tent camera work before, where landscapes appear on pebbles or tiles or whatever ground is under the tent, and are then captured photographically. One wants to linger over each of these huge prints, feeling the pull of inside and outside.

Apart from the work of Anna Atkins, I haven’t come across many beautiful 19th century cyanotypes: the process seemed to be used mostly for proofing or by amateurs. So it was interesting to see the landscape work of Henry P. Bosse from the 1880′s and 1890′s.

Aipad workSeveral other artists were also new to me. Susan Burnstine had prints from homemade cameras (with homemade lenses): charmingly distorted cityscapes. There was a display of 20 or so ambrotypes on black glass by Myra Greene , from her “Character Recognition” series, a powerful comment on race, beauty and lingering stereotypes. Carrolle Benitah has a striking approach to family portraits. She enlarges old snapshots and works them with thread and beads, in ways that elicit thoughts of sex and violence from these otherwise benign-appearing images.

In addition to the alternative work, I was most taken with several photographers working with children. While there are exceptions (such as the work of Loretta Lux) I usually find photographs of children (and pets) cloying. Several artists at the AIPAD show won me over. One was Cig Harvey, whose isolated children all look somehow worried and tentative. Julie Blackmon’s small subjects are sometimes alone and sometimes have adults around, but the focus is on the children. All feature beautiful lighting and composition and more than a little chaos. It reminds me of Crewdson’s work, but more personal. I was also glad to again come across Trine Sondergaard’s window-lit portraits of girls in traditional Danish headwear.

It was my first AIPAD visit in several years – I should try to make it annually.


 

Blog Peter J Blackburn
The Legend of Casein and the Cruel Dragon: Dark Horizons

March 14th, 2011

 

Peter J. Blackburn begins a dramatic and autobiographical trilogy telling the tale of how the casein process came to his rescue!

Writers note: The following blog entry is the first episode in a trilogy written as a dramatic adventure tale – a true fairy tale, if you will. May this account be both entertaining and informative in your endeavors. I suspect there will be a moral or two at the end which may serve as bit of encouragement regardless of your chosen alternative process. Enjoy!

Here is the very last gum print produced before the coming of the great calamity. Image title: Four Fruits

Once upon a time in a hot and sunny land, when George Michael ruled the airwaves, there lived a fellow who enjoyed creating photographs. So much, in fact, that he decided to attend a little college nearby to acquire more knowledge of his camera, his negatives, and his prints. One day his whole world was turned upside down as he chanced upon a delightful little chapter in the book Darkroom Handbook by Michael Langford. There, beginning on page 316, were extraordinary pictures and informative text describing five astounding ways to make prints using basic equipment, a few chemicals, and a variety of elegant papers.

Gum bichromate, Van Dyke brown, milk (casein) prints, cyanotype, and Kallitypes were each described in beautiful simplicity. So excited was the aspiring student that he began at once to explore each process in turn, starting with gum and finishing with the silver-based Kallitype. After months of experimentation, he had accomplished much work and produced a variety of images which amazed his friends and spellbound his teachers. The dynamic blues of the cyanotypes complimented the intense browns of each Van Dyke. Many of the Kallitypes printed with fine detail and included dense, eye-pleasing blacks. Dazzling they were, one and all. The gum prints? Oh, the gum prints were truly his most favorite work. Several of those early pieces still hang on the walls of his humble apartment studio. It is no overstatement to report that gum printing would become his dedicated passion, a deeply beloved artistic endeavor. But what about the milk prints? Oh yes, those milk prints—those awful milk prints. What a pity, really—and so heartbreaking, too.

Of the five processes, the milk (casein) prints were a complete disappointment. So disappointing in fact, that the hasty printer only experimented with milks prints for one single day—a rather cloudy day as he recalls. Weak were the colors and staining was beyond intolerable. Not a single print was kept. Yuck. He chalked it up to the rather sorry looking slurry-like muck created by sorting casein from powdered milk. “Quite quirky,” he noted in his printing diary. So out went the casein and in came the gum. With complete abandon, the discerning printer chose gum bichromate as the means best suited to further his goal of creating bright, vibrant images in either color or black and white. Without delay, off he went down the gum slick road, not realizing the countless problems and snaring pitfalls which lay ahead. There was even some whispering in the village of a cruel dragon which lurked just out of sight beyond the far horizon.

Pitfalls? My, there were so many. For starters, reliable and consistent information was hard to come by. The Langford book was a great start, but the inquisitive printer yearned for more knowledge. Books on alternative processes in the late 1980s were few and far between. More importantly they contradicted each other on many key points. There was so much to sort through, and persnickety questions kept piling sky high. Potassium or ammonium bichromate? What ratio? The sun or UV lamps? Formalin? Nasty stuff. Spray starch? Arrowroot? Rives BFK, Lana, or Arches? What about humidity? What about all of the workflow details required for creating color separated negatives in the darkroom? Oh, the headaches! Send out for Tylenol! Eventually the frustrated printer declared most of the so-called instructional books and process guides derelict and proceeded to continue down the gum slick road one step at a time, depending only upon his own intuitive compass, careful testing, and loads of determination.

His intuition immediately preached a mantra, gently at first and then later as a loud drum. Unavoidable was the endless chant. “The sun. The sun. My boy, use the sun.” From almost the very first step down the gum slick road, the principled printer used the sun to expose each and every gum image. Many of his forefathers did and so would he. Still, there was that persistent, eerie rumor in the village of a cruel dragon creeping about creating mischief and mayhem in other parts of the kingdom. He wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Through gossip and daily chatter he surmised there was a repulsive creature abiding yonder which possessed some mystical control over the sun, the clouds, even the sky, or some such nonsense. The carefree gum printer decided he would pay no mind to that kind of idle talk. Instead, he merrily strolled down the glistening gum slick road singing and dancing to his favorite Gershwinesque ditty. “I got paper. I got pigment. I got ‘chromate—who could ask for anything more—who could ask for anything more?”

Much to his great pleasure, the now joyful gum printer made slow but steady progress over the years along the gum slick road producing dozens of portfolios and even having work accepted by a major gallery. Despite the occasional frustrations common among gum printers, all was splendid, marvelous, and even wonderful until one day without warning, like a brakeless freight train careening out of control, the unthinkable, unbelievable—unimaginable happened. And happen it did with an unrelenting vengeance of catastrophic proportions.

TO BE CONTINUED!


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
An app for that… while a darkroom survives

February 23rd, 2011
Nancy Brelin continues Peter J. Blackburn’s discussion on the disappearance of the traditional darkroom.

Nancy Breslin on DarkroomsI got my first smart phone a month ago. Of course I checked out the apps right away. I love having BBC news at my fingertips, and Sudoku and Angry Birds are great for when I find myself waiting somewhere without a book to read.

But I’m really loving the Retro Camera app. I can use my phone to take pictures which resemble Polaroids, pinhole shots on 35 mm film, and even gum prints. Even the regular camera on my phone (I have a Samsung Captivate) has a “vintage” setting which vignettes the shots. But the Retro app is particularly fun. I spin through a choice of cameras, pick one, take the picture, and then (after a delay during which I see the door to a darkroom) the image shows up on a clothesline! Of course any image can then be on flickr in seconds.

This is not, however, causing me to abandon “wet” photography. I’m teaching alternative processes at the University of Delaware this semester. My class is starting with pinhole cameras (one group of students chose to blow up balloons and cover them with paper-mache – I was skeptical, but their cameras are functional!). We’ll move on to cyanotype and VDB, toy (film) cameras and gum dichromate (carefully saving the initial soak water from the sewer system). UD has downsized its darkroom program, but is still offering black and white printing and alternative processes in a newly renovated space. I don’t think any digital print can compare as an object to a gum print done on 300 lb paper, and silver gelatin should at least be explained to every beginning photo student (light sensitive silver molecules seem more intuitive, to me at least, than digitized voltage). My other class is a (digital) introduction to photography and video, and those students will also have a taste of “old school” photo with the option of using Holgas for one assignment, and another project which loosely incorporates cyanotype and video.

Nancy Breslins Christening DressWill the Retro Camera apps of the world turn people off or on to film and older techniques? I’d like to think they will help keep these approaches alive. About half of the students in one of my classes already own a toy camera, so they are presumably seeing and being attracted to the unique look of these tools (thanks, Urban Outfitters!). Just as Pictorialism was a reaction to the conservative camera club mentality of a century ago, the growing popularity of alternative/pinhole/toy camera photography (and the experimental and chance aspects of the same) makes sense as a response to the increasing ease of creating what are often banal but technically sound images with digital cameras (with their sophisticated image stabilization, evaluative metering, auto white balance, etc.). As millions (billions?) of people work digitally, the few, the brave, the curious will still find a better creative outlet in film and hand coated papers. I hope some of my students will join their ranks.


 

Blog Peter J Blackburn
Film, Darkrooms, and Analog: My Open Questions to Academia

February 1st, 2011
Peter asks: Why are the academics are removing the darkrooms from education and replacing them with digital technology?

A vibrant darkroom once thrived behind this door. I went through it on many occasions. Today it just leads to another very ordinary classroom.

Listen. It’s quiet now. Strangely quiet. All the commotion and noise have finally ceased. Mercifully, all of the glass shattering, all the bottle smashing, and all the debris shoveling have stopped. The bulldozers have merrily chugged back to their government road work, none the worse for wear.

Look. Look around you. Do you see? All gone. They’re all gone. Every last one. Sadly, regretfully, every-last-darkroom.

In continuation from my previous blog, I wish to voice a nagging question or two to my all-wise, much respected colleagues in the academic fine arts arena, cordial questions among friends mind you, but much to the point. Here’s one that readily comes to my mind. Why, oh why, was there such a determined, resounding, unstoppable surge by so many educational facilities to swiftly pull the plug on every film enlarger, drain each and every print tray, and trash every last developing tank just because digital technology became the primary delivery system for photographic imagery? And here’s another one. What prevailing wisdom believed it was a good idea to gather up every last roll of film with all the accompanying workflow and summarily jettison photography’s most recent link to its illustrious past from virtually every classroom like a spent booster stage of an aborted rocket?

Some exclaim with noble intention,

“Look, son. Look at the money we save by not buying nasty chemicals, unwieldy film, and cumbersome equipment.”

Others stretch out their arms and point like some haunting ghost of photography future. “Face it,” they warn. “We’ve latched onto the DSLR, 64 gigabyte memory cards, and stylish media presenters now, kid. Jiminy, we’re up to CS5 already! Film? What are you, nuts?” Still others eloquently pontificate in a manner quite like Mr. Poe at Briny Beach.* “Children, through a very unfortunate event we cannot support two systems—analog and digital. That one simply had to go.” For some inspired, or rather, insidious reason, it wasn’t enough for silver analog to head to the back of the bus—it had to get off the bus! Not at the next stop, mind you, but right here. Right smack in the middle of the road, in the dark of night, in the pouring rain.

Oh, I’ve heard the reasons, most of the alibis and every petty excuse. Perhaps some reading this essay might wish to add their own reasoned rationalization to the ever growing laundry pile. If you don’t mind, just open the door and let in the crickets. I’d much rather listen to them scatter and chirp on the floor of this barren and forsaken darkroom.

You see, since its beginning film had the inherited burden of being all things to all people. Shoot that portrait! Film that birthday! Grab that sunset! Capture that riot! Record that family outing! Snap that circus clown! Document that war! Frame that building fire! Get that picture of the kid holding a grenade! Oh, and while you’re at it, photograph that exquisite, ever so elegant drop of water coming out of that faucet. The blending and blurring of art and commercial, of utility and the sublime, of the pretty and the pretty awful was, and still is, an irreconcilable tension in this complicatedly simple medium we call photography. Except now that dubious double-duty, that multi-headed albatross sits squarely in the lap of digital capture. Hurrah! The gigabyte gadgets can now assume all the headaches and heartbreaks of everyone’s whims and wipe each and every runny nose as it strangely morphs from dedicated camera to the ubiquitous cell phone to who knows what. How funny. It’s become the digital world’s turn to run away and find itself—you know, hitch a ride on a freight train and live off the land to develop some character instead of just being one. It’s well past time to get away and reconsider your identity while in the process develop a smattering of modest manners. A healthy measure of gentle humility wouldn’t hurt, either. Anyway, have a nice trip and send us a tweet once in awhile.

My dear Watson, film has been there, done that—oh, has it ever done that— and wears the well-earned and much tattered T-shirt. Ironically, instead of being in a prime position to further grow and mature as an art form much as painting has continued to do so ever since it was pronounced dead at the dawn of the Daguerreotype, silver analog has found itself briskly swept out the classroom door as if it were one of those confounded crickets. Brilliant, just brilliant!

For the love of Rodinal, just why has analog been dropped and left behind in many a campus so quickly, to be forever forgotten? But will it be forgotten? Can it be left behind without so much as a second thought? Amazingly for the very first time in its history, film, our newly accepted member in what we embrace as alternative techniques, can today explore a wide and rich world unhindered and unencumbered by the evil albatross. That the digital Stephano (he is an Italian man*) has long since fled out the door yanking the screaming masses with him, the resourceful Klauses, inventive Violets, and visionary Montgomery Montgomerys of this world, of which I dare say there are thousands, can peacefully have at it, continuing to enjoy the tactile pleasures of film and bring the unique aesthetic worth of silver processes to new levels of thought and imagination, rightfully standing them alongside the likes of clay, canvas, and yes, the computer. If it happens, most likely academia will not be the one to thank. Rather, it will probably be accomplished in spite of—not because of the university. It will be a tribute primarily to web sites such as this and dedicated artists around the world who appreciate and understand what analog in all of its forms can continue to bring to educational instruction and visual expression.

Already, the creative wheels are smoothly turning in fascinating directions for analog virtuosos and hybrid aficionados. As for the future, may the doors of the bright yellow bus someday open wide to them, and to us all, once again.

*Reference from the 2004 Paramount motion picture, A Series of Unfortunate Events, starring Jim Carey.


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
The lives of struggling artists

December 27th, 2010
Nancy Breslin’s take on Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids and her time with Robert Mapplethorpe.

I recently finished Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids. Its focus is the years she spent as Robert Mapplethorpe’s partner and then friend, from their late teens until his death in 1989. While the book is maddening in its lack of introspection, it is nonetheless fascinating to follow these two people through their struggles to survive as artists.

My familiarity with the pair was with Smith as a rocker and Mapplethorpe as a photographer, but she drew and wrote poetry and he made jewelry and created collages during their years as unknowns. Their drive was proven by their toleration of cold apartments and sparse meals. Success came through networking (time living at the Chelsea hotel helped tremendously, as did their push into Warhol’s outer circle) and by changing tacks: from collage to Polaroid for Mapplethorpe, from poetry to poetry + music for Smith. They moved apart as Mapplethorpe recognized his homosexuality and as they hit the big time, with Smith traveling with her band and Mapplethorpe moving in higher art circles, but they remained important friends and allies. Their climb makes fascinating reading, but it also made me think of the many talented people who similarly struggle without a similar outcome. Our society has tracks for commercial artists and art teachers, but future fine artists largely fend for themselves.

Now I’ve started Steve Martin’s An Object of Beauty, a novel that is also set in the New York art world, but mostly at the glossy and cut-throat upper end. It will be an interesting contrast.


 

Blog Peter J Blackburn
What I Owe to Analog

November 2nd, 2010
Peter J. Blackburn reflects on the darkroom work he has done over the years and how a manual opened his world to alt. proc.

A CMYK gum print made entirely through analog means.

As I reflect on all the gum and casein work I’ve produced over the years, of the many contributing factors guiding me down this long and winding road, one stands out quite prominently—my analog training. For starters, it was a darkroom manual which first opened my eyes to the world of alternative and historical processes more than twenty years ago. That manual, by placing alternative work at the end of the book after first laying a thorough foundation of disciplined, fundamental darkroom practice, fostered a mindset within me to approach alternative work, specifically gum and casein printing, with the same rigor, order, and perspective. From exposure to processing and much more, what I learned from traditional silver processes set my footing sure for chrome work with gum and casein. If anything, my analog experience trained me to treat dichromate prints for what they are—literal photographs. As such they are, in my view, subject to much of the same praxis and critical handling as any other photograph requiring considerable manual labor. That orientation, I believe, has served me well over the years.

Too be sure, virtually nothing is quick or relatively convenient in much of analog photo capture and subsequent darkroom processing. Loading film, filling developing tanks, mixing chemistry, and washing prints all require large sums of time and attention. What a coincidence—gum and casein work require those same commodities, too! So do most other alternative processes for that matter. Tasks as those reinforce the three vital virtues of the well adjusted printer: patience, endurance, and persistence.

Analog screams for consistency. Analog evokes tactile precision and on occasion, intuitive judgment—all of which are valuable, essential carryover skills ready for indubitable application in the world of historical photographic processes. One couldn’t ask for a more qualified taskmaster, trainer, or drill sergeant than analog! Furthermore, I still to this day sometimes prefer creating analog negatives for certain images in my personal work. While I loudly applaud much of what digital has brought to my creative table, I will respectfully reserve the standing ovation and medal of honor for my longtime analog mentor, without whom I most certainly would not be here as a printer.


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
Pictorialists Then and Now

October 29th, 2010
Nancy Breslin goes to the Phillips Collection to see “TruthBeauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art, 1845–1945″.

Kasebier BlessedTwo weeks ago I saw a lovely show at the Phillips Collection in
Washington, DC. TruthBeauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as
Art, 1845–1945 is a large show that begins with the work of some
pre-pictorialists (e.g. Julia Margaret Cameron), moves through
the work of the pictorialists themselves (Coburn, Kasebier,
White) and ends, after Stieglitz embraces modernism, with images
by those such as Outerbridge who were trained by or influenced by
the Secessionist artists yet worked in the sharper, tighter,
modernist mode. It is a great show for those with an
appreciation for what we now call “alternative process,” since
processes such as platinum and gum were major tools at the time.
Of particular interest may be several examples of the same
negative printed using different processes. A smaller, partnered
exhibit is Coburn and the Photographic Portfolio. Both shows run
through January 9th, and more information on the museum is at

http://www.phillipscollection.org.

An interesting tie-in to the exhibit is a competition that the
Phillips is running, called InstaVintage, in conjunction with ReadysetDC. The “challenge” is to use your phone to take a picture in DC and then to transform it, using a phone photo app, into a pictorialist image. The deadline is 9 am on November 4. See http://readysetdc.com/instavintage/ for details.

I suspect that Kasebier would be charmed by the idea, but that Stieglitz would roll over in his grave.


 

Blog Elizabeth Graves
Impossible Project Silver Shade Film: so very temperature sensitive

September 26th, 2010
The Impossible Project (the IP) has been releasing their re-engineered integral films for use in Polaroid cameras this year, and before trying out any manipulations or lifts, Elizabeth took two versions of their monochrome film for a test drive in a Polaroid 600 camera to view their unique characteristics.

PX600 First Flush (exposed cool)

PX 600 First Flush is an early version of the IP’s experimental monochrome (sepia) film which produces cool tones if exposed while cold, and warmer tones if exposed while warm. Here is a sample of images taken within 20 minutes of the film’s removal from the refrigerator, with the top images taken when the film was cold, and the lower right taken as it thawed.

First Flush images are not considered to be stable, and come with strict storage instructions. I shot these recently, and have not yet observed how they will age.


Samples of PX600 affected by hot weather

Samples of PX600 affected by hot weather

A later edition of PX 600 film arrived during a May heat wave of about 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 C). All of the warnings about the temperature sensitivity of this media proved immediately true: the first images I took were nearly illegible squares of solid orange-brown. I put the remaining two packages of film into the refrigerator, and decided to try again in July. The initial heat impact proved to be permanent: the images shot on a cool, partly cloudy day were orange-brown and lacked any dark tones, which limited its contrast:

The heat-impacted images also proved unstable: here is what they look like now:

PX600 faded after storage in a box

Heat-affected PX600 8 weeks later

The Impossible Project’s new monochrome Silver Shade integral film has a great deal of potential, and can make some lovely images: the temperature requirements of early versions of the film and its lack of long-term stability are challenging, and may be impractical for some users.

The IP is coming out with new versions regularly, each with a slightly new composition: keep in mind that this media remains experimental, and choose the experiments you choose to use on it with this in mind.


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
Food/Art in Los Angeles

August 5th, 2010
Nancy Breslin takes a trip to LA to eat and see some art.

I just got back from a trip to Los Angeles. We spent some time seeing friends and shopping (my 18 year old daughter was with us), taking pictures (I shot 6 rolls each with my Zero 2000 pinhole camera and my Diana+), but also managed to see some art. I assume it was a coincidence that two big venues had food related shows. The Getty Center (fabulous buildings, landscaping, views…) had two photo exhibits, one called Tasteful Pictures. Some memorable images were of peas in a pod by Edward Quigley (1935), bagels on Second Avenue by Weegee (1940), and a c-print of the food contraband room at a US Customs and Border Patrol office by Taryn Simon (2005) – featuring massive piles of fruits, sausages, and what looked like a pig’s head. However, I was most interested in a huge print by Floris Neusüss, titled “Supper for Robert Heinecken.” Neusüss used two large sheets of silver gelatin auto reverse paper as a tablecloth in a room lit by safelight, and then a meal was served and eaten at the table. We see shadows of plates, silverware, spilled sauces, the occasional resting hand. Here the artist is documenting a meal over time as I do, but with completely different results. It is an image that one can linger over. Some work from this show, and more information about the Neusüss piece, can be found at http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/focus_tasteful_pictures/.

The other photography show at the Getty Center right now is “Engaged Observers, Documentary Photography since the Sixties”, featuring some quite chilling work, particularly images from the Vietnam war by Philip Jones Griffiths and a huge grid of shots taken in military hospitals in Iraq by James Nachtwey.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (“lack-muh,” as we learned it is called), has a small show called Eatlacma, which features prints, paintings, photos and one video, all involving fruit. The work (including the crazy wallpaper over which it is installed) can be seen at http://eatlacma.org/exhibition/. The most unusual piece (in my book) is interesting in part because it isn’t immediately obvious why it is in a fruit-themed show. The image is a faded two color print of the famous Hollywood sign, and one must lift a protective cloth to view it. The work, by Edward Ruscha, is titled “Fruit Metrecal Hollywood” and was made in 1971 by screen printing with mixtures of apricot or grape jam and Metrecal, a diet-aide powder. Sounds like something alt photo folks would think of if they turned to screen printing.


 

Blog Peter J Blackburn
Spectacular Platinum/ Palladium Work in the Dallas/Ft. Worth Area

July 23rd, 2010
Alternative printers, especially those working in platinum/palladium, living in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area can view some spectacular work by photographer, Michael Massaia.

Alternative printers, especially those working in platinum/palladium, living in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area can view some spectacular work by photographer, Michael Massaia. On exhibition at least through the end of the month at Afterimage, Michael has almost three dozen fairly large pieces portraying vistas from Central Park, Chinatown, and an amusement park. Printed on Bergger Cot 320, Michael has rendered each scene in a stark, highly detailed, ethereal style. Most notable on several prints is what appears to be a burning and dodging technique which helps lend an unusual, misty glow. Absent from each scene are people and motion which only intensifies the mystery and intrigue. As a New Jersey raised fellow, I was especially drawn to the seaside boardwalk prints as they brought back memories of my many childhood trips to the shore. Ah, but Michael has taken those familiar places and reshaped them into venues of an other worldly nature, one that would make Rod Sterling or Alfred Hitchcock proud.

This link will take you the Afterimage site where you can preview Michael’s work, find the gallery business hours, and get directions: http://www.afterimage.com/massaia.htm. While you’re visiting, take some time to see other alternative/historical process work from hand-colored Polaroids, to tintype, to tricolor gum bichromate. Ben Breard, the gallery owner and director, will be happy to meet you and answer any inquiries. I cannot speak highly enough of Ben’s warm spirit, good nature, and thorough expertise. So take an opportunity to see Michael’s work and more—I guarantee you will not be disappointed!


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
A worldwide community

July 19th, 2010
In theory alternative photography is “low tech,” although one thing I like about it is the fluidity between high and low.

I might shoot on film with a plastic camera, then scan the negative so I can create an enlarged digital negative, then print in gum over cyanotype. Whatever works.

The internet has an important role in the alternative world. One great example is this website (thanks, Malin!). There are also YouTube tutorials (some better, some worse), artist websites, and the ease of finding and purchasing our unusual materials. Perhaps most helpful to me is the way the internet brings the far-flung community of alternative artists together. My first experience with this was when I joined fotolog in 2003. At the time it only had about 10,000 members, mostly in the US. I began posting from my “Squaremeals” series (pinhole images of my restaurant meals) and it wasn’t long before I began hearing from other pinhole artists, and discovering pinhole work by others. As fotolog grew I found that I was regularly sharing work with artists in New York and Hong Kong and Brazil and England. That would have been inconceivable a few years earlier.

Soon fotolog evolved into something else (it is now more about teen socializing than photo sharing). While I still post there regularly (over 1000 of my pinhole meals can be seen at www.fotolog.com/squaremeals) I found that many of my fotolog friends had migrated to flickr, so I post there as well (www.flickr/com/photos/squaremeals). What a wealth of alternative work is there! I just searched flickr for “gum print” and got over 2000 hits – a wide range of beautiful stuff. Similar results for “polaroid lift” or “platinum print” or “pinhole print” (“pinhole” alone yields an astounding 175,000 hits, but includes lots of pictures of pinhole cameras). I have been introduced to artists from around the world, most of whom would have been completely under the radar for me before the internet. One could easily spend hour upon hour drifting between images, following leads through interesting comments or the chosen favorites of a talented photographer. Inspiration galore.

The virtual world of the internet can also lead to “real” connections, as I discovered through my involvement with the f295 forum, which started online but has now had several alternative conferences and symposia. I’ve attended f295 meetings in Pittsburgh and New York where I was able to meet online contacts, see and discuss actual prints, and take workshops.

Alternative photographers may be thin on the ground, but it’s much less lonely when you can have colleagues, critics, mentors and students located anywhere and everywhere.


 

Open Blog Scott Wittenburg
Polaroid SX-70 revisited

July 8th, 2010
For those of you like myself who have enjoyed the Polaroid alternative processes over the years there is some good news and some bad news.

Gas Pump SX-70 PolaroidThe good news, in case you haven’t already heard, is that The Impossible Project (the-impossible-project.com) launched a comeback of Polaroid film earlier this year. Thanks to their efforts, you can purchase re-packaged SX-70 color film for manipulations and Polaroid 669 for image transfers and emulsion lifts. The bad news is that their stock of these films won’t be around much longer. And from what I have gleaned at their website, once this old stuff is gone, it won’t be available again.

So now you are probably asking yourself, what’s going on here? Well, the answer is actually some more good news. The Impossible Project has created several alternative films that work in many of the old Polaroid cameras, camera backs and slide printers—they even offer a Polaroid film back to fit the Holga camera that accepts type 100 peel-apart films. (The original Holga backs became virtually useless about as soon as they were manufactured after the film that fit them was dropped from Polaroid’s swiftly shrinking list of available instant films.)

You can get some interesting results using these new alternative films if you’re willing to take a chance and experiment a bit. For example, they offer a brand new monochromatic film for either an SX-70 or 600 cameras. Their pitch for this film is “PX Silver Shade Film is experimental material that will produce changing results depending on light conditions and temperature.” This is followed by a prompt to view a sample gallery of shots taken with the quirky black and white film plus a link for a downloadable user manual on how to use it.

Fade to black compositeA while back they also offered another “new” film that fits SX-70 cameras called “Fade To Black,” which is currently out of stock but may return. I have experimented with this film with less than spectacular results (see photo sequence.) The properties sounded interesting: after you expose it, it changes colors as it develops then becomes totally black within twenty-four hours. The idea is to peel off the backing once the film has turned the color you want to preserve and then it will remain that color. You can also place the totally developed black print in the “bright sun for two weeks” and the image will actually reappear! (I am currently trying this out and will let you know how that turns out.)

Some other choices of “new” instant films include “Chocolate,” “Sepia,” and “Blue,” which fit any type 100 camera or camera backs that accept 669 film. There are even several different choices of film that fit the old Spectra cameras.

So although I’m bummed that the classic Polaroid instant films are apparently going to be kaput yet again, I’m nevertheless fairly psyched at the prospect of trying the new stuff that’s out there for the trying. After all, something is better than nothing, right? And who knows, maybe Polaroid alternative processes will re-invent themselves if given a chance. Time will tell. Stay tuned to this blog and I’ll let you know of any new developments from The Impossible Project as they occur.


 

Blog Peter J Blackburn
Too Dark, Use Flash. Part 2 of 2

June 22nd, 2010
Speaking of flashes expelling the darkness, allow me to suggest two convenient opportunities for getting those questions answered and issues resolved while connecting with fellow artists along the way.

First, if you take a careful look at the gallery pages and the informative articles posted on this site, most likely you will find somewhere on the screen an email address or a website link which will connect you to the artist. Go ahead—send a message, ask a question, make a comment, lend an encouraging word, express your thoughts, flash some light. Don’t be shy, but do be polite. I think you’ll find that although many of us are tenacious in our ways holding firm convictions about our work, we can also be gracious and eager in extending a helping hand or talking a bit of shop with fellow printers around the globe.

A second venue where helpful discussion can be initiated is in the AlternativePhotography Forum. I admit, I am not a forum or chat room enthusiast, preferring the more personal option of my first suggestion. However, I’ll wager a denarius there are more than a few printers within this audience who might greatly benefit from the chat forum. Asking and answering questions, guiding a beginner through a new process, announcing an upcoming exhibition or competition are all part of the give and take in the chat forum.

There you have it—two ways to further maximize the use of AlternativePhotography.com. May flashing the light of our knowledge, experience, and work, broaden our understanding and refresh our vision. May it, too, raise the quality of all the artistic endeavors represented on this fabulous site.


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
Gallery Hopping in New York

June 21st, 2010
Nancy Breslin checks out the New York galleries.

I spent a day this week visiting photo exhibits in Chelsea (NYC). One of my favorites featured work by Andy Goldsworthy at Galerie Lelong (http://www.nyartbeat.com/event/2010/6B55). While known for working with the natural world (even if the setting is the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum) here he crafted his ephemeral art in Times Square, using water and dirt. For two sets of images, circles of water on the pavement, photographed repeatedly over time in the evening, looked like they were fluorescing (as they reflected Times Square neon) and then slowly faded as the water evaporated. In a set of videos, Goldworthy’s body created a dry sidewalk “shadow” during light drizzle. When he moved away, the human form persisted, for a while, as pedestrians passed. Interestingly, both an artist supine on the sidewalk and the resulting “print” were largely ignored.

Also memorable: stunning, window-lit portraits by Trine Sondergaard, at Silverstein (http://www.brucesilverstein.com/exhibitions_galleries.php?gid=439) and charming photos of structures created in the studio by Laurent Millet (pins in an orange; tack and string designs which create the illusion of houses, with the help of some paint) at Robert Mann (http://www.robertmann.com/artists/millet/image_09.html)

We didn’t see much which would fit into the “alt photo” world, but there were a few. Maria Martinez-Canas had a show at the Julie Saul Gallery (http://mariamartinez-canas.com) which included a striking grid of silver chloride POP prints. In each she combined two portraits, mixing them in various proportions. Some looked fairly “straight,” some were pale, or in negative, or appeared solarized, and many had beautiful chocolate tones.

Yancy Richardson had a set of six camera obscura negatives, taken in Venice, by Vera Lutter (http://www.yanceyrichardson.com/#). I’ve seen more interesting work by this photographer.


 

Blog Elizabeth Graves
Notes on Rexer’s ‘The Edge of Vision’

June 17th, 2010
Elizabeth Graves reviews The introduction to The Edge of Vision: the Rise of Abstraction in Photography by Lyle Rexer

Lyle Rexer, the author of the sumptuously illustrated 2002 book Photography’s Antiquarian Avant-Garde: The New Wave in Old Processes has a new book out on abstraction, and it is delightful and informative.

The introduction to The Edge of Vision: the Rise of Abstraction in Photography, (published in 2009 by Aperture) invokes Talbot with a retrospective, conceptual viewpoint. Rexer describes his first experience viewing an original Talbot print, and remarks that Talbot’s works “held a privileged position. Not just because they came first, but because they came before photographic seeing was codified, before a consensus had developed about what a photograph should like like and what (and how) it ought to represent.”

Rexer's Edge of Vision

book cover of Rexer's The Edge of Vision

We (all those of us reading this on the Internet) live in cultures where photographs are ubiquitous, and where the newest method of presenting an image is always the “correct” method. In 2010, we have the full history of photography to draw our techniques and inspiration from, yet our audience is often confused by images that do not match the look and feel of the advertising they see each day. The idea that there was a time when ALL options for potential photographic representation were on the table serves as a reminder that ‘seeing’ photographs is something we have been trained to do, and that public acceptance of image conventions are the product of habit and training rather than of quality.

Rexer’s book begins with the origins of photography, with its subtle photograms and early experiments in capturing everyday objects, and cycles through history’s different applications and conventions, ultimately exploring photographs which do not appear to be (or are not) directly representational. The text describes the concepts behind the work shown, Rexer’s interpretations of these concepts, and how they fit into the artistic philosophies of their times. The lengthy theoretical text is written in a highly engaging style. The examples are beautifully reproduced, and could expand your personal definition of what “alternative processes” can be.

In Rexer’s view,

“…photography is simultaneously an investigation of reality and the means of investigating that reality.”

I believe that most of us who experiment with photography have felt the thrill of discovery in our work, wanting to know not “what the world looked like (which everyone knew) but what it looked like photographed,” and photographed in a specific process we are studying.

This book is a worthwhile and enjoyable read for anyone interested in photographic theory and the thrill of experimentation.


 

Blog Peter J Blackburn
Too Dark, Use Flash. Part 1 of 2

May 26th, 2010
What to do when darkness has fallen.

“Too dark, use flash.” Now there’s a photographic phrase which has become a favorite of mine over the years for regular everyday use. Whenever a cloudy comment is directed to me, especially by my 14-year- old daughter, after which I am left in a state of bewilderment, my typical response is, “Too dark, use flash.” I suppose the phrase is a carry-over from clever cameras such as the Minolta Talker which audibly uttered those words when it came to the conclusion the subject at which it was aimed was too dark to render a satisfactory image onto the enclosed film. In other words, the camera lacked information reflecting from the intended subject to make an adequate exposure. The camera needed more enlightenment, if you will.

As I review the huge assortment of writing and images here on AlternativePhotography.com, the enlightenment I receive is overwhelming. This vast repository of valuable articles and information, some of which has helped me in my own gum and casein dichromate work, has increased my own understanding. My work, as a result, has been enriched. Still, there are times after reading an essay when I am simply left with questions. Lots of questions. I don’t understand. What does the writer mean and why? “Too dark, use flash.”

For example, why would anyone in their right mind . . . Ooops. Perhaps it is best to not mention any specific examples in such a public forum. After all, I most likely would have the more aristocratic members of this community reading me the riot act for even uttering a doubt. Eyes would roll, catcalls would ensue, grimaces would adorn every face. Quit laughing, you all know what I’m talking about.

Oh phooey. Isn’t enlightenment and information a driving force behind AlternativePhotography.com? I say, “Bring it.” Bring the debate, the doubts, the dubiety. We are among friends and, I assume, we are in our right minds. In the spirit of enlightenment and good will, let’s all get out our flashes and gently expel the darkness where we can.


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
A Worldwide Gallery of Pinhole Photos

May 15th, 2010
Nancy Breslin contributed to the gallery at Worldwide Pinhole Day, she was the 3002nd person to do so.

bleeding hearts

Taken on April 25, 2010, Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day

Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day was about 2 weeks ago, and I just contributed to the gallery (http://www.pinholeday.org/gallery/2010/index.php?id=3154). As my id# indicates, I was the 3154th person to do so, and there is still time for more submissions. I immediately follow photos from Pennsylvania, Hampshire (UK), Cuba, Germany and Montreal. It looks like people from 65 countries have posted so far. Worldwide indeed!

The first five are from New Zealand – no big surprise there. I didn’t have time to check out 3000 images, but did meander through (you can pick a random entry number, or select geographically) and found a number of striking photos. 1255 from New Jersey, USA shows bread and ingredients, and the caption lists ingredients for the bread and the camera. 2776 is a 3-d pinhole from Hong Kong. 65 is wildly colorful tulips from the Netherlands. 142 from Japan is one of several lovely landscapes from that country. I was surprised to see only one entry from Korea, and so far I am the only one from Delaware, USA. But there is still time. If any of you used your pinhole camera on April 25 but haven’t submitted, the deadline is not until the end of May.


 

Blog Peter J Blackburn
A lesson from the flowers

May 3rd, 2010
Peter J. Blackburn on why the brief moment of a flower is difficult to capture in a photograph.

 “When you take a flower
in your hand and really look at it,
it’s your world for the moment.
I want to give that world to someone else.
Most people in the city rush around so,
they have no time to look at a flower.
I want them to see it
whether they want to or not.”

I’ve been out capturing flowers with my camera, both wild and tame. Soon after the click of the camera shutter, their vivid color and glorious fragrance will vanish forever. When flowers succeed in luring my attention through their stunning beauty and delicate form, I cannot help but be reminded that I share an indefinitely brief moment of life along with them on this earth.  My photographs are only an improvised attempt to prolong their pleasing attributes for later enjoyment. Flowers are gentle messengers reminding us that we, too, have a purpose, if only to share the color and fragrance of our own lives with those around us. May each of us do so as we are reminded by the flowers of our own indefinitely brief lives.


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
April 25 2010 is Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day

April 23rd, 2010
Nancy Breslin is getting charged up for Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day.

pinhole photographs of dinner with friendsPinhole photography may or may not fit into the general category of “alternative photography,” depending on how the latter is defined, but for me pinhole shares the creativity, uniqueness, and unpredictable nature of many alt processes. For those in the pinhole brotherhood this is an exciting time, since Sunday will be the 10th annual Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day. For the first event, in 2001, 291 photographers from 24 countries took part, making a pinhole image on the last Sunday in April and then posting it to the WPPD website (www.pinholeday.org). Pinhole day has grown tremendously, and last year 3203 people (from 70 countries) each uploaded an image. At the website you can visit the gallery from each year and search geographically. For 2009, for instance, you will find one photo from Tunisia, 11 from New Zealand, and 904 from the US (including only one from Delaware, alas, mine). The range of cameras (manufactured, homemade; various formats; capture on photo paper, film or digitally; flat and curved film planes…) and of subject matter is extraordinary, but tying it together is a passion for this low tech approach to image-making. Most participants describe the camera, f-number, exposure time, etc., so the gallery is also a chance to learn about the many options.

This Sunday I’ll be taking one or more of my pinhole cameras for a spin, and then will have to pick one photo to share at the WPPD gallery. There is no fee to participate.

Beginners guide to pinholing
From pinhole to print – Inspiration, instructions and insights in less than an hour
by Gary Fabbri, Malin Fabbri and Peter Wiklund
The quick and easy way to learn how to build a pinhole camera!
From pinhole to print will guide you from drilling your first pinhole to printing your first pinhole photograph. It is an easy to read, step-by-step guide to making a pinhole camera and creating images.
Strongly recommended for beginners



 

Blog Peter J Blackburn
My unexpected best friend forever

April 19th, 2010
Why rainy days are good days.

It’s raining outside. In the past, rainy days used to irk me. After all, a dichromate printer who relies upon the sun as the sole UV source for printing demands cloud-free days. No sun, no prints.

I’m not bothered anymore. I’ve learned to appreciate rainy days for the unexpected treasures they bear. If anything, those gorgeous wildflowers I take great relish to photograph are sustained by the thirst quenching liquid refreshment of a good, soaking rain. Ok. Let it rain, if only for their precious sake.

Oh, but there is more to appreciate about rainy days. Rainy days make me put aside my tactile tasks to explore more cerebral endeavors. Rainy days provide time to meditate on the why and how of my photography. Meditation is important — no, crucial to maintaining my focus and direction. Rainy days help to germinate creative ideas for future pursuit. Rain washes out my gutters of petty indecision, mediocrity, and unattainable pipe dreams. On rainy days, I can read and write in my journals. I can review and intensely evaluate my previous work. Yes, rainy days have been known to help me discard washed out and washed up images — inferior work which should have been trashed long ago. Sometimes, rainy days excite me so much, I simply must venture out to photograph all the glistening charm and subtle beauty which only a wet surface can provide.

They say that a little rain must fall in everyone’s life. Well, there’s a little rain falling today. Welcome, my friend.


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
The alternative niche

April 16th, 2010
Why alternative photographic processes is still niche market.

Hershey Park gum printRecently the New York Times ran an article titled “For Photographers, the Image of a Shrinking Path”  (http://nyti.ms/bqZ4LK). In a nutshell, the writer said that the combination of smarter, less expensive digital cameras, photosharing sites such as flickr, and fewer magazine pages have resulted in a very tough market for commercial photographers.

Magazines which traditionally hired photographers for custom work are increasingly turning to stock agencies (once seen as “the armpit of the photo industry” according to the head of Getty Images), and more of these stock shots are supplied by amateur photographers, who (as hobbyists) are happy to accept a relatively low fee.

It is true that cameras are getting more foolproof, with smart metering, auto white balance, smile detection. While a fancy camera doesn’t guarantee great images, it does allow talented people without any technical background to succeed more often. And even the untalented, by order of sheer volume (I just looked at the flickr homepage: 6,414 uploads in the last minute!), can be expected to create some winners.

Which leads me to think about handmade prints.

While the market for gum prints (and platinum and cyanotype…) isn’t huge, at least it doesn’t seem to be shrinking. Printing with vintage processes IS getting easier (I’m thinking of my own transition from lith negatives to digital negatives within the past several years), yet it remains a time consuming labor of love. While the alternative photo community is growing, we won’t be competing with millions of people any time soon.


 

Blog Peter J Blackburn
Compelling color

April 3rd, 2010
“Colour is my day-long obsession, joy and torment.” Like Monet, Peter J. Blackburn is inspired by color.

Maybe it’s from viewing outdoor Texas living through my polarized Bolle sunglasses, although I don’t think so. I remember buying those sunglasses to enhance what was already important to me, to help intensify a decades-long fixation. I’m referring to color, of course. More than any other aspect of my art and photography, I am drawn to color. It is the foremost factor that drives, or rather, compels me to photograph and render my prints in tricolor dichromate. Monet exclaimed more than a century ago, “Colour is my day-long obsession, joy and torment.” Thank you, Claude. I couldn’t have expressed it better.

Associated with color is light. They go together like Romeo and Juliet, paper and pencil, or pepperoni and pizza. Hold the anchovies, please. A beam of light conveys information from one place to another. Color is only one of the many revealing tidings it carries. Call it enlightenment, if you will. Whether reflecting off a painted red barn or filtering through a translucent rose petal, the interaction of light and color, and color and light, is for me tantalizingly, excruciatingly compelling.

Wildflower season has just begun in Texas. Color is everywhere to see, experience—and photograph. For years, I have grabbed the photo gear, donned my hiking boots, and trekked through many a field and glen in search of color-coated firewheel, buttercups, and bluebonnets. This spring will be no exception. Where there is color, I am compelled.


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
They did the impossible!

March 30th, 2010
The Impossible Project releases a Polaroid film!

Many of us have been following The Impossible Project. About a year and a half ago some Polaroid fans leased a closed instant film plant in Enschede (Netherlands), after Polaroid had first announced bankruptcy and then stopped making their much loved products. Named “The Impossible Project,” this group had the seemingly quixotic goal of reformulating and manufacturing instant film.

This past week, they announced that their first product, called PX-100, is available. This is a black and white film that can be used in SX-70 cameras, and can be purchased at http://www.the-impossible-project.com/ (although when I checked today they were out of stock). It is not inexpensive ($21/18 euros for 8 prints) and the website has sample images and troubleshooting information.

TIP expects to bring out a similar color product this summer, and they have also purchased equipment for making 8×10 sheet film. While initially tackling the integral films, when they have this working well they will take on the challenge of 8×10 peel-apart.

I must say that I thought the idea was a bit nutty when I first read about it, but now I must congratulate TIP. Well done!


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
Gertrude Kasebier – an inspiration

March 27th, 2010
Nancy Breslin is inspired by the Stieglitz’s photographer Gertrude Kasebier.

Gertrude KasebierLong before I made my first successful gum bichromate print I was a fan of Gertrude Kasebier (1852-1934), who was perhaps the greatest American portrait photographer at the beginning of the 20th century. As a member of Stieglitz’s Photo Secession she was recognized as a fine art photographer, although she paid the rent as a commerical portrait photographer, working first out of her Brooklyn (NY) home and then out of a series of Manhattan studios. Many of her prints were done in platinum, but she also did beautiful work in gum. The brushy effects achievable with gum were of course appealing to the “pictorialist” photographers of the era (the name pictorialist, from what I understand, comes from the fact that at the time fine paintings were called “pictures,” and these photographers wished for their creations to be considered fine art as well; that was, alas, an uphill battle). I am drawn to Kasebier for a number of reasons. One stems from having taken a graduate seminar on “The Stieglitz Circle” with William Homer at the University of Delaware. I gave a presentation on Kasebier: many of her prints, notebooks and other items were left to UD, and I spent many happy hours donning cotton gloves and looking through the trove. As someone who discovered photography belatedly (I was almost 40 when I took my first photo class) I was pleased to learn that Kasebier began studying art at age 37. And much of her work has the soft dreaminess I value in my pinhole work and in gum printing. She remains an inspiration.


 

Blog Peter J Blackburn
Requiem for cottage cheese

March 23rd, 2010
Peter J. Blackburn on why you should not use old materials.

Three days ago I was reminded again of how we as alternative printers are so dependent, so utterly and pathetically dependent upon the reliability of our working materials. The minute we turn our backs, the moment we let our guard down, we find to our horror that we’ve spent a fortune on a shipment of materials which for some unknown, pain-in-the-neck reason just do not measure up to our requirements. Oh sure, we’ve grown accustomed to art papers changing with the wind. The Lana, the BFK, the Arches of yesterday are not the same today. And I lay 6-2 odds they won’t be tomorrow. Pigments, too, are not immune from the endless reformulations which ultimately waste our precious time as we recalibrate our workflow to accommodate those updates.

Now, even cottage cheese—yes, cottage cheese changes! Oh, what a hair-ripping hassle. The quality in the brand of cottage cheese which I have depended upon for years to create my casein mixture for dichromate printing is now kaput, finis, histoire. Once I opened the plastic seal on that little round container to reveal a pasty white mush rather than the usual curd and whey, I knew trouble lay ahead. Much trouble.

One stained print after another resulted from that wretched batch of mystery goop. Some of the stain was palatable, the rest was simply nauseating. So now I’m back to printing with gum until I find a suitable cottage cheese replacement. It’s comforting to have gum as a backup. But, I love casein, too! Needless to say it is with an anxious heart that I begin to search for that classic cottage cheese of yesteryear—classic cheese to nicely complement my select papers and vintage pigments. If you see any lying around, give me a shout. It seems we all know the drill.


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
Alive and well

March 9th, 2010
Nancy Breslin reports from the annual Society for Photographic Education conference in Philadelphia.

I just returned from the annual Society for Photographic Education conference in Philadelphia. In addition to a series of lectures, panels and free portfolio reviews, there was an exhibit fair: a room full of booths by the big players such as Kodak, Tiffen and Freestyle, and smaller tables of book publishers and art colleges. The biggest crowd, though, always seemed to gather around Dana Sullivan, at the Bostick and Sullivan booth. For two days he and a colleague functioned as a platinum/palladium printing machine! Attendees who had brought along a digital image file (alas I did not) could have it adjusted in Photoshop (resize, sharpen, apply the appropriate curve) and printed as a digital negative. Then Dana would coat paper, expose the print in a UV box, develop, clear, wash, and dry. Voila. And image after image looked beautiful.

I’m guessing that more than a few new platinum artists were born this weekend.


 

Blog Peter J Blackburn
A da Vinci code of conduct

February 17th, 2010
Peter J. Blackburn on why, whilst it’s important to gather inspiration, you should find your own voice – like Da Vinci.

Peter J Blackburn, da vinci

“The painter [artist] will produce pictures of little merit if he takes the works of others as his standard.”

That particular quote of Leonardo da Vinci might seem a bit odd to appear on a website blog such as this. After all, AlternativePhotography.com is packed, almost bursting at the seams, with the works of others. Indeed, all manner of photographic images both large and small, from albumen prints to ziatypes, in every shade, spectrum and style can be found among the multitude of pages layered within this amazing site.

In fact, one by one, artists from all over the globe and many walks of life come and place for all to see their personal creations, visual expressions, and artistic gifts on the virtual gallery walls. Many visitors to the site have recently begun their photographic journey and are trying on for size some of the diverse opportunities alternative processes offer. They come here, in part, to see the vast assortment of images and behold the wonders of what others have done. Then, off they go with wild ambition to produce their own alternative prints, many seemingly throwing all caution to the wind.

Scores of other artists seen here have been working at this thing call alternative photography for quite some time and are happily settling into their own creative groove. They have wrestled with a process or two and have come to grips with both frustration and success. Yes, journeymen as those come here, too, in part, to see the galleries and behold the wonders of what others have done, albeit with a more understanding eye.

Then, there are the veterans, the superstars, the gurus. You know— the ones who have diligently persevered through the many obstacles of their chosen medium. They have broken new ground, raised the bar another notch, and created work that pushes the envelope just a little bit further. Do they come to also behold the wonders of this site? Probably. I certainly hope so.

Still, a simple question of significant importance remains. Do we each come to behold this treasury of images so as to set standards for ourselves? Leonardo, I think, would shudder at the thought! If that is your intended purpose, then I believe you do both yourself and the hundreds of artists on this site a great disservice. Instead, may your artistic standards come from within, your vision produced by convictions and purposes established from your own careful contemplation. Rather, let the works on this site bring to you simple enjoyment, food for thought, fresh air to breath, and just enough stimulation to set you off again, back in pursuit of your own unique contributions. With those adjustments in mind, a sort of da Vinci code of conduct, come and behold the wonders found here as often as you can. I do.


 

Nancy Breslin Blog
A rose by any other name…

February 14th, 2010
Nancy Breslin on alternative photographic methods being called conventional.

My photographic work has been largely “alternative” (particularly if you throw in pinhole) for several years now. Wasn’t I surprised to hear recently that I am actually “conventional”! I received an email from a student in the UK who is writing a thesis about the effect of digital photography on artistic practice, and the questions on his survey were contrasting digital with “conventional” photography. But in the latter category he included things such as pinhole, lomography and the use of expired film. Whoa!

I would guess that few artists would wear “conventional” as a badge of honor. Conventional sounds boring: moving with the crowd. While plastic cameras and Polaroid lifts have become popular, it is nonetheless within a relatively tiny community, far from conventional. I would have defined conventional photography before digital’s arrival as shooting 35 mm film in an SLR, and either printing the b&w stuff at an enlarger or, more often, sending color work off to the lab (or the local drug store). All of the playfulness that our community loves was something else altogether: hand-applied emulsions, cross-processing, lensless photography…

And at the same time, many of us have embraced digital technology as a further enhancement of our work, even if that just means getting it onto the web.

I’m glad I don’t have to make a choice between “conventional” and digital. Call me an “alternative” photographer: it’s a rich, complex and rewarding way of working.


 

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