[Alt-photo] IS IT ALT?

Christina Z. Anderson christinazanderson at gmail.com
Wed Nov 14 15:41:56 UTC 2018

Dear All,

I don’t know if I can add anything to the discussion except my opinion.

The term was definitely coined in relation to those who turned away from big box stores (Kodak) gelatin silver paper so in spirit it actually meant “alternative” to commercial interests. It was intentional to practice photography in a different direction, like a “movement.” Or so I read, since I wasn’t part of this movement. Maybe not as groundbreaking as Picasso and Bracques adding bits of non-painting material to their paintings that threw everyone for a loop (but “mixed media” is pretty easy to define).

Then the term stuck. Any photographically related imagemaking means of photography other than commercial gelatin silver paper was alt. Xeroxing was alt. I’ve got all the alt books I think ever printed (including the experimental BW photography ones, too, some from an earlier time). One of these days when life settles I can go chapter by chapter and list all the processes under the term; that would be interesting!! Even then it seemed every book had a different slant and a different set of processes included (though the usual suspects were cyanotype, vandyke brown, platinum, gum).

Today “alternative” has a much more loaded meaning so alt-pro is a bit awkward, but in the spirit of being an alternate choice to mainstream, it still applies.

When Focal Press asked me to be an editor for the Contemporary Practices in Alternative Process Photography series (their title), I just bit the bullet and lived with it because that cow is out of the proverbial barn, although I think “handmade print” is a bit more appropriate. However, “handmade” would imply that digital is not handmade or even “machine made” and that is awkward (arggghhh). There are those who say a digital photograph is not a photograph because it is not written by light, and technically there’s truth in that, that in photography we have strayed from the original meaning of the word. It is a print. But the difference between a digital print and a print hand-pulled from a press is sure big even though they both have the concept of multiples!

So now in the spirit of “alternative to mainstream” gelatin silver is. But even I would have a hard time thinking buying a box of Ilford and printing BW prints is “alt” and certainly, historical gelatin silver prints were not and should not be alt. 

I teach an experimental darkroom photography class and alt as two separate distinct classes, but so many experimental darkroom things have changed that I am thinking of adding salted paper to that class (and making your own BW paper from Denise Ross’ upcoming book) so it becomes a silver nitrate based class, so there’s that confluence of alt into gelatin silver. Bromoil has always been a component of that class, based on gelatin silver paper.

And I have Clay Harmon’s soon to be release Photopolymer Gravure as part of the series which is essentially printmaking based on a photo-sensitive layer. So now we have the confluence of three areas: printmaking, BW, 19th century processes, etc. etc.! 

Historians are going to have a theoretical heyday with deciphering this while we all just go on making work, but I know many of us (I do) struggle to explain what we actually do to those outside the field.


Christina Z. Anderson
Editor, Contemporary Practices in Alternative Process Photography Series <https://www.routledge.com/Contemporary-Practices-in-Alternative-Process-Photography/book-series/CPAPP>

> On Nov 14, 2018, at 2:50 AM, Jacques Kevers via Alt-photo-process-list <alt-photo-process-list at lists.altphotolist.org> wrote:
> Jeremy,
> I am not sure that "intent" is the decisive factor.
> The intent of many contemporary artists is to make art, yet they do it
> digitally and wouldn't be considered as alt artists by us. Many old-time
> masters didn't have any intention to use an alternative to the mainstream
> process (their process was mainstream at their time), and a lot of them
> would most probably be using digital image processing if they were living
> today...
> Just my 2 cents...
> Take care! :-)
> Jacques
> Jacques Kevers
> Beau Site
> Première Avenue 7
> B-1330 Rixensart
> Belgium
> +32 2 653 56 02
> _______________________________________________
> Alt-photo-process-list | altphotolist.org

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