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Book Review: The Book Of Alternative Photographic Processes by Christopher James

The Book Of Alternative Photographic Processes is an examination of a wide range of developmental process for creating photographic images. These range from well known ones like pinhole and Cyanotype, to more bizarre ones like Gum Bichormate, and Salted Paper.

Author Christopher James, a photographer and Harvard University professor, takes you through all of the chemistry and materials that are needed for each process. He gives a number of ways to make negatives and prepare the printing paper, as well as coaching you to help your understanding and accepting of the enormously variable effects of each method. Alternative is 660 pages and is divided into 23 chapters.

Chapter 1, "The Pinhole: Making Pictures with a Box of Air," begins not only with the background of the pinhole camera, but a good history of photography in general. As the name implies, a pinhole camera is one that uses a simple opening to let in the light on the photographic media.

Chapter 2, "The Salted Paper Process," is the first type of paper print used in photography. It uses salt as one of the main ingredients and was popular until around the 1850s. Chapter 3, "The Calotype Process & the Art of Fixing Shadows," shows you how this and the salted paper process share the same basic history. Here you will see how to make a calotype paper negative that can be utilized for contact printing with the salted paper process.

Chapter 4, "The Negative: Alternative Process Options," now looks at options within the rapidly shrinking availability of negative film world. These include the use of photogram materials, acrylic lifts, and calotype-like paper negatives. Chapter 5, "The Digital Options: Odd History, Workflows for Negatives, and the Digital Arts," examines the new world of digital photography, and how, with the use of Photoshop, you can simulate techniques that would take an exceeding long time in the traditional lab.

Chapter 6, "The Anthotype & Chlorophyll Process: The Art of Printing with Flowers and Vegetation," is a very simple process and easy to do. The biggest problem is the care and handling to preserve the final images. Chapter 7, "The Cyanotype Process," is generally one of the first processes learn in alternative photography because of it's almost failsafe technique.

Chapter 8, "Cyanotype: Variations & Adaptations," now examines the possibilities of creating large cyanotype murals with sensitized fabrics as well as other alterations of the process learned in chapter 7. Chapter 9, "The Argyrotype Process," is a process that is practiced by very few because of the fact that you would have to make your own sensitizer. That problem has been solved now that a company is making it for you. This process should gain more momentum over the course of the next few years.

Chapter 10, "The Van Dyke, B-V-D & Brownprint," are types of prints that use a sensitizer and then the print is either toned in one of several toning options or fixed and washed for permanence. Chapter 11, "The Kallitype Process," is a related process to the one in chapter 10 replacing the ferric ammonium citrate with ferric oxalate giving the prior process a different look.

Chapter 12, "The New Chrysotope Process," offers split color options involving gray, pinks, magenta, browns, violets, blues, and greens. Chapter 13, "The Platinum/Palladium Process," uses precious metals, sunlight, and water to make an image. Here you will see what it takes to make this visually beautiful style o print.

Chapter 14, "The Ziatype Process," is one of the most accessible and user-friendly processes. Add to that is the fact that that is open to individual exploration which makes it a fun process to work with. Chapter 15, "Paper and Alternative Substrates: History, Considerations, Preparations, & Sizing," is now looked at because the next chapter requires you to be well versed in the preparation of the paper to use the process.

Chapter 16, "The Gum Bichormate Process," appears to be an uncomplicated process. But as one gets into it, it reveals itself to be one of the most complex in the alternative genre. Chapter 17, "Dichromate Options: The Chromatype, the Dusting-On Process, Alternative Surfaces for Gum, 3-D Gum Bichromate," examines some esoteric processes, contemporary adaptations of older procedures, and ones that had a limited degree of popularity when first conceived.

Chapter 18, "The Carbon Print Process," is similar to the Gum Bichromate process, but uses pigment and a bichromated colloid. While it is labor intensive, it is renowned for its archival quality. Chapter 19, "POP: Printing Out Paper," is a generic name that goes back to 1891. It is a type of paper that prints out without requiring a developer to be fully realized.

Chapter 20, "Tintypes & Hand Applied Emulsions," now looks at commercially made, hand applied, liquid emulsion. It also describes their idiosyncrasies as well as how they can be applied to glass, wood, and metal. Chapter 21, "The Albumen Process," use egg whites, salt, and other less appetizing chemicals to create these beautiful style of images.

Chapter 22, "Wet Collodion & Gelatin Dry Plate Emulsion," looks at a process that provided the detail prized in a daguerreotype as well as an introduction into gelatin dry plate emulsion. Chapter 23, "Light Making: Photographic Alternatives," is about alternative ways of making and thinking about photography. Discussed here are ways of making marks with light.

Seven Appendices are included and contain information about working with chemicals safely which contains a list of all the chemicals used in the book and how they can cause injury, a volume conversion table, light and exposure options, working space, a shopping list, and resources and internet sites.

In Alternative, each chapter is laid out with an introduction, and then a short history of the process; which many times is quite extensive. From there you then look at the process itself which usually begins with the table set up that explains what is needed for this process and then a step-by-step guide to working the process.

James uses a very conversational style of voice and while he does a great job of explaining the techniques, he does so in a manner that you would expect if he were in the room with you.

The Book Of Alternative Photographic Processes is a must own for anyone who works with, or wants to learn about, alternative photographic processes. It is also very valuable for those in the creative arts who want to examine and understand the differing styles and looks of these types of images. In fact, even if you never use one of his processes, the book is still provides a good read and very interesting images. I highly recommend this book.

About T. Michael Testi

Photographer, writer, software engineer, educator, and maker of fine images.

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