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
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!