How “alt” is alt?

Writer and photography / Elizabeth Graves

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, 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.”.

1 thought on “How “alt” is alt?”

  1. prejudice and discrimination has always been the greatest enemy of the artist and the greatest weapon in the non-art … you must use the technique best suited to the expression of the artist…

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