As Time Goes By: The Changing Allure of Alternative Processes

Peter J. Blackburn’s reflections on brush vs camera… now and then.

Writer and photography / Peter J. Blackburn

As I was printing a few gum images some months ago, an impetuous echo resonated through my mind which gave rise to further thought and some fodder for this blog. The echo took the form of a quote uttered in reaction when news of the “mirror with a memory” (the photograph) hit the street. “Painting is dead.”  I suppose the repetitive thought generated in my mind as I browsed the many gum images drying on the floor, glistening with their glowing watercolor hues.

Then my thoughts went to the many subsequent painters who, far from digging a grave for their paintings, took brush in one hand and grabbed a camera with the other. Well, perhaps grabbed is wishful thinking. Wet plate and salt prints weren’t exactly produced with iPhone ease. Nevertheless, Delacroix, Degas, even Van Gogh all took note of photographic possibilities in their work. They all made revealing comments exclaiming the good, the bad, and the ugly of this novel, upstart medium.

Plano Road Wildwlowers, Nos. 1 and 2, 2016
Plano Road Wildflowers, Nos. 1 and 2, 2016  Having always been an admirer of Degas and his pastel paintings, I have taken to grinding pastels into my gum mixture. Here are two recent gum bichromate photographs created using Henri Roche’ pastels as the pigment.

Delacroix resorted to the camera to explore its effects with portraiture. Degas took pleasure examining the dynamic contrasts gas lighting produced in his images. Vincent, however, seemed to have a more ambivalent opinion of the silver print. He complained that his mother looked dead in those black and white photographic tones. I found it fascinating to discover how the alternative processes so admired today were utilized and evaluated by the modern artist at the time those same processes were mainstream.

Today, of course, as witnessed by the immense site of, we embrace and celebrate the nuance, textures, tonality, and visual virtues of the handmade print from yesterday, the technology and techniques of the nineteenth century.

But here’s where I begin to scratch my head in some bewilderment.

As I read the letters and notebooks, and researched the conversations by artists of that era, the allure of photography, if there was one, was primarily that of utilizing the photograph in pursuit of a better painting, a better etching, a better sculpture. It appears that while some employed the photographic technology of their day with the same gusto we utilize PhotoShop, they didn’t seem to see or appreciate the subtle, tactile qualities we see and celebrate today.

And with that, I will close to resume a bit more pondering and head scratching.

Peter J. Blackburn, MA, has been working in gum and casein bichromate printing for over thirty years. He is represented by Afterimage Gallery, Dallas, Texas. You can also see Peter J. Blackburn’s gallery or read more articles he has written.

5 thoughts on “As Time Goes By: The Changing Allure of Alternative Processes”

  1. Peter, I guess the watercolor pigments are more finely milled than pastel sticks, now that you mention the grittiness. Makes sense.

  2. Thank you, Johnny, for taking the time to write. I appreciate your comments. Most of the pastels I have tried add some grit and texture to the image. Pastels can, however, be messy as bits of pigment particles can scatter onto the worktable in spite of taking care and caution when grinding. That aside, pastels are a viable alternative to tube paints. I would encourage all gum printers to consider pastels as a pigment choice.

  3. High quality pastel sticks are made mostly of pure pigment with a little bit of a gum binder. I have never tried gum printing (I made a few monochrome Kwik Prints back when it was available), but have wondered if artist-quality pastels wouldn’t be a good source of pigment for gum printing. It’s very interesting to see it put to practice.

  4. Thank you for your comments, David. I think the “they” you refer to are most likely beginners, students, novices, hobbyists, those who are somewhere on the long and winding road of alt. process education. Some have visions which portray a greater maturity than others. Some pieces resonate stronger than others. And the recognition of a “fine print” can be as diverse as Weston is from Warhol. But in every medium and genre, from platinum printing to gum to cyanotype, from landscape to still-life to abstract, there are many artists we can celebrate for their “fine art” contribution to “the image.” Part of the celebration, however, is the acknowledgement that “the process’ is not always easy.

  5. The glaringly obvious absence that I observe in the work of most practitioners of alternative photographic printing is a total lack of any ability whatsoever to produce a fine print. In fact, it would appear that most alt photography enthusiasts are completely unaware there is any such thing as a fine print, at all. They are simply making positives from their negatives. There is no workup, no tone balancing, no alteration of tonal relationships, not even any edge burning. Just a straight, plain print from the negative.
    The greatest loss resulting from the decline of the silver-gelatin print process appears to be that photographers no longer feel compelled to excel. Silver-gelatin was most unforgiving and first results from alt processes are often far more attractive than first results from silver-gelatin.
    Indeed, for most working with alt photo, the point seems to now be the process itself, not the image. All effort is put into the process, none into the image. The image is almost incidental.

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