The World is Flat, Until It’s Not: Definitions in Photography
In order to communicate effectively, words need to mean something. Definitions must be made. Labels must be had. Humans are really great organizers. We put things into categories and groups to easier understand and make sense of massive amounts of data.
The problem? We tend to get stuck or stay with what we know or what we have been taught to understand. Once in a while we break the rules or push the envelope of discovery but we are very tribal in our nature to congregate with like-minded people. Although the definitions change all the time, many of us get caught up in being right. Despite our lack of knowledge or use of the word ‘opinion’ to hide behind our lack of being informed, there is a need to be recognized by our camps, our peers, and our neighbors. We form alliances with what we know. People have their favorite sports teams, political positions, religion, and in this case, photographic ideas.
What defines photography is not the same as it was 100 years, 10 years, 1 year or even 1 minute ago. It is not a flat and critically defined category of a few camera processes. The world was flat until proven otherwise. We know what we know until we challenge or find evidence of another outcome. This conflict spans many genres and certainly includes people working in alternative process, yet another defined term in serious debate and contention. This conflict includes 3D artists who only use photographs as a medium, much like a painter uses paint. It includes artists who use photographs in collage or montage. It includes cameraless image-making using light sensitive materials such as a photogram. It is analog, it is digital.
Let’s look at a definition. Wikipedia folks agree on alternative process as being defined as:
“The term alternative process refers to any non-traditional or non-commercial photographic printing process. Currently, the standard analog photographic printing process is the gelatin silver process, and standard digital processes include the pigment print, and digital laser exposures on traditional color photographic paper.
Alternative processes are often called historical, or non-silver processes. Most of these processes were invented over 100 years ago and were used by early photographers.”
Additionally, some online users in various alt process groups define it more loosely in that it is any process that is an alternative to popular methods. Some believe that silver gelatin prints are still a popular process while others wish that it would be considered alternative. Many artists are excluded from alternative process competitions and juried events because of this debate. They are not allowed to share their work in alternative process groups and other limitations. The same goes for artists who use digital capture and Photoshop to construct their art.
Many traditional users of historical processes consider only a narrow group of photographic processes to be alternative. Some believe that if you use digital materials in any way then you are not working with historical photographic processes. The use of the phrase historical photographic processes is another term used by some to describe alternative processes.
Try not to think of people with strict or loose definitions as being wrong, but instead, try to respect their practice and open up a dialog. I like to think that any of us can have our minds open to other views and respect one another regarding our passion for using photographic methods in image making.
These examples are just a few of the positions people make a stand for in order to form a camp, be in a group or be part of a collective with similar ideas and ideals. It doesn’t mean that they are right or wrong, just simply using a particular definition or comfortable in their level of understanding.
In fact, the title of my book conforms to what some people consider alternative process. In other respects, it breaks the rules by including processes that some don’t consider to be accurately labeled alternative process. Ultimately the title is used as a beacon for readers to have a basic idea of what the book is about. The publisher’s and I came to this title for many reasons due to conflicts with other titles, marketing to our little corner of the photography world and other reasons but I’d like to move forward and just call it all ‘photographic processes’. Perhaps one day we can move even further still and call it process. How much does it matter if an artist’s materials are light sensitive? Does it really matter if they use a camera? I am still a photographer but don’t think of me as such. Think of me as an artist, someone compelled to make things.
Worry less about how things are made and start asking more critical thinking questions about why. Let’s honor the intention of the artists and instead of criticizing HOW they got there, support them and learn something by asking them or yourself, why. Why did you make this art? What does it mean to you? How do I feel about this work? What was the artist trying to communicate? Is there a message at all? Is it purely aesthetic?
I’d like to challenge you to let loose the hard-line definitions and break your human addiction of labeling things. While some people argue about it, and while others write about it, go make art out of it.
Time to follow my own advice…
Alternative Photographic Processes: Crafting Handmade Images by Brady Wilks – Save 20% when ordering from focalpress.com. Use discount code FOC20 at checkout.