Photography Beyond Technique

Essays from F295 on the Informed Use of Alternative and Historical Photographic Processes
Tom Persinger, ed.
Focal Press, 2014

Reviewed by Leo Hsu

A camera constructed from a van and another from a suitcase; iPhone images printed as platinum palladium prints on vellum over gold leaf; unfixed cyanotypes that reveal a range of colors far beyond the familiar range of blues; a pinhole camera imagined as a way to photograph the sun as a hole in the sky: Photography Beyond Technique, edited by Tom Persinger, collects 20 essays by 21 artists describing their engagements with unconventional photographic technologies, all drawn from lectures at F295 events.

All of the author-artists incorporate “antiquarian” technologies in their work but they do so self-consciously rather than nostalgically. Daguerreotype, tintype, ambrotype, and cyanotype processes as well as pinholes are the most widely known, but there are also more arcane and original ones at hand. But while many F295 photographers take rigorous and precise experimentation seriously, their engagement with these processes is decidedly anti-purist. Recovered technologies are combined with present-day ones to resolve contemporary artistic questions, producing results that are hybrid. The photographic processes themselves become signifiers in a larger act of expression.

John Metoyer, The Amenti Frequency, 2003. Platinum print

John Metoyer, The Amenti Frequency, 2003. Platinum print

Originally a community of pinhole photography aficionados, the F295 group, founded by Persinger, has convened symposia and workshops in Pittsburgh, New York and San Francisco since 2007. The group’s success and growth has been facilitated both by its existence as an online community, and as a reaction to the explosive growth of consumer digital photography. The first symposium was somewhat awkwardly titled “The F295 Symposium on Lensless, Alternative and Adaptive Photographic Processes”, but the project has, over time, been reframed as “21st century photography”. The group has moved from defining itself according to specific photographic processes towards a more expansive exploration of the possibilities of photography; an upcoming symposium in Pittsburgh shares the title of this volume, “Photography Beyond Technique”. This is not only a move away from straight photography but also away from a fetishization of esoteric processes.

Many of the essays are well-positioned in relation to the history of photography and could be usefully incorporated into photography courses. Essays by Dan Estabrook, Robert Hirsch, Jerry Spagnoli and Alan Greene show the writers grappling with questions surrounding the limits and possibilities of photography through their own practices. Persinger’s own contribution is a phenomenological consideration of photographic exposure, in which he strips away every impermanent, articulated element of the photographic process, reducing it to exposure and development.

Alan Greene, Experimental Cyanotype No. 4, 2010. Digital scan of an unfixed cyanotype on paper

Alan Greene, Experimental Cyanotype No. 4, 2010. Digital scan of an unfixed cyanotype on paper

John Metoyer discusses the various mythologies that intersect in his work, which references 19th century spirit photography and France Scully Osterman describes how her collodion Sleep project found, over time, a form that matched the vulnerabilities revealed to the artist by her sleeping subjects. Craig Barber describes the way in which pinhole photography allowed him to achieve a meditative state as he revisited the Vietnamese landscape where he had served as a Marine.

Laura Blacklow, with her cyanotype botanicals, is aware, indeed responding, to canonical work of the 19th century and uses technologies similar to those employed by pioneer scientific photographer Anna Atkins in the 1840s. But where Atkins’ cyanotypes sought to record the definition and specificity of the forms of plants, Blacklow’s pictures are beautifully uneven riots of growth and overlapping tones. The silhouettes assert themselves but so do the brushmarks of her emulsions; it’s a completely different sensibility from Atkins’ yet the references are there, in subject and in process.

Laura Blacklow, Untitled, from the series Backyard Botanicals, 2008. Cyanotype and van dyke brown print

Laura Blacklow, Untitled, from the series Backyard Botanicals, 2008. Cyanotype and van dyke brown print

Many of these projects embrace imperfection and serendipity. Like Blacklow, Carol Panaro-Smith and James Hajicek work with botanicals, and make contact images on vellum that feel sculptural in their textures and physicality. Robb Kendrick notes that while 19th century tintype photographers sought to make “clean crisp images that were as perfect as possible,” a 21st century sensibility may appreciate artifacts on a plate as welcome acknowledgments of the precariousness of the processes. Similarly, there is an appreciation of the image as a unique physical object that will assume its own history; of the handmade, whether it is hand-coated surfaces or hand-made cameras, such as Jo Babcock’s VW bus camera; of the patience and embodied concentration that goes into producing these objects; and of the tension between the works’ mysterious and often elusive forms and their technological bases, as with Dan Burkholder’s synthesis of cameraphone pictures and his visually rich processes.

The history of photography teaches us that what we consider to be the defining attributes of photography – the ability to fix an image, perspective produced from a lens, reproducibility, physical permanence – are necessary only by convention, and have all changed over time. The artists in this volume revive these historical possibilities in the present, and celebrate a kind of photographic syncretism. This is photographic practice as remix; every aspect of process and technology is recognized as flexible, mutable, and available. Ultimately this book is an argument against orthodoxy in photography.

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Leo Hsu is a photographer, writer and photography instructor, based in Pittsburgh, PA.
Contact Leo here.

Contributors to this volume:

Jo Babcock, Craig Barber, Stephen Berkman, Laura Blacklow, Dan Burkholder, Martha Casanave, Jill Enfield, Dan Estabrook, Jesseca Ferguson, Alan Greene, James Hajicek, Robert Hirsch, Robb Kendrick, John Metoyer, Mark Osterman, Frances Scully Osterman, Carol Panaro-Smith, Tom Persinger, Jerry Spagnoli, Brian Taylor, Keith Taylor

The F295 Symposium: Photography Beyond Technique
May 29 – June 1, 2014, Pittsburgh PA