The Alternative Processes Are they worth it? - part 1 of 1 2

by Mike McNamee Published 01/04/2006

As a general rule, alternative processes include imagemaking methods that were swept aside by the march of silver gelatine, a more flexible process with perceived higher quality or lower cost. They do, however have an ardent following and as they are used mainly to create monochrome images (not always black and white) they are worthy of discussion for this mono-feature-magazine. We visited a number of websites as part of our research but you could do worse than try

I have never felt that an image should be shown undue reverence just because it was made with a mixture of frogs' legs and newts' eyes, boiled in a cauldron for days on end. Mike Ware discusses the topic in some depth (and with great perception) in an essay reproduced at www.mikeware.demon.; (it was originally reproduced in Contemporary Photography in 1996). Ware objects to the BJP comment that "...fine art riddled with archaic printing processes." He seems compelled to challenge the implied prejudice - presumably the connotations of the word riddled. All points of view are accepted at Professional Imagemaker. It is interesting to read his comments on the Photographic Society's "Fading Committee" of 1855 - nothing changes! At least the carbon, palladium and platinum prints have demonstrated their longevity with examples at the RPS dating back to c1880. However we don't know how many prints have died on the way. The practitioners of photography at these times were essentially experimentalists with a distinct leaning towards chemistry and physics. There is no sound reason to suppose, therefore, that they represent the leading pictorial thinking and reasoning of the day - they are in the archives because they have lasted the course either through luck, or skill, in chemistry.

In striving to improve the ease of use and quality of the prints, our photographic forebears came up with a process that is consistently mimicked today - sepia coloured prints. The fact that Printing out Papers created a sepia tone within an inexpensive, long- lasting image, has resulted in most people owning photographs from their grandparents (and before), which look "old". This has fuelled a nostalgia for such images, which carries all the way to Photoshop CS2. This has built-in sepia actions, as do many modern digital printers and cameras.

Is it worth it?

This is the nub of the matter - is it worth mimicking a gumbichromate in Photoshop. No matter how similar it might look when framed up, an ink-jet print remains an ink-jet print and will never be a gum-bichromate. The creator is thus forced to confront the fundamental question as to whether the muted tones are of value in their own right, on a purely visual basis. It takes a higher level of courage to rip up a print that has taken hours (or days) to create, compared with ripping up an ink-jet print that only took a click of the mouse and a wait over a cup of tea. Nevertheless a poor image is a poor image regardless of its making!

We are well into a philosophical debate now. Is a car, oneoff, hand-made with patience and skill, a better means of getting from A to B safely and comfortably than a car built by robots, controlled by clicking mice? Is a craftsman-built, brick wall better at holding up a roof than a poured-concrete slab? The bricklayer will get more satisfaction from his day's work, the owner may prefer it to look at, but as to holding the roof above the ground, both are equally good. If the purpose of the print is to convey a message, the identical-looking cyanotype and ink-jet print both, by definition, do the same job, and equally well. The cyanotype printer may have more satisfaction from their work but this does not show up in the final print, we have already agreed that they look the same. The cyanotype may last longer, but not necessarily. Although alternative materials such as platinum, palladium and carbon are inherently very stable, they are still supported on paper - the weak link in the chain. For every print that has lasted in the RPS archives for more than 100 years there are bins full of prints that crumbled due to poor processing and acid backing media. Today's alternative printer has no way of knowing if his craftsmanship will last the course (my own iron-toned prints have decayed quite badly despite careful making and storing). Tantalisingly, the main constituent of ink-jet pigments is the same stable carbon that is used in carbon printing - black and white ink-jet prints always do better in fade testing.

The Future

This is the really philosophical question. When will silver halide gelatine printing join the ranks of alternative processes? On most previous occasions, new technology has displaced the old over a period of time. Digital has swept through photography as fast as any other new technology. The Daguerreotype was swept aside by the arrival of Talbot's calotype with its ability to create many prints from one exposure (the Daguerreotype was a one-shot job) - this was a technology that disappeared very quickly indeed (although there is still an example in the McNamee family archives!). It lasted little more than a decade

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