Christopher James is Chair of the photography program at The Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University and an internationally recognized artist and photographer whose paintings and photographs have been exhibited in galleries and museums in this country and abroad. His work has been published and shown extensively, including shows in The Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The George Eastman House, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The first edition of his book, The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes (Delmar, 2001) has received unprecedented critical acclaim, was the winner of The Golden Light Technical Book of the Year award, and is recognized as the definitive text in the genre. The second edition of The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes was released in February 2008. James was a Professor at Harvard University from 1978 – 1991 and has lectured and given workshops throughout the world.
Learn more about the artist at www.christopherjames-studio.com/
Learn more about the history of photography including individual artist's histories at www.luminous-lint.com.
JP Quickly, sketch your photographic career.
CJ My mom used to tell me bedtime stories about Margaret Bourke White.
Although I got into photography primarily to photograph anti-war demonstrations for student resistance groups, I began using it extensively to solve graphic design problems when I was earning my BFA at Massachusetts College of Art.
I am self-taught and have never had a photography class.
Then there is a long, and interesting, story about living in a commune and learning photography in the late 60’s, running hoses for water, using black silage plastic to black out a barn, and developing film in long neck wine bottles.
When I went to RISD for graduate school I began investigating how I could alter photo-chemistry and how those alterations could be employed to change colors, surface illusions, and tones. I wanted to create photographically generated (light / marking) images that were hand-made and unique. This led to a career of making conceptually personal photographs via chemical alterations, hand painting, and alternative processes.
I discovered that a great deal of the literature of alternative process photography was filled with errors and instructions that were over complicated, opaque, and simply wrong. About 33 years ago I had the opportunity to teach a workshop at the one-year old Maine Photographic Workshops and decided to do a non-silver, toning, and alternative camera and process workshop. Since then, it has been the boat that I sail in.
JP Which moments have been the most inspiring?
My imagination and memories are more important to me than the evidence of a photograph. That said, I believe the act of making a photograph, which relies heavily on life experiences and conceptual problem solving, is immensely inspiring and easily the best part of being a photographic artist. The product of the print pales by comparison to the inspiration of the process making it.
JP How has photography changed you?
JP So how has it changed you? Do you see the world with new eyes? How often does this happen? Are these moments of change subtle sustained accumulations (compound interest) or dramatic paradigm shifts (market fluctuations)?
So, to answer your clever question, the analogy would be subtle compound changes that keep my interest.
JP In learning to make photographs, we learn to see differently. How has photography changed the way you see?
CJ A complicated question.
Perhaps another way of discussing it would be to ask how has the work of other photographers influenced the way I thought about how things could be seen? As a young photographer, there were relatively few published collections of images that you could turn to for reference or inspiration. For me it was Robert Frank’s, The Americans (1958), Danny Lyons’, The Bikeriders (1968), your father’s 1967 photograph, Running White Deer, and Eugene Smith’s, Tomoko in her Bath (1971). These images challenged the way I thought about photography and changed the way I learned to see.
To me, visual literacy is the ability to see. More specifically, it is the capacity to interpret, associate, and communicate signs, symbols, codes, signals, metaphors, and marks. A visually literate person is able to draw on a knowledge base that includes cultural and art history, criticism, and semiotics, which is the study of how meaning is established and understood.
JP How would you characterize your personal preoccupations with regard to subject matter?
JP How would you describe your signature style?
JP Many people invested in the history of photography and historical processes have resisted incorporating digital technology in their processes and even approving of others doing so. There has been a misguided notion that new technology replaces old technology. In the field of alternative processes I've seen quite the opposite. Digital contact negatives have made it easier and more economical to access historic processes. As a result of digital technology, more people are making photographic prints with historic processes than ever before. Has this been your experience? What else would you add here?
In the first edition of The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes I did my best to address the history of digital imaging and to provide a digital workflow (with your help, thank you) that could serve as a way of generating separation negatives for gum bichromate printing… since doing it in camera or the darkroom was such a laborious pain in the ass.
In the second edition I have been able to really tighten up the digital workflow for producing contact negatives for every process, add filtration instructions, utilize Pictorico inkjet films (with the ceramic dust coating for better absorption and texture), and Epson printers (I love my 2400!) It is now possible to make incredibly perfect large scale contact negatives with only a brief amount of instruction. It’s become so simple that I now have a negative production set up in my workshops and use the technology as a way of greatly accelerating the learning curve in alt pro.
JP What about the fate silver gelatin? To date, it has required a larger manufacturing base to make accessible. This casts some shadow of a doubt as to its longevity. Yet, I have faith in human ingenuity. I think someone, somewhere will find compelling ways to keep this medium alive and vital. Do you see it surviving the transition into the 21st century, where digital technology has become the dominant paradigm?
I think the artists of the 21st century are going to find that alternative processes provide an outlet for the hand of the artist to be in play again, as it has since it’s beginning. There will be, of course, artists such as yourself who will use the tools of digital technology in a personal manner.
I think, however, that this approach will be unique as the hardware and software of the digital revolution has resulted in a model that is taking photographers back to the salon ethics of the past where a “good” photograph was one that simply demonstrated a perfection of technique. That outcome is possible to everyone these days, as long as you can afford to buy the tools and software. With digital imaging hosting this new “mushy democracy” of photographic expression; one in which the equipment finds the faces, exposes for neutral feeling, and then makes the perfect print, there is a (forgive the theater in the next word) hunger for the accident, the raw imperfect light and texture of life.
That said, I nonetheless believe the future of photography as a distinctive medium is to be found in its past. Contemporary alternative process artists are, as Lyle Rexer coined well, the antiquarian avant-garde. France Scully Osterman and her husband, Mark Osterman, call this approach to photography “photo-humanism” and those who embrace it “photo-humanists.” It’s all about the human reference in both the vision and crafting of photographic imagery. The light-marking art they produce, and how they define their creative process, is flourishing as a language without compromise, or conditions … one that is not tied to a syntax-dependent feast (as perfect as it is) of 1’s and 0’s. Think about this, it’s possible that all it will take is a decent solar storm, like the one that occurred in 1859, and 17 hours and 40 minutes later every hard drive on the receiving end of that solar flare will instantly become a good doorstop.
JP In your own work (and teaching) you've favored an exuberant inquiry into a variety of processes. Why are you so fascinated in media and processes?
JP Celebrate the merits (and differences) of your favorite media for me.
JP If looking is a sensual act, a proliferation of media expands and enhances artistic expression. This is what I see occurring today. Do you? What excites you most about this? What concerns you most about this?
JP That’s what I mean by sensual. It’s a product of being physical and interacting with the world. Optionally, you can extend this further to include the emotional and cognitive processes we engage in as a result of initial physical stimuli.
JP Tell me about your book - "... Alternative Processes". (Why did you decide to write it? Who is it intended for? What benefits has it had for your readers? What did you learn as a result of engaging the project?)
Benefits for the readers include: (from the back of the book)
I surprised myself with the first edition. The second is far more extensive in scope, page count (660) and imagery (400). I learned that I could actually make the book that I truly wanted to make and that it was possible to convince a large publishing house to give you free reign to make “the best book possible” because of your convictions to do just that. The people at Delmar Cengage are about the best you could ever hope to work with in publishing.
JP Do you have a favorite alt process?
JP Celebrate a few alt processes for me as a connoisseur would.
The kallitype is a muscular and exuberant process possessing, upon first impression, a rich, briary, saddle leather, and full bodied character that would pair well with sardines or fried clams. It is so black it even tastes tarry. But if the intensity of the blackness borders on too severe, it redeems itself with textural finesse. Often mistaken for platinum, the kallitype has a reputation for yellowing in its highlights, a condition that can be rectified by developing it in a soothing blend of sodium acetate and ammonium citrate.
The anthotype is a charming and organic process that celebrates all of the components of a great honeymoon… flowers, alcohol, and long exposures to sunlight. It is a fragrant and aromatic process that is chemical free, magical, and yields a romantic and diffused image that Pre-Raphaelites and grammar school children love.
The gum bichromate process is a mischievous little technique that is renowned for rewarding the playful and patient. Practitioners who indulge in this time consuming exercise are universally pleased with a full throttled and multi-chromatic runway to creative adventure. Gum prints are dense, chewy, and robust and improve with age. When they have reached their perfect end, they are loaded with opulent, even unctuous layers of fruity coloration, and a huge bouquet with a plump, luxurious, texture that is quite decadent.
JP You're an outstanding teacher (department chair at Art Institute of Boston and longtime instructor at the Maine Media Workshops). You have a unique ability to fill your students with enthusiasm. Tell me about a few of the most successful ways to achieve this.
JP You also celebrate diversity in vision and in media. What drives this?
JP Has helping facilitate others to find their authentic voice helped you find or refine your own?
JP What other benefits have you derived from helping others?
Every time I write a letter of recommendation for someone I think of how important that letter is to the person who asked me to write for them. I also think about how Al Hurwitz wrote a letter of recommendation for me in 1970, to RISD’s graduate program, three weeks after the deadline for applications and how that well crafted letter got me into the program.
JP Do you think it's essential for today's photography students to study historic processes before engaging current media?
JP Is it essential to practice them at all?
JP Is it important to at least understand what they are, how they evolved, and the impacts they've had on the medium?
JP You've also been involved in several vital artistic communities. How has that activity influenced you?