On Process



This photographs looks like an image made using the wet-plate process, but it’s merely a simulation if you will. I took this picture with my minipad, using the Hipstamatic Tintype package. It’s fairly safe to assume that tor a sizable part of photoland, a digital image that looks like a wet-plate image cannot be judged the same way as a an actual wet-plate one. In the following, I will try to explain why that is a pretty severe mistake. (more; updated)

The internet being the internet, there will be those who will point out that a Hipstamatic Tintype photo does not really look like an actual wet-plate one. As a matter of fact, tintypes are different beasts than wet plates. I know all that. We could have discussions whether Hipstamatic tintypes look more like actual tintypes or like wet-plate images. I’m not particularly interested in that.

So then: What’s the deal with photoland’s obsession with process?

Digital technologies have enabled us to produce photographs that look like they were made with some process, when in fact they were not. One might wonder how process would matter if there was no way of knowing from the image which process was used. The “but that’s not the same!” argument ceases to make much sense when the only reason why you know about the process is because you were told.

People have had these kinds of discussions even before digital technologies. Just think about “straight” photographs versus staged one. If you can’t tell from the picture why would it matter whether it’s staged? There’s only one area where it matters: the news. But I’ve had people tell me that even in the context of art photography, getting or finding a photograph is so much better than staging it. That makes no sense to me whatsoever, especially not if you can’t tell from the photograph.

Back to process. You can say whatever you want about Hipstamatic or Instagram, but it has done me - as a teacher and writer - a huge favour: Now, many people think of process as a “filter,” something applied after the actual photograph was taken. Of course, that’s not how most processes work - a wet-plate image is not an image with a wet plate applied on top. But thinking of process as a “filter,” as something somehow separate from the photograph helps evaluating the role of process.

For me, process alone almost never makes a good or interesting photograph. Process is not enough. Sure, it might take you months and months mastering it, sure, getting your photograph might involve all kinds of tricky aspects. But at the end of the day, I look at photographs as, well, photographs.

A good photograph is a good photograph in such a way that the process itself might be an integral part of it, but it’s not the focal point. In other words, the moment you can almost separate out the image from the process - just like you’d think about Hipstamatic as picture plus filter - you’re in trouble: Suddenly, the process itself becomes part of what is being evaluated. But who cares whether it took you three days to make a picture or whether you got that great picture seeing something and then snapping it very quickly?

In photoland, the cult of process is tied to the cult of work. It’s almost as if the more physical and technical effort you put into a photograph, the better it is, or rather: the more we have to admire it. But why would we?

All photographs are produced using some process, but we do not treat all processes as equal. A few years back, at the height of the 8x10 craze, I used to receive press releases that often focused on the fact that an 8x10 camera was used. Who cares? These days, taking images from Google Street View is all the rage - a very different process - but again: Who cares? In both cases, the only thing that should concern us whether the work in question has anything to say: Is this (whatever we’re looking at) any good?

The fact that you’re lugging around an 8x10 camera or that you photographing your computer screen is pretty much irrelevant for the evaluation of your work. Unless, of course, we want to treat photography like a craft. But I don’t think that’s so interesting.

Of course, the process itself might become a very essential part of what you’re working on. In that case, you basically find yourself in the neighbourhood conceptual photographers live and work in. I don’t have a problem with that approach, but, again, at the end of the day, we still need to ask: Is this any good?

So regardless of whether we’re dealing with Hipstamatic or Instagram, with 8x10, with digital appropriation, with wet-plate photography or whatever other process you might be using: Do not rely on the process as that which solely determines the quality of the work. If your process is prominent use its strengths. But at the same time push against the process itself, so that the end result is a good photograph - and not some photograph produced with some process.

Coming back to the “filter” idea: Make photographs that do not easily separate into image plus filter. The more prominent your process, the harder this will be. That seems to be the real struggle of any process: Not to master it, but to make it become an integral part of the work.

Update (15 Mar 2013): Since several people brought up the role of the object it might be worthwhile to add a few words. In photography, unlike in painting, say, there is no strict correspondence between the image and the object per se. Some processes are directly tied to an object, others are not. A tintype, just like a photogram, is the direct - and initially only - result of a process, much like a painting is. In contrast, a print might or might not be tied to the process; or it might be the result of what we could consider a second (occasionally secondary) process.

I’ve found that processes that are tied to objects almost inevitably run the risk of being valued more than all others. By “run the risk” I here mean just that: here, we have a situation where I think we need to be careful not to necessarily value the object over the image itself. A bad image that looks like a tintype is a bad image, regardless of whether it’s created digitally or whether it’s an actual tintype.

So note I am not arguing against process and/or object per se. I’m arguing against having process and/or object cloud our judgments.

Of course, the market values objects over images, because it’s much easier to sell objects. And selling unique objects is ideal. But monetary value is not the same as artistic value, all that incessant babble about art fairs and auctions notwithstanding.

Two examples might serve well to make it a bit clearer (I hope) to see where I’m coming from. For me, Sally Mann’s project around her husband, Proud Flesh, is very successful. Unlike in some (but not all) of her other work involving the wet-plate process, the process itself does not feel like an unnecessary artifice. The fragility of the photographic emulsion serves as a metaphor for the fragility of the flesh. So here, at least for me, process and project go hand in hand. In fact, I am temped to think that the same images taken with “just” an 8x10 camera and film would not be as good.

In contrast, I’ve always been incredibly bored by the artistic blandness of Ansel Adams’ landscapes. His photographs were masterfully done, the prints can be amazing. But at the end of the day, they don’t offer much, if anything, beyond being decorative. There is nothing wrong with decorative, of course (someone needs to take photographs for calendars or posters), but that’s not necessarily what I’m looking for in art. For me, there has to be more.

Using process alone would dictate that I would value Mann’s and Adams’ work equally highly. But I don’t do that. And I don’t think that a focus on process alone or in such a way that artistic merit gets ignored serves photography well.

Needless to say, this will become an ever more pressing issue as we see more and more photographs online. Many photographs do not even exist as objects any longer. I am tempted to think that the focus on process and/or on the object is what has so many professional photographers and critics dismiss of the photographs out there, especially the ones taken with cell phones. But being dismissive is a grave mistake, I think. And it certainly doesn’t help that this dismissiveness also comes across as elitism.

Image: JMC - Smidgen, 2012; photographed with the Hipstamatic Tintype package, a strategically placed flashlight, and a cat who was too comfortable to move.