Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

The stuff of dreams October 15, 2013 by Sepp Jannotta • Published 10/15/13

Christina Z. Anderson's career with 'alt' photography pushes beyond walls of MSU

The print developed in its simple water bath. We peered down as a ghost of an image morphed beneath delicate billows of pigment and chemistry. In her demonstration for the students in “Alternative Photographic Techniques,” Montana State University photography professor Christina Z. Anderson spoke about the dreamlike imperfection and tactile charisma of a well-executed gum print.

“There’s something special about a gum print—it just has this presence,” Anderson said, describing the look of photographs created by exposing a large negative onto a heavy cotton-fiber paper coated with a mixture of gum arabic, watercolor pigments and photosensitive dichromate. “And, of course, there’s the added mystique that no two prints are the same.”

Anderson held up one of her finished prints. She was right. With the air of a painting, its colors and textures gave it a subtle glow.

Before the first day of class, I knew of Anderson’s reputation as a practitioner and teacher of the 160-year-old photographic process of tri-color gum bichromate printing. I knew that her gum work hangs in galleries across the country and that she’s published instructional books on the subject, including this year’s Gum Printing and Other Amazing Contact Printing Processes.

With an encyclopedic knowledge of the histories and modern practices, Anderson is renowned in the photographic niche known as ‘alt.’ The alt processes—gum, casein, cyanotype, platinum, ziatype, kallitype, argyrotype, vandyke brown, and salt, among others—are “alternative” because they are distinct from the modern black-and-white, silver gelatin and color processes. Each piece of paper is coated by hand with photosensitive chemical mixtures adapted from 19th century technology.

Now in her 12th year at MSU, Anderson is a master printer in gum and its milk-protein-based cousin, casein, along with several other experimental printing methods. Her skills rank as simply
expert in most other alternative techniques. Her books have sold in 38 countries around the world.

“I don’t necessarily want it to come easy. I really enjoy spending days making a gum print, working layer after layer with my brushes. I love risking it not working out. Even the little flaws that show up in the final print—there are always flaws—I love them, too. It shows evidence of hand.”
—Christina Z. Anderson

“Chris is not one to dabble in something,” said Rudi Dietrich, a retired MSU photography professor who taught Anderson alternative photo processes when she was a student in the late 1990s. “As a student, she really had a kind of vision of where she wanted to go (with photography). And that’s good, because alternative photography processes are not for the faint-of-heart.”

While most photographs today are digital, with a computer-driven push-button effect, “There’s an aspect of digital photography that makes it less dear to me,”  Anderson said. The alt processes are different. Prints are made, often painstakingly, the old-fashioned way—by hand.

“I don’t necessarily want it to come easy,” said Anderson, whose career as an artist started in painting. “I really enjoy spending days making a gum print, working layer after layer with my brushes. I love risking it not working out. Even the little flaws that show up in the final print—there are always flaws—I love them, too. It shows evidence of hand.”

That “evidence of hand” in gum prints is what turned Anderson the painter into Anderson the photographer.

It was in 1995, as an MSU art student majoring in painting, that Anderson took in an exhibit by Dietrich and discovered the emotional impact gum prints could deliver as works of art.

“I knew I wanted to learn how to do that,” Anderson said. “His photography was so emotive, I can remember wanting to cry.”

After studying with Dietrich and graduating from MSU with bachelor’s of fine art degrees in both painting and photography, Anderson pushed on to study gum with Sam Wang, a professor at Clemson University, where she received her master’s of fine art. After her MFA was finished, Anderson was back in Bozeman teaching in the department that launched her career.

Beyond the classroom, Anderson’s status as a master of gum and casein continues to grow. She and Wang have been paired as jurors for alt photography shows. Anderson also plans to team up with Wang and others to write an alternative practices book tailored to China, where photography is steadily gaining enthusiasts by the millions as workers reach their mandatory retirement at 55 for women and 60 for men.

Her artwork has been displayed in galleries around the world, including Soho Photo in New York City, CoExist Galleries and Studios in Essex, England, and the Nanjing Art Institute in Nanjing, China.

The subject matter for Anderson’s projects ranges from vintage family snapshots from her childhood, to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, to items found in a campus parking lot. “I photograph the social and spiritual landscape,” she said.

In studying with Anderson, I learned that the same pride she puts into her work also shows in her approach to teaching.

“She’s such a good role model. I definitely consider her a mentor,” said Kayla Bedey, a senior photography major from Bozeman, who has seen her own gum prints exhibited in galleries and gracing magazine covers. “I have so much respect for the fact that she really loves sharing her secrets and gets excited about her students’ success.”

For Anderson, there is joy in seeing what people create when they put their modern forms of expression to work using antique photographic techniques—much like the excitement of seeing how that developing ghost image evolves into a finished print.

“When they really get it, it’s amazing what comes through in their work,” Anderson said. ■