Humble and archival in photography


Beach cyanotype. Hung home style

Rascuache (or, in its Americanized version, rasquachismo) is a Mexican term for reuse and repurpose of things. It is a strategy for everyday life typical for the poor masses as well as a mark of resourcefulness for people in general everywhere. But in the last decades rascuache is also an artistic term meaning the use of humble materials and unexpected sources of supplies – like plastic for drawing, discarded metal parts for sculpture and others. That may sound like the usual found-object crafts that we often see in gift shops and  at artfests today but actually originate from the revolutionary practices of Chicano movement artists in the 60s. They used it not because it was cool but to make a political point and insert themselves in a process that was seen as the privilege of higher classes.

And if you think about it, artmaking is expensive. Photography especially is expensive. It has always been, even before digital photography, what with sophisticated cameras and chemicals and paper. Besides, as photography came from a practical dimension that required it to be archival, materials had constantly evolved in the direction of better archivability, which inevitably meant higher cost. So which one to choose – the best one possible right now or the most accessible?

The choice between humble and high-quality materials is a constant battle in the head of every artist. Use cheaper paper? That would sometimes mean worse results that can discourage and maybe even hinder the process. Disappoint to the point of giving up. Use better quality paper? That may mean the urge to conserve it, to make as little as possible and ultimately not developing the process you are after. The fear of making a mistake is a very powerful deterrent for creativity. I can only say once again that if I didn’t start photography with digital technology (and hence eliminate the fear of wasting wasting materials) I would probably never have insisted on doing it.

So in photography as well as in art in general there is the tension between high quality and humble materials. This has translated not just in the materials used but also the philosophy of the imagemaking: the search for precision (think hi-fi) as opposed to deliberate lo-fi: last century’s pictorialism, today’s lomography and the obsession with instagram filters that used to be associated with low-quality films but today are the mark of nostalgia (and the feel for “artfulness” for some).

But just as precision and high-quality of materials have been getting a boost from digital technologies in recent years, the fascination with low-fi of not just feel and cameras but also materials has been getting stronger. I have seen this especially with alternative processes – more and more people who are not worried at all if their photos are archival. van dyke images are printed on grocery bag paper. Inks that fade, processes that are unstable and paper that is not sized. Take the image on top, for example. It is a cyanotype made with algae and sand on the beach, it wasn’t washed long enough to be archival because fragile tissue paper was used so it will keep changing over time. On top of that, home style hanging process was used 🙂 But it is lovely precisely for that.

The cyanotype was made in February at the annual Shootapalooza gathering that I am honored to be a part of. Its philosophy of breaking rules and of experimentation is what is the most inspiring.

Using humble materials that often were not meant for the process you want to use them for is an approach to life in general as well.


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