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What is Alternative Photography?

What exactly is Alternative Photography

It’s a term often bandied about by photographers but what does it actually mean?

Where does the term Alternative Photography come from?

Kodak and Marketing

Legend says that long ago early in the twentieth century when Kodak was king of photographic advertising someone at the company said, ‘if it’s not Kodak it’s just an alternative.’  Maybe it’s true, it’s certainly widely believed and I’ve heard it many times. However the name ‘Alternative Photography’ certainly doesn’t mean that now.

Vintage Kodak Box Brownie Advert
cyanotype and uv light

So what does it mean now?

Well, I’m going to be honest with you, it’s a bit of a can of worms. One of those questions that sparks a lot of debate amongst photographers. So I’ll try and break things down as simply as possible.  At its most general ‘Alternative Photography’ is used to refer to anything not mainstream. Of course, if it was as simple as that we wouldn’t be here, would we?

It’s fairly easy to divide photography into two groups, analogue and digital.  Pretty much everyone agrees that digital photography is not ‘alternative’ so let’s forget about that (I’ve only heard one person put digital into the alternative category and I’m as certain as I can be that it was a tongue-in-cheek statement).  That leaves us with analogue photography in all its glorious variety.  That’s all your film photography, all the old historical processes (including the cyanotype and the lumen) and pretty much everything that doesn’t involve a pixel or a megabyte. So is that all ‘alternative photography’? Well, this is the murky bit because it depends on who you talk to. 

A Bit of Photographic History

We need to delve a bit deeper and it’ll help to have a general overview of the development of the different photographic processes to help.  Let’s look at a bit of history to help untangle things.

The first ever photograph

The Birth of Photography

Photography as a medium dates back to the 1800s.  The first camera was the camera obscura dating back to the 11th century but the image could not be fixed. Since it only allowed you to view the image it only contributed to the development of cameras.

Early Pioneers

The first known photograph was by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and created in 1826.  It’s called ‘View from the Window at Le Gras’ and honestly, it’s not that interesting apart from its historical value.  The names most widely known as the inventors of photography however are Louis Daguerre (the daguerreotype which built upon Niepces work and was publicly announced in 1839) and Henry Fox Talbot (who also announced his ‘salt paper’ process in 1839).  This led to a flurry of new processes being developed in the coming decades and massive breakthroughs in camera technology as we headed up towards the 20th century.

Louis Daguerre photographed by Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-Blot in 1844
Louis Daguerre photographed by Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-Blot in 1844

Louis Daguerre

Announced the Daguerreotype in 1839

Henry Fox Talbot

Anounced the Salt Paper Process in 1839

Henry Fox Talbot Photographed by John Moffat in 1864
Henry Fox Talbot Photographed by John Moffat in 1864

As we moved into the 20th century the emphasis shifted away from large difficult-to-operate equipment. The photographer no longer needed to develop and print their images themselves. This was now done by Kodak labs for the mass market and general public.  Kodaks ‘Box Brownie’ took the market by storm with its ease of use and snappy marketing.  The older ‘harder’ processes and technology started to be considered old-fashioned, eventually being commonly referred to as historical processes.

Time marches on and so does technology

When I first picked up a camera in the 1970s, photography meant a film camera to most people.  That was back in the days when most families would have a film camera, usually with 35mm film, and there were places to get the film processed on just about every high street.  These ranged from photography shops with the processing equipment out back, to little booths and pharmacies that would accept the film and send it away in the post.  Film, especially 35mm was the norm and mainstream.  The box brownies (which Kodak famously advertised with the slogan ‘you press the button and we do the rest’) were long outdated.

Of course, time continued to march forward and in 1975 Steven Sasson of Kodak created the first working digital camera.  Digital was to supplant film, in terms of sales by the start of the 21st century. Making it the new mainstream form of photography. Ironically it also played a major role in the downfall of Kodak – but that’s a tale for another day.

A different point of view on what is Alternative Photography

By the time we reach today, the use of the term ‘alternative photography’ is widespread. Unfortunately however people can’t really agree on what it means.  The majority of people who I have spoken to about it focus on the mediums themselves.  There will be a process or processes which they consider mainstream and all the others are ‘alternative’.  Essentially breaking everything down into mainstream and alternative.  The debate in this case is where the line between the two lies.  For some, it is between digital and analogue, for others historical and everything else.  The line shifts as time passes and trends come and go.

Lights on inside my photographic darkroom
Modern digital camera set up in woodland

Modern alternative photography?

Other people however focus on the working practice and creativity of the photographer as opposed to the photographic medium being used.  This was summed up in a recent discussion by Christopher Rigby, ‘Available possibilities or choices for painting with light, that relate to, depart from or challenge the traditional norms.’  Here the emphasis is on the creativity of the photographer and their working practice independent of the branch of photography physically being used.

Available possibilities or choices for painting with light, that relate to, depart from or challenge the traditional norms.’ 

Christopher Rigby

A matter of perspective

There have been various attempts to standardise the term but so far no consensus has been reached.  However, this hasn’t stopped its increased usage.  You will find ‘Alternative photography’ courses advertised at academic institutions. These usually focusing on the cyanotype and lumen processes, there are even entire websites dedicated to it.  Few, of course, are bold enough to actually define what they mean when they say ‘alternative’ though.

So if you hear someone say ‘alternative photography’ they probably mean either all non-digital photography or 19th-century historical processes as these are the most commonly used definitions at the moment.  That said why not just ask them to explain a bit further, ask them for some specifics, you’ll probably make their day.

I would like to thank all the other photographers (including the members of the UK Film Photography and Darkroom group) who were happy to discuss their own ideas and definitions with me on the topic for this post.  It was truly a pleasure to talk with you all about it.