What is Alternative Photography?

What exactly is Alternative Photography?  It’s a term often bandied about by photographers but what does it actually mean?

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, but the name ‘Alternative Photography’ certainly doesn’t mean that now.

Vintage camera circa 1900 used for 'Historical Plate Photography'.
Vintage camera circa 1900 used for ‘Historical Plate Photography’ considered by many to be a form of alternative photography.

So what does it mean now?

Well, I’m going to be honest with you, it’s a bit of a can of worms and a question which can and does spark a lot of debate amongst photographers so I’ll try and break things down as simply as possible.  At its most general it’s 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. 

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.

A Bit of Photographic History

'View from the Window at Le Gras' by Joseph Niépce 1826 - the first ever photograph
‘View from the Window at Le Gras’ by Joseph Niépce 1826 – the first ever photograph

Photography as a medium dates back to the 1800s.  The first camera was the camera obscura which dates back to the 11th century but had no way to fix the image permanently, only view it, so it really only contributed to the development of cameras.  The first known photography 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.

As we moved into the 20th century the emphasis shifted away from large difficult-to-operate equipment and the need for the photographer to do their own development and printing, to the mass markets and use by the 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.

When I first picked up a camera in the 1970s (I was very young and my dad wasn’t looking) photography meant a camera with film in it 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.

In the 20th century film cameras ruled as the most popular form of photography and as such were mainstream not 'alternative'
In the 20th century film cameras ruled as the most popular form of photography and as such were mainstream not ‘alternative’

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 cameras, with a massive drop in the sales of film and film cameras as we entered the 21st century, Digital was now the new mainstream form of photography (and ironically played a major role in the downfall of Kodak – but that’s a tale for another day).

By the time we reach today, the use of the term ‘alternative photography’ is widespread but unfortunately, 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 shifting as time passes and trends come and go.

A different point of view on what is 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.

Inside a photographic darkroom set up for cyanotypes an 'alternative photography' process
Inside a photographic darkroom set up for cyanotypes considered by some to be an ‘alternative photography’ process

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 (usually focusing on the cyanotype and lumen processes) and even entire websites dedicated to it.  Few of course as bold enough as 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.

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