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

Writer and photography / Peter J. Blackburn

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.

13 thoughts on “A Prolegomenon for Gum Printers and Other Visual Alchemists: I Gum, But I Don’t iGum”

  1. Hi Peter,
    I realize that this is an older thread but I have just discovered these writings and wanted to comment. I enjoyed reading your thoughtful and humorous articles.
    I too and saddened by the massive amount of digital vomit being passed off as photography. And feel that in the broader sense it will only get worse because we are training the next photographers to see images this way. Of course that is not the whole enchilada; there are many fine photographers who produce incredible work both digitally and classically.
    I am a darkroom trained photographer who has mastered (sort of) the digital realm but I long for dark spaces and more time with my images. I really love the unique look of a hand processed image and while I attempted to create them digitally it has always felt like a lie of sorts. The wonderful thing about digital photography is that it has enabled me to step more fully into alternative processes, by way of the digital negative.
    By the way, I love the image of your dog.


  2. Hi Peter
    Sorry, I forgot to clic on the notify me.. button and see your answer just now. Ok, I see now what you mean and I agree with you as long as we speak about those who just use ready made old processes effects ,or any ready made effects actually, and pretend to be what they are not.

  3. Hi Linus:
    Thank you so much for taking the time to write your comments. Oh, and your English is marvelous, too! My answer to your first question is that I believe, most certainly, digital photographers can be sincere in their work. And, not all digital shooters use automatic effects. I shoot both with digital and film, and have never used an app or what would be considered an automatic setting in either format.

    I would agree that the advent of digital technology has brought a whole new and wonderful world to the visual table. However, it’s the ease and novelty of this new technology which has tempted some digital users to cross a line into territory I find dubious at best, devious at worst. It boils down to the very definition of sincerity. Here’s one from the American Heritage Dictionary and it’s as good as any: “The quality or condition of being sincere; genuineness, honesty, and freedom from duplicity.”

    When an “artist” uses an app or digital means to imitate an alternative process (cyanotype, pinhole, etc.) I believe that artist has crossed the line from genuineness and honesty into a land of sham and counterfeit. It’s one thing to “app” a process for fun, amusement, and for the pleasure of your friends and family. It’s quite another to pass it off as legitimate counterfeit, even a virtue. Those who do, in my opinion, work for P. T. Barnum—shame on them!

    I hope that brings some clarity to you.

  4. Do you mean passion, sincerity can’t be found in a digital photographer ?
    Do you mean that ALL digital photographer use the automatic “special effects” to make some photos look old ?
    Tell me if I misunderstand you but if not, then I simply not agree with you. It’s a bit annoying this kind of little war between alternative photographers and digital ones. Personnally I find the invention of digital camara gorgeous, passionating,”magic” and a wonderful tool.But this doesn’t prevent me to find magic too the old processes although I won’t try some of them, actually I just experiment cyanotypes
    and maybe later I’ll try pinehole.
    What I mean is that alternative processes and digital process are just ways , tools , and tools without a good eye , talent are just tool.
    Sorry if I misunderstood your article (I surely do)english is not my mother tongue.

  5. Dusan, I appreciate your perspective presented through John Naughton. I suppose the statement by John Sexton still holds true. It goes something like this: “There’s nothing easier than taking a photograph, nothing harder than making a good one.” I do emphatically agree that technology IS necessary. But— technology which is seized for the purpose of fooling, deceiving, and the elevating of all things faux is my passionate objection.

  6. We, at the Getty,are doing everything we can to preserve the “heritage of the chemical or classical photography”


    ……but I have to agree with John Naughton:

    “The strange thing about photography is that although it’s been revolutionised by digital technology, at heart it’s the same medium that entranced Louis Daguerre, Eugène Atget and André Kertész, to name just three of its early masters. And although it’s become much easier to take photographs that are technically flawless (in terms of exposure and focus), it’s just as difficult to capture aesthetically satisfying images as it was in the age of film and chemicals. It turns out that technology is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for creating art.”


  7. Great comments everyone! Susan, you hit the nail on the head — passion! Passion is scheduled as a prolegomenon topic in the months ahead. I can’t wait to dig into THAT word. Scott, thank you for sharing about kids learning photography through historical processes. I’m a firm believer in using darkroom instruction as a bridge between analog and digital and visa versa. Historical processes can also serve as a valuable educational linking tool between the two platforms.
    Finally, Kenneth, you’re spot on with “but most have no idea.” Wish that they would have at least some idea, have considered an idea, grappled with an idea, studied an idea, discussed an idea, experimented with an idea, pursued an idea, even went online and bought an idea, or perhaps borrowed one from Auntie May, but sadly, most have NO idea and THAT is a reason for the never ending faux.

  8. A friend brought up an interesting point. (an interesting piece of trivia: this friend is not a photographer or any sort of artist)
    He said that, in his experience/memory, that hand-made prints are almost always better in real life. They have more depth and a subtlety that cannot be translated to internet standards. By contrast, he claimed that every workflow he’s seen that has been completely digital is pretty much the same from internet to live print. I asked him if he considered that since everyone seems to have a camera there are alot of bad photos out there. But, he mentioned that we was thinking about galleries and people who consider themselves artists and their photographs as art. We didn’t get too far into the topic, but I think it’s interesting that someone who is not involved with photography in any way other than a casual observer would make that point.

  9. Sincerity

    That’s a key word (as in important, not one of those “key words” or tags in the web world) Very very important word.

    I think that the alt process apps are symptomatic of a wanting for something hand-made, that has a human touch, care, time, sincerity. Of course, it’s easier to forget that crazy idea and be distracted by the next shiny whirring thing.

    Personally, my little iPhone has been useful for remotely communicating more effectively with other visual artists (pretty much the original intention of any telephone). It’s full of pictures of sketches, paintings, etching, and prints. I like the bad green/magenta shifts and low resolution because I worry less about my precious images floating around the net in high res without my permission.

    I think that technology does not bother me (at least not often) because I see it all as tool. Good tools and bad tools. Had a good conversation with Tom from Bergen County Camera (Gallery 270) this week in which we discussed the depth of real analogue prints as well as how, when kids are introduced to historical processes, more often than not, they really take to it and begin to understand photography in a way that digital just does not seem to teach.

  10. Well, you can do a lot of things in Photoshop, and it’s easy and fun too. But if you’re a photographer, there is one thing, in my opinion, to keep in your mind: you can’t retract your promise to photography. By choosing to work with photographic materials and techniques you have committed yourself to work with some fundamental things like light, space and time. These elements are really conserved in your final work — that is why I like wet plate (and other alt-processes) so much… you can feel and hold those things in your hands, you have the plate that has actually seen this light and energy and is keeping it! (By the way, William Crawford’s classic book on alternative processes has an excellent title: The Keepers of Light).

  11. I agree with Peter…the world is coming to what can “we” come up with ..next and how “we” can be beat the “old” system of producing images that meant something to viewers are willing to take the time to try to understand their feelings of the presented images. I recently got into a fight with someone who simply refused to believe there is a difference of being a photographer vs. being a an artist. The lack of PASSION is my “take” on what is happening to the art world..everything looks sterile and I absolutely loathe sterile images and people….the world is being made into a mediocre orb full of people who look at art is something elitist. ART should be evident everywhere and ..it is not.

  12. Though I’m certainly not a Luddite, I very much agree with you. The worst are the cell phone images converted to look like alt processes, particularly when food is included — it tends to look like vomit! It wouldn’t be so bad if people using the apps at least understood what they were trying to replicate, but most have no idea.

  13. The sincerity and true dedication to work is very, very important … but I do not think bad pictures in cyan phones … many think it’s good … when they like the look will find information about it. we must promote our work in more ways than the arts of photography and … we must look … interested in sectors outors
    Congratulations for your work and publications …

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