I sort of slipped into a passion for photography. Sad to say I do not have stories to tell about hours spent in high school darkrooms under the tutelage of an Ansel Adams-esque grandfatherly teacher. I do not have fond memories of the smell of the chemistry. I was not handed a simple camera as a wee-lad and turned loose into the wilds of mother nature only to fall deeply in love with the capturing of images. No, my love of photography has a much humbler beginning. I have a sale-induced impulse buy at Best Buy to thank. Yes, I’m a full fledged digitally birthed photographer.
This will be a three part series during which I would like to share with you the wide open creative space referred to as “alternative photographic processes.” There’s a bit of irony in it all as what were essentially evolutionary steps in the photographic arts, each building on its predecessor or being due to efforts to resolve shortcomings in a predecessor, are now the stuff of which great artistic expression is made and ends in themselves. Never mind all that though. Let me just say this though, yes, I do encourage everyone to take the time to understand the evolution of photography. It’s absolutely incredible and a joy to take in.
The first installment, this very one, will sort of set the stage and I’ll share with you my journey into all this alternative stuff. The second and third installments will focus on the Van Dyke prints and the Kallitype respectively. These are both wonderful first steps into chemical processes that really let you fly and explore. In each of these I will clearly explain the process, point you towards the best reference material, share lessons learned and document my first efforts with a case study which I will set up in this installment. What I really hope you get out of this is a willingness to step out from behind your computer and explore this mysterious and wonderful world. Yes, it’s worth the effort.
For many the digital experience is photography. It’s where they were born and it’s where they live. Nothing wrong with that at all. Now, many will complain about the “unleash the beast” 60 frames per second whipper-snapping-lottery “roll the dice papa needs a brand new awesome shot” approach that digital can induce and the “digital art” that comes from the fingers of photoshop maestro manipulators labeling it all NOT REAL photography. Oh, lest we forget, the OBSESSIVE quest for “sharpness.” My attitude is sort of a big “WHO CARES!” If you produce a pleasing image, well, good for you. If people like it and that matters to you, well again good for you.
As much as I personally do not like a lot of over engineered psycho-sharp (I call it “plastique” ) digital photography I also do not like photography where the means is more important than the end. Wet plate collodion is a case in point. There are so many boring or crap photos out there that have as there single point of merit the poor craftsmanship and execution of the wet plate process which yields a “Jackson Pollock was here and he had his way with my photo” sort of effect on the final image. The fact that someone utilized an obscure process, poorly (intentionally or not), does not justify the fact that the photo is just a photo of, well, a tree or a teapot. Give me a break! Throw that puppy into photoshop and add a few flying demon moneky-nuns into the mix perhaps fighting with a fire breathing dragons head, oh and maybe all this goes down in Central Park by a TREE yet it’s really all inside a teapot which is pouring out into a cup that’s about to be sipped on by a bear! Surrealist-tastic!
Ok, so I was not that far along into camera ownership before I started shooting billions, and I mean BILLIONS, of photos all the time of everything. I had a folder on my computer called “Best of the Best” and it was overflowing. I joined every imaginable website I could and just graced the masses repeatedly with my masterworks. I purchased external hard drives, yeah multiple, and I joined Linda.com to hone my Adobe suite skills. I studied all aspects of tricks and tips. I was on a roll.
I don’t know precisely when it was, but the luster wore off and the entire thing just began to feel lifeless. The thrill of learning to use my camera, to use the software, of the social sharing, comparing and complimenting just started to get to me. I sort of got bored. This was not art to me. It was a bit soulless. TO ME.
Shortly before my photography career hiccuped, I had started to just look on the open web for interesting images. Ted Forbes, the Art of Photography, had caught my eye and I had poured through his videos with a particular focus on his reviews of artists and books. Please check him out. What a wonderful guy and wonderful resource.
YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/theartofphotography
Before long I was studying and learning about all variety of photographers and developing an interest in many. I continued to collect images and began to establish a collection of photographs that just stirred my soul.
Flash forward and it was not long before I found myself a bit intrigued by film photography. You see, having amassed a small collection of photographs I just adored, the word “sublime” more than once crossing my mind as I looked at them, it was my naive assumption that they were all just shot with “film.” I mean, they were old and film is what old photographs were done with! So, I decided to give film a go and I loved it.
Before long, I was well into my exploration and self-education working with film. I was shooting black and white film across multiple formats and had, much to my surprise, discovered that I could in fact develop my own color film as well. AMAZING!! OH JOY! This just keeps getting better!
Life was good. Well, this is where the wrinkle comes in. You see, I had this one negative I shot with my 4×5. I loved everything about the image. I knew it would be something I’d like as I stood there preparing to take the shot. Everything seemed ideal. Well, sure enough after I developed it and took a hard look at the negative I knew I’d done well. I scanned it in and again was just giddy. I made a number of prints in my new bathroom darkroom and I made equally as many digital prints on my new Canon Pixma PRO-1 using my two favorite Canson papers. While I liked them all, none of them hit the mark. The mark was the image, the vision, in my mind. I just could not produce an image that reflected what I saw in my head. The image in my mind had the essence of many of the photographs I’d collected. No amount of photoshop ingenuity even came close to be honest.
Well, I decided to do some research; some research on some of those photos. In the end I spent a great deal of time and effort looking into the photographs, the photographers, the techniques, tools and methods. I was blown away. In the end, none of them were really just “film.” To be quite honest, I’d never heard of most of what I was uncovering. Before long I’d completed an exhaustive, to me, journey through the history of photography. This left me a bit dismayed! It all seemed so out of reach to me.
I did know for sure that there was just something magic about the images which I’d collected. Something that I could in no way come close to approximating through my work on the computer; digital or film based. I felt certain that I’d let this wonderful negative of mine down. I was beginning also to understand that the ultimate outcome of my photographic efforts was a print. Something that I could hold in my hand or put up on the wall.
What a rabbit hole I’d fallen into.
I gave quite a bit of consideration to my favorite negative and reflected upon what I’d read and the images I’d collected and admired. I was convinced that this wonderful negative I’d produced would work perfectly with the Van Dyke process. Keep in mind I’d never actually seen a Van Dyke print in real life. Internet baby!! Yeah…anyway….
I’ll be honest. I was a bit unnerved about working with chemicals. Compared to the pretty straightforward chemistry I’d been using to develop my film and make prints, this was like chemistry class. I mean, seriously, mixing REAL chemicals together. It all seemed, as new things do, so big, complex and foreign. Well, I set up a small workspace in the room outside of my bathroom darkroom and went ahead and ordered the chemicals from Bostick; I got the “kit”–SNAP! Kits are good.
When all is said and done, this first step into alternative processes did more for me as a photographer than I could ever have imagined. How’s that you ask? Well, because what I thought would be a very cut and dry “next and final step” ended up and incredible journey in its own right.
You see, what I failed to appreciate was that within the process of making a Van Dyke print, there are just tons of things that you need to consider and dial in. None of it’s really hard or complicated, but then again it’s not like your going to just immediately pop out your vision first thing. Yes, the entire activity of learning how to control the ultimate outcome and then just dialing it all in through trial and error, until you reach that result which, and I’m not kidding here, when you finally see it just makes you smile ear-to-ear, is incredible!
This was something I’d never experienced in such an intense manner. I became obsessed keeping exquisite notes every time I ran through a print. I was careful in what I’d change through each effort. Over the course of a month I made a dozen prints until one night, I made, to me, THE print. I’m not saying it’s the same, but holy crap I had the pride of a new parent.
I spent a good deal of time reflecting throughout all this. What could be daunting, but in reality is sort of the wonder of it all, is that you have to go through this with every single image you want to make. Yeah, it’s akin to traditional darkroom efforts, but it’s WAY more hands on in a weird artsy kind of way.
I cannot recommend enough an exploration into the “alternative” processes world of photographic arts. Do not be put off by the chemistry, rather take your time and read, read, read, read….and just work through it. Van Dykes, in comparison to the processes I ended up delving into, are quite simple in terms of logistics and really not that expensive at all to get going with. They’re still one of my favorites and first choices for many photographs. Kallitypes are another.
I look forward to sharing with you over the next two installments my experiences with both Van Dyke and Kallitype prints. Note: Please see my Buy This Book post…and BUY THAT BOOK!! Trust me…you’ll thank me.