Redefining Failure: this is what Learning looks like

It has been a long, long time, folks. This is just one of many upcoming blog posts I have planned that will detail the last eight months, so here we go.

Throughout the fall, I wanted to refocus my creative attention back onto the darkroom, potentially learning several processes that I had swore I would learn in years past.  These discarded resolutions included both Bromoil and Wet Plate Collodion, processes that are vastly different than my current darkroom focus on printing out processes like VDB, Albumen and Cyanotype. Inspired by designing a history course in photography this fall, I also decided that I would tack on the Calotype to the list and use teaching the course as a well-needed kick in the pants. Along with discussing the development of photography and the major players and processes along the way, I would also offer routine demonstrations of various processes — including these new processes would be part of the journey. So I started my work on the Calotype process during intersession…

…and failed. Failed spectacularly.

To give some context: I am well-acquainted in the type of problems that can crop up in other historical processes — from contamination issues to humidity and chemical ratios to paper choices, I have been challenged by these before. That does not mean I am without fault. In fact, realization that I had experienced issues like this before should have been the first sign to a much larger problem that I had ignored:

That no matter how much the text you are using provides a detailed, step-by-step guide, it will not provide you with an appropriate guide to the process.

At best, you will receive marginal success that makes you hungry for more. No matter how successful you are at following directions, this is what you can assume as “best case”.  I have found a lot of texts to be far too optimistic in describing the ease of these processes or how resilient they are to failure. I have found errors, glaring omissions and descriptions of complex operations shortened for the sake of brevity rather than clarity.

At worst, you will fail. You will obtain no promising results, more questions than answers and a generally, you’ll feel discouraged with ever jumping in again.  This is where I have stopped before. In my graduate studies, it was suggested I try out the Ziatype process in hopes of pursuing a process with greater tonal range than Van Dyke Brown. After a single session of printing resulted in any good results – nor any that you could build an understanding upon – I gave up. I moved on, blaming the breakneck pace of my graduate studies for not having time to dabble, to analyze or to query.  Failure was simply failure.

This time was different, though. Nearly four years have passed since I finished at AAU and reflection on that time has made me appreciate giving time and breathing room for development. Anyone who has read Art and Fear by Bayles/Orland knows the pitfalls of expecting immediate success after every attempt. Little is learned from these instant successes when they happen. If anything, they are more damaging than rewarding: they convince us that a lack of planning, organization, patience and determination will result in pleasing results. Procrastination and arrogance awards only the short-term, making failures so absolutely devastating in the long term.

I diligently took notes, re-read instructions, used multiple sources and labeled every single step of the process. (Doing all of that itself is a new habit of mine, one I am happy to brag I have finally made part of my working process). Creating the iodized paper for the Calotype process went well and encouraged me to continue. After a couple days, I attempted to sensitize and expose and failed. All the paper, whether sensitized or not, came out overexposed. Rather than throwing up my hands, I consulted the hive mind: Facebook.  I found out that my background in POP (printing out processes) likely didn’t prepare me well to prepare DOP paper — I likely overexposed the paper while checking on my initial coating. A few days later, I attempted again, after reading additional resources and advice from fellow photographers that specialize in this process.  I failed again. Gathering all of the data from my notetaking and consulting a second set of experts (Alt Pro Listserve), I am convinced that my paper’s buffering is causing the issue – along with potential contamination that wouldn’t be caused in other processes that I am used to. By confessing my failure to others, they were more than willing to offer assistance. After reading my 500+ word emails detailing my progress, many community members chimed in with lengthy responses themselves, always being helpful and often welcoming me to the niche group of Calotypists. I have never known a community so warm and welcoming than those that practice historical and alternative processes.

Certainly, I’m repeating what no small number of self-help books have told billions, but I thought it was worth noting here:  Failure is nothing more than an opportunity to learn.  If you learn nothing from the experience, you have squandered it and are all too likely to repeat it.

Although I have no successes behind me with this particular process, I remain confident that I will figure it out later on this spring when the sun returns to Interior Alaska and I have more than a measly four hours of dim light to make exposures with. Now: on to Bromoil, a process that requires no natural sunlight!


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  1. 1
    Dennis Moser

    Thanks, Jason, for posting this.

    Making art, no matter what process we choose, is so much of this very thing. It has frequently been said that making the journey is more important than the destination (though we both know it would be nice to have some pleasant rest stops along the way), and so it seems the learning of alt-hist processes, as well!

    I am looking forward to seeing your successes with this process and I am certain you WILL get there. Keep going!

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