When Photography Crosses Into Art

Photography is sometimes art and art sometimes uses photography. But what is the determining factor?

The answer is that photography is art when it mirrors contemporary art concerns. So just what do I mean by that? Well tough as it might sound, contemporary art moved beyond just being beautiful or representational back with surrealism, futurism, and all the other ‘isms’ of the modern age. Now of course we are past modern art and into post-modern and post-post-modern. But a common thread in all the modern+ art movements has been to move beyond beauty and representation. What matters is meaning, having something to say, going beyond appearance to some deeper levels.

An image from my Time and Space series

Now that doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with beauty and representation. In fact contemporary art practice would certainly be all the better for some interest in beauty (IMHO). But it does mean that a work that is mostly concerned with beauty and representation is not contemporary in an art sense.

Another characteristic of contemporary art practice is a lack of interest in process. It doesn’t matter how you do something, all that matters is the final result and the meaning conveyed by it. This is another problem for a lot of photography to get past – much photography has an overwhelming concern with process. This is perhaps exemplified most by the alternate process people – those using gum bichromate or gumoil or some other long surpassed process. These processes appeal because of the beauty of the resulting prints and perhaps a sense of nostalgia for the believed simplicities of the past.

And I have to say that the absurdity of much of this alternate process work should be obvious to all. Not only can the look of most of them be reproduced quite well using the latest inkjets but so much emphasis is put on wonderful papers that are then matted and hidden behind glass for exhibition so it can never be really appreciated. It is what I would call process masturbation at its worse.

Does that mean that I would argue that you should not make beautiful images? No, of course not. Just don’t think you are making contemporary art necessarily. I make two completely different types of images – my contemporary art work which does not have a primary aim of beauty (though I do aim to make it so) and my landscape photography work, which is primarily produced to be beautiful but that I don’t fool myself is art.

This is what it all comes down to – what pleases you and what your priorities are. But don’t fool yourself that it is more than it is.

HP Supports Platinum Printing and Other Alternative Processes

In an interesting and timely development, HP has released a paper preset for their Z3200 large format printer line to make the production of digital negatives for alternative chemical photographic processed, like platinum and palladium printing easier.

This is timely indeed, because of a rise in interest in what is called alternative printing processes and I highly commend HP to taking this step. Photographers need all the options they can get and anything that makes this easier is a wonderful development.

Apart from the preset, HP has produced an excellent PDF of the process. Let me quote from it about how their preset works: “The process described here was performed with the goal of creating feasible negatives for monochrome and color alternative process such as platinum/palladium, carbon, cyanotype, gum, carbro, multicolor carbon, and tri-color gum” and then “From a technical point of view, what is inside this preset is a green ink separation that has been linearized in terms of ultraviolet light opacity. The advantage of having this linearization is that when printing a linear ramp of green ink values with this paper preset, the result will be a negative with a near-linear response in any alternative process based on UV light. In certain cases, some calibration may provide additional improvements. However, the tools needed to perform this calibration are part of the standard printer software and hardware.”

This further quote from the same PDF makes the process clear to those used to alternative process printing:

“In this solution, the green ink acts as a color filter for ultraviolet light. The densest part of the negative contains a maximum quantity of ink. This maximum ink must be able to block UV light in such a way that the paper will be left blank after exposing it trough this maximum ink combination. In order to reach a maximum level of opacity, which will be different for every process, black ink is combined with the green one.

When a RGB image is sent to the printer, the Green channel in the image will be used to form the final negative and the Red channel will be used to control opacity using Black ink. Think of the Red channel as a kind of red filter that will control the maximum opacity of the negative.

To find out how much black ink is needed in your process, a form of calibration process needs to be performed first:

  • First, the correct exposure time for your process using your film must be determined. This exposure time is also called the standard printing time. This time is calculated by making a test strip using a piece of the negative film substrate. Every strip must contain a portion of film substrate and a portion of paper not covered by the film. The exposure time where the achieved black under the film is the same that you have on the paper will be your standard printing time.
  • Then a calibration strip must be printed using your standard printing time to know which quantity of black in combination with green will yield a clean white on the paper.”

Most of the alternative processes rely on UV exposure, either from the sun or from an artificial light source, to actually produce the chemical changes in the paper coating that you apply. Since HP know the exact UV characteristics of their inks they are the right people to achieve this and do so accurately.

For more information about this I can recommend the following sources:

A big well done to HP, especially given that their process supports the use of non-HP media, such as the Premier Imaging Products film and the often used Pictorico OHP one. It seems like it should work with other clear films too.

I’ll be incorporating this into the workshop I run on digital negatives.