A Prolegomenon Series for Gum Printers and Other Visual Alchemists: The Enigma of Why

Writer and photography / Peter J. Blackburn

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?

16 thoughts on “A Prolegomenon Series for Gum Printers and Other Visual Alchemists: The Enigma of Why”

  1. Peter,

    As to the “WHY”? I have an aching eternal need to produce images. If I’m not making images, I get moody. I chose a career as a photographer because I fell in love with everything it involved from a conceived concept or vague idea to a completed expression in a print. Satisfying it is, but it is only a moment and the need for further expressions becomes accelerated in the process of doing! I love
    alt processes (Gum Dichromate) because of the inherent nature of disaster at every turn, yet the conclusion of when everything is good, its GREAT! Its like a mistress to be tamed, you continue to try, knowing you will never be the master. Commercial photography always put food on the table, sometimes extremely satisfying, but it never, ever fed the Soul. I have now more time to devote to my passion
    and a fire in my belly, to get out whatever imagery I have left, in the time I have left, on this planet! All my whys, come from within.

  2. I love this statement:
    “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.” This is why it is hard for the overly analytical and scientific to fully relate to art or to the artist.

    Every performance is different. I will dance my variation differently next time and for different reasons than I did the last time. My recent pas de deux cyanotype series means something different to me now than when I first began working on it. Every image reflects how I see a prior event or experience it through the lens of today. Sometimes it provides a glimpse into how I believe I will see today’s experiences tomorrow. My reasons often change in the middle of a series to reflect how I am changing. “Why” is a fluid and ever-changing element in the creation of art and is always related to the images I am currently creating and the circumstances in which I am creating them.

  3. Peter,

    when I’m no longer curious about something, then I stop doing it. I find some occassional satisfaction in picking up an old process of which I’ve lost that curiousity, and enjoy the skill that I developed when I was learning the process. There is a little bit of basking in the afterglow of a creative process, while looking at the finished product, with plenty of curiousity in that process of looking at what I just finished. Throughout the creative process, there are results that are not controlled, or at least not consciously created, which is why I get interested in looking at a finished piece; partly trying to figure out how some details happened (in my own work), and also trying to figure out how someone else’s work was made (if looking at their work). It usually leads to a typical curiosity question, “what if…” that perpetuates the cycle.
    While I am motivated to impress people, or an individual, I am not motivated enough to care enough to make my art for that reason, therefore can’t relate to your sculptor dilema. I will readily admit that I want people to be fascinated by what I do, find it great, think I’m some kind of wonderful person for making it, but it is not enough of a driving force to make me change my approach, who I am, etc., so I forge ahead for my own curiousity and can only hope that others see the beauty that I am seeing while creating.

  4. Rachel—what a great pleasure to hear from you! Ah, you’ve got the compulsion stuff going on, too. That seems to be a common driving force among artists. I would like to know the nature of the “fuel” that gives power to those compulsions many of us possess. Where is the fuel produced? What happens when the fuel runs out. Is that why some artists coast to a full stop after awhile—no more fuel, no more compulsion? Is compulsion a fuel itself or is something fueling the compulsion?

  5. Peter, lovely article! This is quite a poetic discussion.

    I’ve given your question a bit of thought and the most coherent answer I’ve been able to articulate would be that I make images because I must. I have a sense of compulsion, that I suspect stems out of a learned kind of existence. Image-making has become my meditation. It’s how I question and it’s the language that I interpret my life through.

    Lovely thoughts all around!

  6. Donald. That’s a bit mysterious. I’ve heard your response many times from fellow colleagues and it’s a bit circular. “I am an artist because I create and I create because I am an artist.” Have you worked your way through your roots as an artist? WHY are you an artist?
    How is it linked to your lack of choice? OK, I assume you are not being blackmailed and that someone is not pointing a gun to your head forcing you into art slavery. Can I assume you mean you have a compulsion to create? What drives the compulsion?

  7. We should all contemplate “why”. I make photographs because in doing so I feel most alive, most connected to a creative force. I utilize alternative processes not only because they result in such striking sensitive images or my love of history in general, but also because I am tremendously moved by the idea that I am perhaps performing the same movement, the same actions, the same thought process as someone else years, or even a century, in the past. I revel in both the process and the feeling of connecting.

  8. I make images to test my own alternative photographic process. To be honest I am more interested in the process than in the images that might be made with it!
    Why do I continue work on this process?
    (1) It is my baby!
    (2) I think its essential mechanism is neat and elegant!
    (3) I like playing with chemicals.
    (4) I like being surprised when a guess turns turns out correct.
    (5) I would like to develop the process to a point where people would actually want to use it!
    (6) It is no worse for an old man than spending time doing sudoku!

  9. I suppose for me it’s a form of therapy – a recording of something that triggers an emotional (or intellectual) response in me, so I can digest and understand it better. I think in the end it’s always all about aesthetics – I want to create something which is aesthetically pleasing to me and hopefully to others. Often I think words fail to communicate what and how we feel, and images can convey those thoughts and emotions far better precisely because they DON’T abstract things the way language does.

  10. What lovely comments from Susan, James, and Scott. Thank you for your perspectives! I wish to make a few comments begging your indulgence.
    Susan, what a fabulous coincidence that you were thinking along the same theme as me— the why of our work. I would enjoy knowing how your FB entries and responses compare with those here in our little corner of AP.

    So, if I could restate your words, Susan, you see your work as perpetual seeing. The creating of images has become another one of your senses. So, in a manner of speaking, you could no more turn off your creative energy than you could your hearing or sense of touch. Hence, to ask why you create is to ask why do you feel.

    James, you seem to seem to find fulfillment in your work through self-gratification and the thrill of every surprise ending. Of course, as you master your work, those endings will most likely come further apart.
    I sometimes hear artists speak of the need to put imperfections back into their work—they sort of “plan” their surprises. I guess that the price one pays for mastery.

    Scott, your first response—curiosity— has hit upon a category I entitle elusive. My question to you is, “What happens when your curiosity is satisfied?’ Will the perpetual need to stay busy with your hands be enough? I wanted to write further concerning the consequence of our whys in the blog, but opted for keeping the entry relatively simple.

    Let’s take for example the reason, “I want to impress my girlfriend” as a motivation for creating cyanotypes. What happens when Ms Roxy throws you under the bus in favor of the more handsome and far richer marble sculptor (you’ve got to be rich to work in marble). What becomes of the 50 sable brushes, the 80 large rolls of Arches paper, and the five gallon drums of chemical solutions (you purchased all of that stuff to impress Ms Roxy, remember?). Now what? What becomes of your work if your whys and my whys are based upon motivations that are external or elusive, prone to wander all over the road? Hmmm.

    I’ll leave it there for now. Thank you so much for the responses so far. Please keep them coming!

  11. all of the above reasons could apply to me, at one time or another, but the driving force that gets me to create an image is curiousity. I have a compulsion to question what I am seeing, as if I’m not really seeing it so I look, draw, look, paint, look, photograph, manipulate and immediately follow up by manipulating the image to match the experience I had while seeing the image or that I want to have while seeing the image.
    A second, and equally important, reason why I create images is that they are far more compact than sculpture or furniture. I am compelled to tinker because I feel the need to just simply do something. This is mostly for my own satisfaction (which is why I’m so bad at promoting my own work as something that can be purchased).

  12. As a rank amateur/hobbyist, I haven’t really dwelt on “Why” very much, so thanks for bringing it up. I guess on the surface, I would say, I enjoy the look of gum prints and I enjoy the process. So self gratification is the first gut reaction to “Why”. However on a deeper level I think that the combination of process/science and variation bordering on chaos is appealing to my soul. I do what I do with an expectation or vision in mind, yet I am always surprised and usually delighted that the end product of my effort is different than I thought it would be.

  13. Hello Peter, I was about to ask that on my FB site… why do we make images? Because when I see images that speak to me as in a tactile and visual sense- I see tranquility that I do not see in the busy world surrounding the images I photograph. I imagine the histories the images have seen over thousands and millions of years, the animals and fossils left behind recording geology.I see photography prolonging memory and documenting the rapidly changing world around me. Since my memory is short according to Geologic time, I enjoy seeing the ravages of time written in the land. I am privileged to be able to be outside, to read the histories. I do it to’ see’ in different dimensions and to understand my role on this finite earth. Art is more than recording, it is thinking of how we can effect change.

  14. Thanks Francis, great comments—although I hope you don’t, like Winogrand, have thousands of unprocessed prints stashed away in file cabinets somewhere!

  15. I make images to interpret the outside world using tools of light and chemistry. It is part compulsion and part conscious desire.

    To appropriate Garry Winogrand’s quote: I create vandyke brown prints to see what things look like in brown.

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