I have ordered the chemicals to start working with this photographic process. It is a so called ‘alternative’ process dating from the late 19th century using gum arabic and potassium dichromate, contact printed using a full scale negative. I want to use the process because of its flexibility, the possibility of 3 or more colour prints with the right support, or combining negatives. The aesthetic effects are smoky and often have a charcoal effect, as seen in the work of Robert Demarchy (1859–1936) – who has been described as a french pictoralist because of his painterly use of the technique – deliberately blurring the borders of drawing and photography.
There is a danger in being drawn into the pictoralism suggested by the aesthetic or the ‘neo-pictoralism’ created by the ubiquitous antique filters that proliferate on image editing software. This ‘one click instant nostalgia’ could lead to the images being misinterpreted. The opportunity to explore different supports (wood, board etc) with this technique will perhaps balance this danger
Other photographers drawn to the process were British american photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966) – especially work collected in the George Eastman archive and Edward Steichen (1879-1973), as seen in his atmospheric shot of Rodin’s sculpture of Balzac or untitled or the Big White Cloud of 1903/4 (Technically this is a carbon print, which is a similar process originally using carbon black pigment or India ink.)
Alfred Stieglitz used the Gum Bichromate process in this image of smoke and steam – New York Central Yard (1910) and his protege Gertrude Kasebier (1852 -1934) was also attracted to it, her images were often fully pictorial and with great pathos exaggerated by the soft tones of the gum bichromate process.
Contemporary artists include:
Ernestine Rubin – extraordinary range of techniques in alternative processes to create diverse images on a range of supports
Keith Geling – pictures of industrial structures and grain silos have the strongest link
Christopher James – teacher, writer and guru of alternative processes.
(Coburn’s portfolio on Guardian Photography – links to vortices movement and other pioneers of different image construction systems in the early modernist movement)