Dilemma: My Life as Open Source

I am pondering a problem, or perhaps it is an opportunity, but I cannot decide how to proceed. What I am considering is a radical departure from everything I’ve ever done as an artist, so I must consider it deeply.

For over 25 years, I have been researching antiquated photographic processes. I have found certain processes that are basically lost arts, and with the application of some computer technology, I can compensate for the flaws in these processes. I am now profitably exploiting the very problems that caused people to drop the process.

I have accumulated research going back over 25 years, I’ve consulted with artists and photographers, some of them freely shared their information, some will not divulge it at any price. The ones who freely shared their information believed that anyone who made anything from it would do so on their own accord. I know that the teacher who originally showed the process to me had no idea I’d continue to develop it for 25 years. I actually met my old professor a few years ago, I thanked him for teaching me the process, and briefly told him of my work. He asked me if my work was successful, I told him I thought it was successful, but nobody had the least interest in it and certainly nobody wanted to buy it. Then he grabbed my hand and shook it vigorously and said “congratulations!”

The process is extremely labor intensive and costly, with a high failure rate. It can take a week to produce a really good print. I have taken prints to local galleries, they offer to sell them at about half what it costs me to make them. They don’t seem to understand that alternative process prints are much more expensive. My prints are true archival art, in an era where galleries rush to sell nonarchival inkjet prints at fine-art prices.

So there’s the crux of the matter. I’m not making a cent with my printing. I can’t even get galleries interested in selling them for reasonable prices, even in the $800 to $1200 range which is the low end for alternate process photographic prints. So I am considering opening up and publishing my entire research as an open source project. To do so would reveal all my most closely guarded trade secrets. However, some other authors have started to publish related information they have discovered on their own. So I feel compelled to publish fully, in order to establish my work. Perhaps if I cannot gain recognition for my work, I can gain recognition for contributing to the photographic arts. Ironically, my own university has shunned my work. Their printmaking department has a fancy mechanical process they’ve patented and licensed, I can do the same thing with a few pennies of chemicals and some paintbrushes. They hate my process.

So, what should I do? Should I reveal everything, or continue to go it alone? I decided I would publish everything once I had a major showing of my work. Perhaps I can spur a gallery to show my work by publishing. Probably not.

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