Alternative Process Photography

These photographs are not spawned at the One-Hour Photo counter!

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Alternative Process prints are photo-chemically (or photo-electronically) captured images transferred onto a permanent surface with methods which have fallen out of favor or which may have never been accepted in mainstream photography. The ranks of Alternative Process photographers -- and collectors -- are filled with history buffs, purists, technical enthusiasts, innovators and others who delight in the one-of-a-kind, hand-made prints which emphatically announce they were not spawned at the One-Hour Photo Counter. They look and feel different from ordinary photographic prints and are generally found in art galleries and museum exhibits.

The popular, but ordinary, methods which dominate both the casual and serious photography markets are briefly summarized here. Black and white pictures are typically made by exposing a negative film image onto factory-made paper containing a thin layer of silver nitrate and gelatin. Color pictures and color transparencies likewise depend on the light sensitive properties of silver salts suspended on the surface of the film and print material. "Instant" or Polaroid processes are used to produce negatives, slides and prints. They achieve an efficient compression of the principles employed in the first two. The last, electronic imaging (whether moving or still), constitutes a fourth major method because, although fairly new, it has swept the world of news and entertainment, popular photography and, to some extent, fine art photography.

Geist: Lillies

Image: © Daniel Geist
Platinum print

It is a sad fact that when George Eastman, the founder of Kodak, popularized picture-taking and picture-making around the turn of the century he inadvertently buried many techniques which had long been known to produce extraordinarily beautiful results. These methods, which we now inclusively call the Alternative Processes, were far more complex, labor intensive, and expensive than conventional processing. It often comes as a surprise, even to people who know the art world well, that there are at least 35 Alternative Processes. Moreover, many of them have been known for a century and most of them for longer than that.

It is sometimes difficult to find practitioners of the Alternative Processes and examples of such work. Because New Mexico's geography and diverse peoples have long attracted professionals and amateurs to create photographic work, the State has become home to a number of gifted photographers. Among them is a small subset of print makers who use the early methods described in this article.

"Lillies" by Daniel Geist is an example of the best known of the Alternative Processes; the Iron-based Platinotype or Platinum print. Since its discovery in 1873 there have always been a few serious photographers who have continued the art form. Consequently, many of the world's finest print makers have occasionally used the Platinum process because they are aware of its superior capacity to render depth and tonal range. Close inspection reveals that it is far richer than even the best conventionally-made black and white print. It and its sister element, Palladium, have long been used for fine printing in hues ranging from the coldest black to warm sepias. (Another example of Geist's Platinum photography can be seen at #159 in The Collector’s Guide to Albuquerque and Central & Southern New Mexico, Volume 12,1998)


Koenig: Pitcorthie Trees

Image: © Karl P. Koenig
"Pitcorthie Trees"
Gumoil print

In the same family, and sharing the same metallic rationale as Platinum and Palladium, is the photographic use of other light sensitive salts of Iron in combination with Gold, Silver, Mercury, Manganese, and Copper. Each of these processes has several variants which produce monochromatic prints in a variety of tones and colors. All must be coated by hand on the finest quality papers with liquid mixtures of precise chemical composition. Think of the Alternative Processes, however, as more like haute cuisine than textbook chemistry and you will understand how people have become devoted to them.

More difficult than the metallic salt printing methods are those special Alternative Processes which are known by some as "Control Processes." These images are subjected to a variety of artistic manipulations as the print is being laid down in stages on the paper support. Such prints are, in effect, bas relief images with perceptible depth. Held to the side in light, the layering of the surface becomes apparent. The dimensionality contributes to the beauty, complexity, and mood of the print.

The coloration, monochromatic or polychromatic, may come from water color pigments, slender sensitized sheets of tinted gelatin, lithographic oil-based inks, or from the tubed pigments commonly used by oil painters. The techniques of Gum Bichromate, Carbon, Oil, Bromoil and Gumoil fall within this category and each demands much of the print-maker in time and skill. An example of Gumoil (itself a new Alternative Process) is shown in Karl P. Koenig's print above. A Gumoil print consists of a series of built up color layers, starting from darks to lights, on thick water color paper, with gum arabic serving as the resist while successive tonal areas are opened up with etching baths. Each of the Control Methods has its own special characterics and vigorous advocates.

Conway: September in Chilili

Image: © Marilyn Conway
"September in Chilili"
Rephotographed pinhole, sepia-toned,
hand-colored, silver gelatin print

There are other methods of making images which fall inside the Alternative Process rubric. Hand-coloring is something that has been done to simulate "true" color since the earliest days of Daguerrotyping and has been continued through subsequent processes such as albumen printing (white of egg mixed with silver sensitizer and spread on good paper) into the present. Marilyn Conway specializes in the technique and often combines hand-coloring with black and white prints enlarged from infra-red film (giving them a ghostly radiance) or via a pin-hole camera to produce unusual perspective and composition. An example of her work is shown above. Other New Mexico photographers experiment with equal boldness with Polaroid materials and create transfer prints which are intriguing and distinctly "alternative" even though the basic technology is conventional.

Finally, some mention should be made of the computer-assisted print. The computer and its partner, the electronic camera, have not replaced film-originated pictures and are limited in their capacity to produce fine art images. (For one thing, computer prints are absolutely flat and this makes for a rather boring surface.) Despite this, the computer's role in Alternative Processes is becoming very important. Set aside what you may know about the weird distortions and other special effects computer-mediated images often possess. Instead, consider how the computer, once a film image is scanned into it, can help the print maker get a handle on tonality, contrast and sizing for generating the contact negative (or positive) from which a fine Alternative Process print can then be made. Each of these tasks is perfectly feasible, but vastly more tedious, in the traditional darkroom with enlarger, trays of chemicals and safe lights. Therefore, the computer is primarily a wonderful tool for Alternative Process photography rather than a means of producing final prints.

Thanks to Karl P. Koenig and Marilyn Conway.

Originally appeared in
The Wingspread Collector’s Guide
to Albuquerque and Central & Southern New Mexico
- Volume 12

Related Pages

Collecting Photography of the Southwest article
E.S. Curtis: The Shadow Catcher article
Glossary of Photography Terms article

New Mexico: Photographer's Eden article
The 150th Anniversary of Photography article
Photography in New Mexico article
Platinum Photography article

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