Whenever we think about alternative processes in photography, what comes to our minds, is a sort of brownish prints with undefined edges and cloudy images. Many people associate this kind of roughness to constrains given by early phases of films and printing development. But actually that was not the case when alternative processes, as we call today, became popular. It was all purposely made that way. This imagery we have stems from the work of "pictorialists". They were photographers, many of them not professionals, that wanted to register images in a way that they would look like painting. They were in the spotlight at the beginning of XX century and after that, this kind of goal, became sort of kitsch. Their counterparts advocated the "straight" photography. It is not easy to tell what "straight" means in that context. Roughly we can say that it calls for the best sharpness one can get and no tricks in too much changing values, textures and no manual work on negative and print: letting only the light and chemistry do the job. Whatever we say or think about the doubtful purpose that imitation has in itself, pictorialists paved the way to have photography considered as art. They believed that it should be somehow mimicking the way art looked at that time. The "straight" ones, envisaged that photography could have its on language with no need to simulate the brush stroke or whatever characteristic painting has. The latter ones won the dispute and emancipated photography as a complete and self-assured art form as we know today. But a previous victory was necessary and that is the one of opening the art galleries, the art world, to the new media. That we owe very much to the pictorialists.
At the very beginning of photography, 1840 or so, there were two different processes of getting a permanent image captured by lenses: daguerreotypes and talbotypes (or otypes, or yet calotypes), each one bearing the inventor's name despite the fact that photography was actually the result of many many contributions. The one of Daguerre consisted of printing in a silver plate polished to perfection. The final print was the actual plate used in the camera. The result was an image so sharp and rich in details that the limit seemed to be our eyes and not the picture. The other, Fox Talbot, created a negative/positive process that used a matrix of waxed paper in the camera to be afterwards printed in the final exhibition copy. In the latter, most of the details were lost. Tonal values were compressed accentuating the contrast.
In both cases the processes of image making was sought at first as a mechanical one. It was nature reproducing itself through light. The aim was to document images for educational, scientific and military purposes with more speed and fidelity than illustration. Of course portraits and family memories were amongst the top usages of photography as well.
The Daguerre's method showed the fine details and the negative/positive, not as good on that point, had as a strength the matrix for infinite reproduction. We could say that Talbot discovered a way to "print" the photographic image. The coarse image of talbotypes and affined was something to be improved and indeed it was with the glass plate. But, rather than a setback, some people started to see that handicap as a source for artistic exploration. We must remember that the impressionism gained the popularity it has until today at the same period. Many painters experimented photography and many photographers were formerly painters. Not only the moment, the light, the movement, all so praised by impressionists were the essentials of "the pencil of nature", but also departs from reality by montage and other tricks were rapidly joined to the trade of those pioneers.
So at the same time that some went to register historical places, distant lands, wars, future ancestors and nature, others started using the media to create something unseen before. Roger Fenton was not only the photographer of queen Victoria and family but took also thousands of pictures of distant places like Crimea and Russia. Pictures that wanted in first place to be a register of things he witnessed. Completely different aims had Oscar Rejlander famous for his "Two ways of life", a print made by assembling several negatives and that finally "looks like" an academic painting. Curious enough, today, Fenton's not artistically pretentious pictures are better praised by art galleries than the home made allegories by photographers like Rejlander.
Crimea - 1855- Roger Fenton - British
Two ways of life - 1857- Oscar Rejlander - Sweedish
Another one is Julia Margaret Cameron that used the media to do exactly what its immediatism would theoretically ever reject: make things that are common and familiar look far and belonging to another world. That is exactly the formula we find in romantic art so no wonder that many people were enthusiastic about her evanescent figures, from the bible or mythology, in the second half of the XIXth century.
Julia Margaret Cameron - British - 1868
Not going as far as Julia Margaret Cameron or Oscar Rejlander, but using the media in a more pictorial way, via the suppression of details and working with masses of light and shade, there is the work of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson that were adopted by pictorialists as their very predecessors. They had a partnership in producing portraits using calotypes. Hill was a painter and so he was in charge of the artistic direction of their seaters and Adamson took the pictures.
Professor George Moir - David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson - 1843/1847
Salt print from Calotype negative
So we can say that from its very beginning photography had this two folded approach. Should the ideal picture be like a clean window or should the glass bent the view to transform what we see in something else ? Much latter, the pictorialists took the second option and made like a step back in image making. By the end of the XIX century, when the sharpness and large tonal value, so much sought after by the decades that followed the invention of photography, was somehow achieved, they advocated the use of processes that would give it away. Endless discussions took place to establish what would be the realm of photography. It was clear that the technics had a role to play and the correct approach passed by a definition of the "correct way" to capture and print images.
One very revealing point of view about the meaning behind the means of representation in photography was pointed out by Ian Jeffrey in his "Photography, a concise history". That is David Octavius Hill's assessment of his work in a letter he wrote in 1848. Showing the shortcomings of Talbot's process in rendering details he was very often compared to Rembrandt and about this feature Hill wrote:"The rough and unequal texture throughout the paper is the main cause of the calotype failing in details before the Daguerreotype...and it is the very life of it. They look like the imperfect work of man... and not the much diminished perfect work of God."
Somebody a bit familiar with art history may recognize that we saw this kind of paradox before. The work of God represented through extreme detailing of each and every object with its very own texture and yet showing a somehow diminished , because not so convincing, impression, fits perfectly to the gothic art at the end of middle age. If reality is taken as the work of God, we must go for a symbolic representation of it like gothic artists did. It is a matter of respect and humility do not try to skip a single blade of grass. Everything there must have a name and a role, a reason to be there. In northern Europe this descriptive approach was developed to its limits. No superfluous brush strokes can be found in a Van Eycks'. Due to the growing humanist spirit, these artists, from the manuscripts to the renascence, they worked more and more to make that iconography also empirically correct, but never sensually correct. As the pope Gregory the Great said "painting presents to the illiterate what writing offers to those who can read", no matter how far in naturalism artists would evolve, they would still produce images to be read.
The Lucca Madonna - Jan van Eyck - 1436
The ironic fact about it is that when reality is just the immanent world, in our minds, for our reading of it, details can be misleading. Because they do not mean like they do in Jan van Eyck's painting. The subordination principle in renascence's art that replaced the juxtaposition from middle age represents the work of our rational thinking to dominate nature. To cast logic where the secularization of that nature would leave only chaos.
When David Octavius Hill says that Daguerreotypes show a diminished version of God's work he is probably referring to the automatism of the media: to the fact that light is the real and only painter there. The photographer does not interfere very much in the making of it. But he was probably as well concerned by the fact that actually doesn't make sense to aim a perfect copy. The imperfect work of man brings life to the representation, brings value, exactly when it assumes to be a new and different thing.
To continue with our analogy, when we leave the medievals, when the work of man is brought to the fore, Leonardo came with the "sfumatto", a kind of soft focus effect like the one produced by the waxed paper negative in calotypes.Coincidence? I don't think so.
Virgin and child with Saint Anne - Leonardo da Vinci - 1502/1516
The sharpness of a painted or photographed image and also the lighting, contrast, composition, perspective, colours, lines and volume are the set of resources that image makers have to create things somehow linked to a previous experience registered in viewers' mind and somehow new because interpreted by the artist. The same way oil painting has a different tool-box compared to frescoes or lithography so does photography. But once the image is there our brain decodes these stylistic effects in a mixed way. A sfumatto or a calotype will always be closer to the "work of man" and a sharp and detailed image will be always closer to the depicted subject either we call it the work of god or just reality.
As the talbotypes and derivatives evolved to the glass and 'plastic' negatives and to modern silver gelatin paper, daguerreotypes were rapidly abandoned. Other processes like gum dichromate, bromoil, cyanotypes, gumoil, etc took over the foreground as the processes for those who wanted deliberatively interfere in the image making. Having an array of possibilities to choose from, photographers discussed what would be the right way to go.
Being artists or feeling that they should do something to deserve to be, they wanted to add value in the process. The same way painting evolved from craftsmanship to mental work, photography had to do a parallel transformation not in centuries but in a few hectic decades. From a mechanical reproduction process to an art form. For the pictorialists, just letting the light alone, could not be called an artistic creation. They needed to use their hands, brushes and have this physical contact with their work. On top of that by adopting themes, composition and simulating the finish of painting they believed they would worth a place in the art scene and why not a museum some day.
The straight photographers had the same ambition but dared to create a new language that was not an attempt to emulate painting nor in the finish and neither in the themes and composition. They were right. On the other side the pictorialists used to say that even in the most candid picture there is already a lot of manipulation when we choose the film, the frame, the contrast, the paper and at the end there is no "straight photography" at all. So, once we are the creators anyway, why not go all the way and scratch the negative, paint over the print, bleach it or whatever if we feel like doing it ? They were right too.
When Kodak launched the 35mm film in day loading cartridges in 1934 they named the compact cameras built to use them, Retina. A camera name couldn't express better what photography had turned to. It was all about the automatic register of immediate reality. Far from the made up pictures from the pictorialists phase impregnated with symbolism. In 1939 Kodak published in France, an amateur's handbook called "La photographie petit format". In the foreground it states clearly the emancipation of the media: "At the beginning of the century avant-garde photographers strive to copy painting saying: why photography can't be as art? Obsessed to prove their artistic value, our predecessors, printed images that looked like bad black and white canvas. After these mediocre attempts, photography came out of the limbus. It evolved in a new sense created by and for it. We don't ask today if it is as good as painting. It is different, and doesn't ask outside its own nature its means for perfecting."
Today the technics used by pictorialists are known as 'alternative processes'. Alternative in opposition to the industrialized silver emulsion used in 'normal' black and white photography. But one interesting point, that did not concern our ancestors pictorialists or straight photographers, and calls for a revision of our concept for art piece, is the idea of "original". Alternative brings also an idea of reaction to the mainstream where the art piece is being questioned again about its nature.
As digital imaging invades the scene the concept of original tends to vanish because a copy in hard disk has absolutely the same nature of the file in a memory card. The art work has no physical existence anymore. It is an idea, a string of zeros and ones that can be kept as a formula and reproduced anywhere. Artists are numbering and signing the copies but that doesn't change the fact they are just copies. A negative is an object, a digital file is information, is something abstract.
First consequence for me is that now we can think normal B&W or color photography at last in peace with bromoils and gum dichromats and name them all: alternative processes. Instead of completely fading away, we perceive a growing interest in part because the 'original" here is still the hero. Why ? I think we are afraid of jumping too fast into this new adventure, loosing the materiality of art. It is the vanguard wave bouncing at the thresholds of a new era. In this arena, of classic or alt photography, the artist has yet some physical contact with his work. Scratching negatives, applying emulsion, dodging the light, mixing the chemicals and even touching the print surface with his hands and brush strokes. In the digital world images are pixilated and edited in a LCD screen. All we can see is copy of something immaterial, that is downloaded to a printer or another screen, and what we get is another copy again. The alt processes, are so indisputable more primitive and concrete that they end up looking more 'artistic'. The 'aura is there', we can breath in relief. The silver gelatin has a nature that today tells more to ourselves than a string of bytes. Probably that will change too.
Alfred Stieglitz - American - 1864-1946
The Steerage - after this picture Stieglitz started to
This is a timeline with the main processes for negatives and prints in B&W nd color. It gives an idea of what was available in each period. It is in French but it is easy to read anyway.