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Traveling the Alternative Road

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

I first met Christopher James in the mid-1980s when I was learning location lighting at the Maine Photographic Workshops in Rockport, Maine. I was studying at the time with Neil Selkirk; my wife Judy was taking Christopher's master class in alternative photographic processes. At the end of each long workshop day, my wife and I would compare notes about our classes. I would be brimming with enthusiasm for the latest lighting trick Neil had taught us, and how we had used that trick in the studio or on the streets of Rockport, where residents had become used to seeing photographers doing their thing with varying degrees of success.

Judy's stories would be less energetic, but no less magical. Hers was a studio course that involved comparatively little roaming around Rockport. Christopher wove his spell in the darkroom and in the studio, showing how different photographers could use different means to achieve the same end: a beautiful photographic image based on any number of alternative processes.

Now, after years of effort – and gathering hundreds of images, his own as well as those of other master photographers and many of his students – Christopher has produced a superb book that likely will stand for years as the definitive text on alternative photography. The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes (Delmar Thomson Learning, 386pp. $46.95) not only is a pleasure to look at, it is a pleasure to read.

"My intention was to create a resource that was interesting to read and 'user friendly' and to write a flexible guide that would encourage readers to see what might happen if they let creativity, and interdisciplinary associations, out to play," James notes in his introduction. "To paraphrase Mark Twain, it hardly matters when your technique is great if your imagination is out of focus."

James's book actually is the end-product of his decades of teaching – in fact it is an elegant compilation and expansion of the teaching notes he provided his legions of students – at Harvard, where he taught for more than a decade, at the Maine Photographic Workshops, where he regularly hangs his hat during the summer, and at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University, where he is now the chair of the Photography Department.

To photographers like myself, whose personal work often is straight black and white documentary photography, a book that describes how to print photos on bed sheets may seem like an odd favorite. Let me say here: Much "alternative" work leaves me cold. I find far too much of it overproduced and under-inspired – a photographic throwback to the '70s, in which multi-layered images with mannered borders and fringes, used to tart up pedestrian photographs, resemble not so much inspired imagery as tie-dyed T-shirts.

That said, James's book does much to dispel the notion that alternative process work is only about process. What sets this book apart from other books – that too often rely on the not-always-wonderful work of the author alone – is the gorgeous sampling of first-rate work by so many photographers, among them Sally Mann, George Tice, Anna Atkins, Julia Margaret Cameron, Jerry Uelsmann, Judy Vejvoda, Dick Sullivan and Deborah Luster. Virtually all of the work here, whether it be Luster's sensuous nude done with silverprint liquid emulsion on aluminum panels, or Sullivan's austere ziatypes (an offshoot of platinum/palladium), shows first and foremost a respect for the image. Only then does the alternative process chosen to display the image come into play, to create a satisfying, often beautiful, union.

James covers both pre- and postproduction processes. That is, he devotes much space in this hefty, beautifully printed volume to alternative cameras as well as to alternative processes once the image is made. Which suits me just fine since I like my conventional black and white darkroom just fine, thanks. What does intrigue me these days – and intrigues Chris James, too, judging from all the great images he displays – is the Holga camera, the Chinese-made plastic toy that I have written so much about recently.

James achieves simply marvelous results with the Holga, the Diana and other "toys" and shares with the reader an enthusiasm for the creative process that is refreshingly free of self-conscious artspeak or obtuse academic verbiage. In describing the marvels of the pinhole camera, for example, James not only provides solid (if easy to grasp) optical science, he illustrates the pinhole's remarkable depth of field with a whimsical portrait of a big toe. [To explain: The big toe is attached to a young woman who is visible in the background of this image, made with a pinhole camera outfitted with a 4x5 Polaroid back. Also visible beyond the woman is a volleyball net some 50 yards distant. Everything from the toe to the net are rendered sharply. End of lesson.]

If I approach this book from the standpoint of someone who frankly is unlikely to try most of the processes described, the really adventurous will find in this book first-rate, step-by-step instructions that emphasize safety, ease and clarity. I admit: I may not be champing at the bit to turn my next picture into a Kallitype or a laser transfer, but, dammit, I now know what they are. And if I were to try these or any of the other processes described, I wouldn't need to look any further.

Finally, the very fact that James's book appears now points up the creative continuum that sometimes is forgotten in all the hoopla over digital photography today, especially the ridiculous idea that digital photography means the death of all photography that preceded it. Artists nowadays, James notes, "are embracing, in this digital age, the interdisciplinary potential of alternative processes; the marriage of nineteenth century handmade craft, science and romanticism in concert with twenty-first century technologies and conceptual perceptions."

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

Years in the making, Christopher James's treatise on alternative processes should stand for years as a definitive, user-friendly and very readable sourcebook for all photographers.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

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