Alternative processes for the digitally disillusioned
In a world saturated with imagery, standing out from the crowd is only going to get more and more challenging. A special style, technique, or approach is likely to be your greatest ally when it comes to setting your images apart from the billions out there. Alli Harper investigates.
Today, photographers are working creatively and successfully with alternative photographic practices. But what are their motivations, and just what exactly is involved?
Pushback to perfection
The digital age has facilitated the pursuit of perfection. Want to be sure how it will look? Tether! Not sure if you’ve captured it perfectly? Shoot multiple frames without constraint! Unhappy with the result? Fix it in post! Why then are we seeing such a resurgence of alternative (historical) techniques that are both time consuming and unpredictable? It is precisely in response to this constant and overriding search for perfection.
Ellie Young is the founder of Gold Street Studios, in Victoria. A photographic artist, long-standing practitioner, and educator in the field of hand-crafted photographs, she sums it up perfectly: “Everything is so fast and digital and immediate and throw away. Alternative processes produce work that will last. You have ideas and make choices, like the material you will print on. It’s not computer generated, and it’s uncontrolled. The work comes from your hands and from you. There is a sense of your own being that arises from its creation.”
With its glut of generic images, social media may play a role in the dumbing down of photography, but conversely its role in connecting the ever-growing alternative processes community is important. Social media, in fact, results in global knowledge sharing, connecting the converted and generating interest in the uninitiated.
The pull to alternative processes
Alternative processes reflect a move away from the fast and predictable. Predominantly the domain of pre-digital photographers wanting to return to their craft, there is growing interest amongst digital natives who have already contributed to the surge of interest in analogue. Some photographers also share the experience of an “Aha moment”, when a particular artwork so moved them that they felt compelled to embark on their journey. The key is slowing the process down. Amongst the photographers interviewed, it’s universally important to them to engage with the work and create a unique object with unpredictable imperfections that can be embraced and harnessed.
The path to something different
Young explains how she found herself drawn to alternative processes. “My father was a lighthouse keeper in New Zealand, and I had an amazing childhood. Dad used our pantry as a darkroom, and photography was always part of my life. My working life commenced in darkrooms for Kodak and in a photographic studio printing silver gelatin photographs,” Young says. “When I moved to Australia, I enrolled at Photography Studies College, Melbourne, where I studied alternative processes and commenced on a different journey.” Following that, Young studied at RMIT, and in 2000 she established Gold Street Studios. Her second exhibition, The Print Exposed, examined the history of photography and featured examples of daguerreotypes, Cibachromes, and a hologram. Overwhelmed by the interest in alternative processes, Young arranged workshops and they sold out. Fast forward to the present and Gold Street Studios, located in Trentham East in the Victorian highlands, offers a range of more than 40 workshops, run by international and local practitioners who share their passion with students. “I am one of the luckiest people in the world,” Young says. “What I do is a privilege, and I love it. For me, it is so important to share these processes so that people’s interest and understanding grows.”
Sydney-based commercial photographer, Adrian Cook has a studio in Leichhardt. He has worked for major advertising agencies and magazines around the world for more than 25 years. Cook has shot for Nike and Vanity Fair, been included in Lürzer’s Archive’s Best 200 Ad Photographers Worldwide, and exhibited and received awards worldwide. “I started with traditional processes,” says Cook who was one of the last advertising photographers to go from film to digital, about 12 years ago. “It was a forced decision in the end as people wanted files immediately, but I did find digital really interesting and exciting at first.”
Cook laments the loss of control that he has seen over time as retouching moves in-house and briefs become requests to replicate an image that has already been signed off. In Cook’s view, the opportunity for many photographers to be creative is diminishing. “Photography has been devalued. Anyone can do it. It’s no longer about what you bring creatively, but what you cost,” he says.
A few years ago, Cook reached a point where he felt like throwing in the towel. “I was spending more time in front of a computer than behind a camera, and that isn’t why I got into photography. I’d lost enthusiasm and joy, but it’s all I’ve done for 30 years,” he says. Twenty years ago, Cook wouldn’t have dreamed of doing alternative processes, but he started to research it online, read books, and buy equipment. “I did a course with Ellie Young and thought that within two to six weeks I’d have it. Of course it’s been so much longer than that. It’s a real investment in terms of learning the craft and getting the equipment,” Cook says. He enjoys the element of surprise that you don’t get with digital. “It’s slow and methodical like film, with an element of ‘fingers crossed’, and it’s so much more rewarding when it works.”
Quinn Jacobson is an American photographer who started his career in the United States military, serving as a combat photographer in the eighties. He’s worked with historic photographic processes for almost two decades, using the wet plate collodion process (1851) as well as daguerreotype (1839) and calotype (1839). Jacobson has published four books and travels around the world teaching the collodion process. In 2003, he created the Wet Plate Collodion Photography Forum – an online portal for lovers of the process worldwide.
Jacobson’s experience reflects that of Cook. A photographer for over 30 years, the work of shooting, processing, and printing film was very satisfying. He explored digital until he no longer felt engaged. “I knew it was over for me . . . The wet plate collodion process saved my photographic life,” he states emphatically. “I started searching for an aesthetic for my project, Portraits from Madison Avenue, and a process that would involve me in the image-making process like film did,” Jacobson says. His enjoyment centred on the ritual of working in a darkroom and processing images by hand, allowing him time to think and follow the natural evolution of a project.
Adopting a technique
Silvi Glattauer is a renowned photo-media artist and educator. An authority on the photopolymer photogravure process, Glattauer is a founding member of the Baldessin Press and studio, located 50 kilometres from Melbourne in the bushland of St Andrews, where she works and runs workshops.
A contributing factor to Glattauer’s choice of process arose from her early love of engravings and etchings. Initially inspired by the traditional etchings of artists like Goya and Rembrandt, Glattauer sought a way to incorporate photography and printmaking during her time studying photography in the late nineties. “I was inspired by the work of Alfred Steiglitz, and Edward Curtis’ series on Native Americans. I was already working in a darkroom, so I particularly related to the technique of handmade work on paper,” Glattauer says. “Traditionally, a photographer would not finalise an image until they were happy with it as a print. My process creates the important connection with the image as an object.” Glattauer’s students also love the element of surprise and magic that stems from the process’ imperfection and unpredictability, “that wow moment” when they pull their print off the press and see it for the first time.
For Glattauer, photogravure enhances her imagery. “With etching, the ink really embeds into the paper and becomes embossed in a unique and sculptural way. It’s these raised lines on the paper that give the work a strength that cannot be replicated with inkjet printers or even darkroom printing.” The beauty lies in the combination of ink and beautiful papers. “You have artistic control of the process, paper, and ink choice, but can also incorporate layers of coloured or Japanese paper. This is something that you cannot do with any of the other processes,” Glattauer says.
Ellie Young is proficient with a broad range of processes, but for her, the four colour carbon process is her passion, “hands down and without hesitation”. For years, Young’s passion was salt prints – the subject of the thesis for her Master of Applied Science (Photography) at RMIT – until one day she saw a mono carbon print by Frank Hurley of the Endurance trapped in the ice in the Antarctic. “I was smitten and I just wanted to take it home,” Young says. “I did some research and travelled to the U.S. to learn mono and some colour work.” Young also loves four colour carbon for its “history, longevity, and the depth of the relief and tones that it offers”.
Like Glattauer, Young loves the surface relief provided by the four colour carbon process. “The surface has a texture you can feel. Four colour carbon is like no other. You lay down the yellow and wait for it to dry, then you lay down the magenta followed the cyan, and black. It’s slow and tedious, but it’s also magic. It was an elite process in its time, commanded the highest prices, and was used to reproduce traditional painting and artworks.” Recently, Young visited the State Library to view a rare book produced in 1868. “The original carbon photographs looked as if they had been created yesterday, the process is so stable and permanent,” she says. While mono carbon is more commonly practiced, Young says that only about 30 people in the world today practice the four colour process. She is only aware of four other teachers of the process, so it remains relatively unique.
Cook also confirms the importance of a tactile experience. “Visually, an image is nothing if you look at it on a screen; it’s flat and boring. You need to hold a tintype in your hands. In the same way that you can see the brushstrokes on an oil painting, it’s beautiful to see the ripples and how it looks in the light.”
Working historical techniques in new ways
Craig Tuffin is a freelance photographer, artist, and educator, living on the Tweed Coast in Northern New South Wales. Tuffin has won numerous awards for his work and is represented by Gold Street Studios in Victoria/Beijing, and the Lebovic Gallery, Sydney. His work is in the official collection of the National Gallery of Australia, as well as many other private and public collections around the world. “I am not interested in making an old looking image using new processes. I am interested in revisualising in a contemporary context,” Tuffin says, who does not have a preferred process, but works with wet plate collodion (ambrotypes, tintypes, and glass negatives), daguerreotypes, and a variety of printing methods (salt, albumen, platinum palladium, carbon, and silver gelatin). “For me, it is important that the medium matches the message,” he states. For his Yahna Ganga series, photographs of Aboriginal Australians, Tuffin used photographic methods that created an image as a singular object (daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes). “These techniques act as metaphors. [They are] intimately linked to the past, and each image has a truly unique characteristic that cannot be altered,” he says.
Tuffin believes that “photographs lie all the time”, but truth is important to him. The images he creates are truthful in the sense that everything that is there at the time of the making, is present in the image. “There is an enhanced sense of honesty. Mistakes can’t be hidden,” he says. Tuffin is a strong advocate for rigour and technique, but loves the serendipity of things that happen along the way. Once he has gained a strong control over the process, he likes to manipulate these idiosyncrasies and use them in a unique and modern way for the story he wants to tell.
Fewer people are using mercury and bromine for daguerreotypes, but they give Tuffin more room for creativity. If you use strong iodine and heat the mercury up, you get strong blues, so you can get creative with colour in a monochromatic process,” he explains. For the image, Stolen, a work about the Stolen Generation, the mother hangs on the fence while the nurse pushes her child away under a vast blue sky. “All of a sudden, the white uniform of the nurse solarised and went blue, creating a more contrary and interesting dialogue,” Tuffin says.
Jacobson also finds that the advantages far outweigh the limitations of the process. “Once you fully understand it, you can see both the technical and conceptual possibilities are both exciting and endless,” he says. For him, the excitement exceeds anything that digital, and even film, can offer. The most important aspect is the aesthetic. “There’s nothing quite like it,” he says. “It’s beautiful, dreamy, honest, and revealing.”
Like Cook, Jacobson confirms that an investment of time and money is needed to get good at it. “I can say, with the utmost confidence, that a person needs at least two or three years working in the process to get proficient at it; about 10,000 hours. Who’s willing to commit to that today?”
Originally from Newcastle upon Tyne, England, Paul Alsop moved to New Zealand in 2010 to work as a doctor. After becoming disillusioned with digital photography, Alsop taught himself film photography in the hospital boiler room after finishing work on the wards. One day, Alsop saw Chuck Close’s portraits of Kate Moss. “I was smitten right then. Close’s images were jaw-dropping and hyper-real, and as Close explained best, ”The only other time you see someone up close in so much detail is when you are making love to them!” He discovered that Close’s images were made with the daguerreotype process, but was not keen on the risks posed by mercury vapour. “I wanted to make awesome images, but not die doing it,” says Alsop. “My research of this period of photography led me to the wet plate collodion process, and the rest is history”.
Alsop takes about 20 minutes to make an image from start to finish. He too is drawn to the slow and purposeful nature of the technique, particularly the characteristic absence of candid moments. “Subjects tend to change their demeanour whilst waiting for an exposure to occur, and I’ve heard people describe the experience as ‘spiritual’. They get time to go to another place in their heads, if only for a few minutes,” Alsop says.
Evidence seems to indicate that those who commit to working with alternative processes do it for the love, and not for the money. “You certainly wouldn’t be in alternative processes to make a fortune,” Young says. “I do it for the love of it, not the money, although my trips to China to teach have been a form of reward because they are so well received,” Young says.
This sentiment is echoed by Glattauer who finds it financially viable due to print sales, especially since she has become known for the photopolymer photogravure process. However, she too mentions doing it for the love of it, and any income generated goes towards enabling her to create more. Like Young, she has found a lot of interest in workshops. “People want to get their hands dirty and have a different experience to digital. My techniques create the perfect marriage between digital and handcrafted print making,” Glattauer says.
Cook shows his tintype plates to agencies and gets an enthusiastic response. In many cases, art directors have never seen them before. He’s converted a caravan into a darkroom for commissions, but believes that it’s only commercially viable if the end result is the tintype itself. Recently, he produced work for Strand Hatters, as their product lends itself well to the technique, and [clothing brand] Fred Perry, although Cook describes it as more like a self-funded campaign or collaboration that will eventually result in an exhibition in London. He also takes commissions for special occasions, recently photographing three generations from one family. “I do evening sessions that take a few hours and it’s a real experience for people, one they can talk about. In 25 years from now, no-one will have any pictures. It’s a big risk putting your faith in technology that will change. Today’s cheap prints are not done on proper paper, they won’t last and will be gone over time, but a tintype will last for 200 years,” Cook says.
Jacobson’s income is derived from selling his books, teaching worldwide, commissions, and selling at exhibitions. He too works to fund his personal projects. “My mother’s people were Navajo, descended from the Ket people, and I’ve started a project that I call, Ghost Dance: Native American Massacre Sites,” says Jacobson who is photographing sites where the American military slaughtered Indians. His focus has been on the massacres that occurred between about 1850 and 1900, at the time that the wet collodion process was in use. ”We need to remind people of the injustice in the world and hope that our contributions will help to change the way we treat people that are different from us,” Jacobson says.
Alsop’s forays into commercial photography have included a commercial shoot for a bespoke eye care company. Consisting of handcrafted fine art portraits in magazines, on billboards, and on the back of buses, he was extremely happy with the end result, but stresses this could not be replicated en mass due to time and cost. Alsop also believes that the novelty would soon wear off if done commercially on more than a handful of occasions. He believes that there is potential via the fine art market, especially with incidental artefacts adding to the fine art element, but adds, “People often ask, ‘Can I have that one, but can you do it in colour?’ demonstrating their fundamental lack of understanding.”
Alternative processes can be exhilarating and rewarding, but it takes time to learn the craft. Using an alternative process alone is not enough. All the principles behind creating good images still apply. The photographers interviewed create powerful portraits, still life, and landscape images, and all have stories to tell. They are interested in raw truth, objects you can touch and hold, and a sense of the everlasting. They are abundantly patient and embrace imperfection. This community is generous in sharing their passion. They may derive income from it, but the overwhelming message is that they are in it for the love.
Entires for The Mono Awards close 30 June.