Saturday, March 26, 2016

Handcrafted: the book as fine art

Brittany Nelson, mordançage

Dan Estabrook - salted paper

There's a book on the market many of you have not had a chance to peruse, for reasons we'll get to, and that's really too bad because it's a beauty.  In China where it's published my sources tell me it has skyrocketed to become one of the best-selling photography books in the country, which is all the more surprising as its subject is alternative photography, that broad but laborious and demanding set of 19th century processes spiked, if you stretch its definition, by a clutch of contemporary craft methods, from bromoils, albumens and wet plate collodions to mordançages and chemigrams.  We in America don't often associate this niche activity with China, but the appetite for it, on the evidence, is overwhelming.  From this moment forward our preconceptions will need re-adjustment.

The book is Handcrafted: The Art and Practice of the Handmade Print by Sam Wang, Sandy King, Christina Z. Anderson and Zhong Jianming.  The authors, widely respected educators and photographers, saw an opportunity to satisfy a growing interest in American alternative photography after a lecture tour in 2006 to Chinese schools.  They met photographer Zhong Jianming at the Nanjing University of the Arts, who convinced the others that it was time to publish a book for the Chinese market, featuring real work by real artists, with emphasis on the word 'handcrafted' or shougong in Mandarin.  A proposal grew from that and was accepted; a first edition appeared in 2014 from Zhejiang Photographic Publishing Co. in Hangzhou (, ISBN 978-7-5514-0957-5), celebrated by a string of exhibitions across China; a second edition came out in 2015 and a third is forthcoming in 2016.

exhibit in Pingyao, 2014
At almost 400 pages it's a big fat book, it takes up space, it weighs a lot.  Multiple works are shown by some 34 artists, many of whom have years of accomplishment behind them while others are hardly known beyond the community, all judiciously curated by the authors however to cover a range of specialties.  Though the accompanying text is in Mandarin, an English translation can be found at the end, along with bibliography, artist's statements, and notes on each process.

Yet it is not a textbook: you would never think of taking it into the darkroom with you - though some have.  Nor is it, in the kindest way of saying it, a manual of contemporary developments in esoteric realms of photography.  Rather, and this is where Handcrafted is unexpectedly a standout and a more general one than its authors could have wished, the book is, with its sumptuous textures, its fine paper coatings, its inks and their subtle application, a brooding and singular presence and object of fascination all by itself.  Imagine a coffee table book that is also sculpture, sculpture that can be touched, exposed, explored.  That is something of the feel of Handcrafted as it rests open before you.


We begin to understand what's going on when we reflect on the culture that produced it.  Chinese civilization, largely unhindered by outside influences, has been advancing through history for four thousand years since neolithic times, accreting to itself along the way those sensibilities, those allegiances that define it still.  A taste for drawing, first on silk, then on paper, which it invented around the 1st century BC; a reverence for ink, its manufacture and nurture and use foremost in the holiest of pursuits, calligraphy, then in the portraiture of the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), later the landscapes of the Tang (618-907).  There are texts from the 10th century that describe how inks are made from pine trees of a certain age, how to drain the resin and forge the lampblack and how, if desired, you can add gold powder or essence of musk to obtain certain coveted qualities. The 'ink meditation', a concept as far from our understanding as could be, became not just a monastic exercise, but a pathway to enlightenment and nirvana, embraced at the highest levels of society.

It should surprise no one that a culture that cares this deeply for paper and ink will make a book like this one.

Zhong Jianming, vandyke brown

Clay Harmon, polymer photogravure

Cynthia Huber, chemigram

Jill Skupin-Burkholder, bromoil

Douglas Collins, chemigram
Philip Schwartz, carbon

Shelby Koth, tricolor gum bichromate

You've come this far and you say, well then, how do I order it?  Good point.  It's not yet what you would call readily available in the West.  Online it can be purchased at (Amazon China) or (owned by Alibaba), and while these huge Chinese sites do have an English tab to click on, the experience can be daunting - and you might not feel comfortable giving them your credit card, since most of the information is still in Mandarin.  An Australian site may be for you, at, and they do carry the book.  But we buy ours from Xinhua Bookstores, the Chinese government -owned book chain, which is starting to go international.  They have stores in New York, San Diego, London and elsewhere.  It's best wherever you go to identify the book by the ISBN number.  At the New York store the book arrives in 2 weeks and currently costs $71.50, which, all things considered (but don't say anything) is a steal.  And keep checking with because sooner or later they too will want to carry it, if I'm Jeff Bezos.