Sunday, January 22, 2017

Martha's tears, on view in Arizona

Casanave, Anatomy of a Tear, No. 932. 2016

Martha Casanave has been a friend and colleague for many years and today occupies a distinguished place in the community of the cameraless.  What we didn't know about her was that some while ago she had conceived a most peculiar and private project: she'd been collecting her own tears in little vials, day in and day out, and storing them on microscope slides.  No one knew!  Nor can we even begin to guess at the cause of these tears, whether grief, sorrow, loneliness, disappointment, the lightness of being, existential joy - or all of that and possibly more, thrown in together.  According to those who know her best, never over this period did she make any outward display of heightened agitation or exaltation, bereavement or crush: nothing worthy of a tear.  If we'd known of her true state, we might have considered intervening.  In public she has always seemed fairly normal and unruffled - outspoken, yes, but that's no reason for choking up.  Yet here we are.  Her private life was deeper that we thought.

the artist collects a tear

Happily for us, she recently chose to shed the veil of secrecy and offer her tears to the world.  She has printed a selection of them, using a special microscope devised by her friend Chris, an equipment guru, and are on display at Art Intersection outside Phoenix until February 25, within a larger show called Independent Presence that features current work by a band of woman photographers from Monterey, California.  With a nod to the pioneers of microphotography of the Victorian Age - several of them it turns out were women - Martha's contribution is entitled Explorations through a Fabricated Microscope: A Compendium of Tears.

In looking at these beautiful images, we tread carefully: we feel we are somehow going where we are not allowed, but we can't help ourselves, we are powerless, we are drawn in.  It feels a bit obscene.  And yet there is a curious properness to everything too, a modesty, a primness, even though she is baring intimate recesses of her soul.  Very nineteenth century you could say.  She'll reply by telling you that's her favorite place in time because that's when photography was invented - it's her crowd.

Casanave, Anatomy of a Tear, No. 1012, 2016
  
A whiff of victoriana in fact is everywhere in the presentation: in the vignetting of the images, in the cursive script of the identifications, adding further to the charm.  Has she decorated her work in this way to distance herself from the intensity of the emotions behind the tears, enabling her at last to go public with them?  We cannot say, but it's plausible.  The separation in time from the underlying events to now can be seen as an additional buffer.  Despite this, she reports that in printing them finally, last year, after so long a wait, the emotions often came flooding back and the experience of doing it was stressful and upsetting in the extreme.

Casanave, Anatomy of a Tear, No. 908, 2016

Casanave, Anatomy of a Tear, No. 1005. 2016

Casanave, Anatomy of a Tear, No. 980. 2016

Casanave, Anatomy of a Tear, No. 957. 2016

Casanave, Anatomy of a Tear, No. 942. 2016


For the poets, the tear has long held a special position as poetic object, helped by its pearl shape and its unexpected appearance in the eye of the beloved.  John Donne, writing in 1601 in A Valediction: Of Weeping to the lady he would marry, gets right into it: 'Let me pour forth my tears before thy face.'  Tears are as metaphors for the round globe of the earth, everything is reflected in their concave surface - you, your face, your world, and my tears are a part of you because they come from you, as yours do from me; and when they join, 'heaven is dissolved'.  Tears lead to a rapturous dissolution, all tears do.  You stagger, you have grown suddenly weak, you fall down, but in bliss.

When Martha was asked which tears she found the most beautiful she said the saddest ones.  She didn't hesitate.

Of her books, Explorations along an Imaginary Coastline (2006) is the one closest in feeling to this new work, and should be added to your collection. 







Monday, December 26, 2016

Edward Burtynsky's new pictures: his best yet?

Burtynsky, Salt Pan #16, Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, India, 2016
I dropped in on Howard Greenberg the other day on my way home from Tom Gitterman's, since they'd lately been showing some alchemic things designed to add, as I imagined it, a needed chunk of spice to the usual fare of big-name conventional shows, and I wanted to see more of that.  I'm referring specifically to their alternative show of last September, curated by Jerry Spagnoli, with Adam Fuss's daguerrotypes and Sally Mann's wet-plate ambrotypes catching my eye in a great, unanticipated feast of alternative on East 57th Street.  I had no right to expect to be blessed twice in a year but that's no reason not to hope.


Burtynsky, Salt Pan #23, Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, India, 2016

  

detail, Salt Pan #25, 2016


Burtynsky, Salt Pan #5, Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, India, 2016


 
Burtynsky, Salt Pan #29, Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, India, 2016

 

detail, Salt Pan #25, 2016

So frankly I was blindsided by Edward Burtynsky's new pictures, the Salt Pan series, on display till the end of the year (a parallel, broader sampling of his work was running until recently at the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in Chelsea).

Burtynsky is an inescapable presence these days in the swankier venues and the best museums.  He has been making outsized prints of blasted, ruined landscapes for quite a while, of oil derricks, open-pit mines, iron scrapyards, effluents, slagheaps, often at herculean scales or from helicopter perspectives.  Because of this, or partly because of it, humans are nowhere to be seen - they would be dots at best - but this absence becomes both a vengeful ghostly presence and, predictably, an indictment, and is at least as striking as the marks which human appetites have left on the face of the earth.  So while these pictures, in their hi-megapixel magnificence, may be impeccably drawn and fastidiously detailed  thanks to processing at Toronto Image Works, it's their implicit form, a backstory of flat-out human degradation and greed that suggests why they convey the impact they do.  The lives of the Gujarat salt-harvesters represented here are short and brutal; that of their owners and bankers, soft and luxurious.  Some have called these eco-pictures but I would disagree and go further: behind an aesthetic mask, they are an outraged condemnation of capitalism.

Now that I've said that, let me take back what I just said even though it's also very, very true.  These pictures would be great even without being eco-pictures.  They're great, it seems to me, because they are less photographs than most of his previous work, and more akin to paintings.  There, I've said it: paintings.  With them he at last begins to liberate himself from the constraints of a reactive photography that receives signals and records them, and moves to a position where he combs the world for materials for a composition all his own and seizes upon them.  Acknowledging a debt to abstract expressionism (or his take on it anyway), he is mastering ways of using the fullness of the plane, the suggestiveness of the line, the control of an acerbic color palette.  He brings with him an idea, an abstract idea, formed of painted dreams, then looks to find ways to express it in what nature gives him as data or input, the rest falling where it may.

And to think we thought all this time he was just documenting stuff.

We're not going back to the gum-bichromates of a century ago, to pure pictorialism.  This is important.  There's no danger of that.  The moral imperative remains, the lessons, the openness.  The sheer contemporary grandeur.  But if you come to these new pictures looking for photographs, you are left grasping at nothing familiar and it's hard to understand them on those terms.  I'll give two examples that struck me on first seeing them.  Examine the white lines in the last detail from Salt Pan #25.  Notice how they stutter, then widen and billow, then resume: a highly painterly effect, uncanny in a photograph.  I thought at first they had been drawn with a white pen marker, but when I swooped in on that same salt pan with Google Earth I realized that was how salt looks raked up in little rows and piles.  Stock photos of the Gujarat salt-harvesters show the same thing:

salt-gatherers in the Little Rann of Kutch
Another example of Burtynsky's skill in making a picture is in his control of tonal range.  In salt pans elsewhere (San Francisco, Morocco) and even in the Little Rann of Kutch, bacteria and algae color the evaporating water variously according to the level of salinity in a particular pond.  Colors will range from blue to green to orange and red (dunaliella sp., archaea sp.) to, eventually, black, when the organisms have died, to white, when microbes have cleansed the salt crystals.  Seeking a muted palette for his Salt Pan series, Burtynsky waited until light conditions were favorable, the desert darkening somewhat and the boldness of some of the ponds' colors attenuating.  He may have chosen to photograph toward the end of the harvest as well, to assure a preponderance of blacks and whites.

I am reminded in looking at his results of certain works of postwar British abstraction.  Here's one from the 1960s by Roger Hilton.  Even its moody title, October, echoes Burtynsky.

Roger Hilton, October, 1965
In the past, Burtynsky's interests have swung from what could be taken as activist environmentalism, all the way to a pure geometric, almost tantric, contemplativeness.  The latter include his series on Borromini's ceiling at Sant'Ivo (1999) and his Pivot Irrigation series from the Texas Panhandle (2012), which, until he produced his Salt Pans, was one of my favorites.  But with this new work, everything has changed.

Near the end of a recent radio broadcast on the BBC, he characterized his work, perhaps all his work, as a lament.  Is there a deeper sense of life than that?  














Saturday, November 26, 2016

Nikolova's method


Eva Nikolova, Untitled III, 2016
For a long time now I've wanted to get down into the trays with Eva Nikolova, and I know I'm not alone in this.  Folks have been writing me, stopping me in the street - ever since we began publishing her tortured paeans to memory, loss, and deracination, first in our post in 2013 and another in 2015 - to ask how she makes these pictures.  Some of the early ones looked like drawings with a smudge of chemigram thrown in, here and there, for mood, like Edmund Teske used to do in the 1960s in his faux-heroic portraits of Kenneth Anger, yet they were always beautifully and confidantly executed, charting a path of moral witness totally without precedent in cameraless photography.  When we noticed there were no people in these pictures (for even conventional war-zone photos coming to us from Aleppo had people in them, or their ghosts, adrift in the ruins) we grew to realize that here it was the artist herself who was the lone survivor of her particular armageddon, the one with the tale to tell, she who would live to imprint it with the human stamp.

detail, Untitled III

detail, Untitled III

Her methods have matured and will continue to do so, but her project remains.  This past summer she embarked on a series called 21 Fragments of Yesterday and Tomorrow, one of which, Untitled III,  was a selectee in the recent Alternative Process Photo Competition at Soho Photo in New York.  We decided to investigate what goes into making these pictures, just how they are formed.  Unsurprisingly, it turns out they begin as drawings (we were right), but the tools she is using now are chosen with a view toward a bleach-etch and glassprint endgame, so that as she works, photographic constraints and opportunities are forefront in her mind.  It's best to let her tell it.

'I start on a medium-weight drawing paper using graphite, charcoal, white chalk, and thin sharpies, often overlaid with a cross-hatch of white gel pens and maybe even a touch of white oil pastel.  I like to mix different materials when I draw, but because the visible tones of the materials do not coincide with their opacity - this is what matters when making a negative to print from - I photocopied the drawing onto ordinary printer paper, then contact-printed it under the enlarger.'

Since the resulting print had plenty of blacks, it was easy for her to bleach-etch, most apparent in the dramatic upper part of the picture.  The reader may wonder why the blacks in the lower part didn't bleach-etch as well and the answer lies largely in her strategy of mixing tones in the original drawing, that dense cross-hatch of white and black lines that she spoke about.  She articulates it so well: 'What preserves some of the blacks from lifiting off are tiny islets of white that act as anchors.'

Because the black areas therefore were impure, the etch was insufficient to affect them to any great extent.  Furthermore, she brushed on developer to these areas after the first etch to solidify the blacks found there.  For the upper part of the picture, the sky, now dense with veils, she delicately applied a weak and contaminated developer in an effort to bring out color, then left it to redden in the summer sun.

There is a lot to admire here for practitioners, and to learn from.  And we haven't begun to speak of the impact of her work on a viewer, which can be altogether staggering.

Contact the artist at her site, www.evanikolova.com for more information.

Monday, November 7, 2016

A fascinating piece at Soho Photo by Michael Koerner

Michael Koerner, Escape, chemigram from wet-plate collodion positive, 2016

Escape, detail

Once you get past dipping and dunking - mind you, great works can be made that way, think of Alison Rossiter for starters - the most important concept you need to grasp in making a chemigram is that of the resist.  A resist is something that blocks the action of developer or fixer.  Tape, glue, friskets, varnish, wax, polish, clay, much of the food we eat, are all resists.  Hard bulky objects can be resists too, a pair or scissors, a hammer, a bottlecap, as in the old photograms of the 1930s.  As long as it sits squarely on the surface of the photo paper and doesn't let much chemistry in underneath, it qualifies.

But most resists are of the type that under the gradual, unrelenting action of chemistry will erode and dissolve.  It may take just a few seconds, as with glue, it may take hours for certain varnishes, but eventually the resist is gone.  This is a good thing, because by activating the mark-making potential inherent in the resist, erosion creates expressiveness.  You will want expressiveness: it's the enabler that lets you say what you want to say with your art.    If the resist is recalcitrant and doesn't want to come off it's quite okay to give it a nudge; what is less obvious is that it's also okay to leave it in place even through the final wash, and so incorporate it into your picture as if it were a cousin to hand-coloring or toning (see figure 7 in this post from November 2015).  On the other hand, if you have an obdurate resist and don't remove it at all, you may want to treat it as a stencil, which is also a kind of resist, a decisive, permanent one, and it too may find a home in your toolkit.  Again, refer to the old photograms.

Christina Z Anderson's tutorial article at alternativephotography.com shows a refreshing medley of resists that you will swoon over: cooking spray, toothpaste, hummus.  In England, Daniel Berrangé's blog f/138 takes a systematic look at a number of resists and their governing strategies and is well worth consulting for the beginner.

What is totally unexpected about Michael Koerner's work, on display this month in the Alternative Process Competition at Soho Photo in New York, is the way he thinks about resists.  A chemist by trade, his world is one of diffusivities, of phase states.  Matter is considered not only spatially, by its location, or by its mass and density, but also thermodynamically, by what form it appears in at a given temperature, whether solid, liquid or gaseous.  If you put yourself in this frame of mind it's a short jump, but a major insight, to view the solid-to-liquid transition as a porous barrier to the migration of fixer or developer.

In his system, wet-plate collodion, you first pour collodion over a metal plate, then you immerse the plate in a silver nitrate solution.  An exchange reaction occurs and the bromide and iodide ions in the collodion form salts with silver.  The plate is flashed on the enlarger and minuscule grains of silver begin to coalesce, though not yet manifestly visible.  If you're making a chemigram you would have likely laid down a pattern of resist on the plate by now and then commenced applying your developer and fixer, in a sequence of your own invention, leading in due course to a completed chemigram.  Koerner does it another way.  He freezes the plate, which is still wet, and a very thin layer of ice forms on its surface.  It is this new surface, ice, that becomes his canvas.  He paints on it with fixer and developer, now with one, now with the other, and they attack the underlying plate and its emulsion in a slow ballet governed by rates of diffusion and of melting.  As the process unfolds and chemistry seeps down, regions of fractalization appear, driven by forces which, though quantifiable and controllable in theory, in practice partake of a good measure of randomness.

In all of what are called positive wet-plate collodions, also known as tintypes, which is what we have here, the area where developer strikes the exposed emulsion appears white, not black as in conventional b&w photography, and the same inverted appearance holds for fixer.  Thus in Escape, above, the white filigree on the far left represents developer activity.  By using ice as a resist Koerner gains another advantage as well: he immobilizes the collodion-nitrate solution which otherwise would still be wet and displaceable, so that now he can focus his chemigramic interventions with a reasonable expectation of outcome.  Those pustule-like structures seen best on the detail view are spots where the artist dropped in extra developer with a pipette, and could only have been done on a surface that was immobile.

Koerner gives us hints about his chemistry, which is not straightforward.  For developers he favors those using metol or hydroquinone as reducing agents but has formulated a wide range of others, paying particular attention to the restrainers and accelerators present in the recipe, as these give him a tailor-made control over various aspects of an application, such as the amount of aggresiveness or submission needed.  Astonishingly, he will often employ three or more developers on a single picture.  Similarly for fixers, where a study of early literature has led him to some formulations well beyond, or prior to, the ammonium and sodium thiosulfate warhorses, in an effort to precisely calibrate the kind of black he wants.

This work is suggestive, mysterious, and thought-provoking.  I urge you to explore his webpage at www.photoexperimentalist.com.   



Thursday, October 13, 2016

All-silver excitement in Virginia City


Jeanne Chambers, 2016

High in the scrub desert above the Truckee River basin, the old silver mining town of Virginia City, Nevada, was already a legend in the 19th century when fortunes could be made there overnight, then squandered by daybreak in the saloons of C Street.  In a way, not much has changed except that fortunes today are made only in selected of salts of silver, those famously light-sensitive ones - silver bromide and silver chloride - couched in the emulsion of photographic paper.  You dig out the pure stuff not in rocky red igneous earth as in the wild west days but in darkroom trays.  Yes, we're back in the wonderful world of chemigrams.

The annual Nolan Preece chemigram workshop, three days and nights at the end of September, was all silver, nothing digital: the tenacious ghosts of Virginia City wouldn't have it any other way.  Ten students gathered from as far away as Massachusetts and California with Nolan at the helm, in the spacious, well-appointed, and, according to some, possibly haunted St Mary's Art Center.

St Mary's Art Center, Virginia City

Virginia City
We could go on - but won't - about the accommodations in this unique building, constructed during the bonanza heyday 150 years ago and now converted to printmaking and photographic residencies.  You gather a sense of it from the size and airiness of the studios.

chemigram workshop at St Mary's, September 2016

We will want rather to get into the work itself. 

Nolan designed a curriculum to cover all bases of the modern chemigram: dip and dunk, soft resists, hard resists, the effects of various polishes and varnishes, hybrid methods, exotic developers and papers and more, much of which has been touched on elsewhere in this blog.  To witness the refreshing variety of chemigramic response he was able to elicit in just three days made us think of one of the big differences between chemigrams (and other contemporary cameraless procedures) and the methods of craft photography often presented under the label of alt-photography - and that is that once you have a fundamental understanding of where the process is going, you can, in fact you must, sooner or later, break the rules you've just been taught in order to make your own artistic statement.  And that is because it is an art and not a craft: fidelity to rules will lead only to rote applications, to trite expression.  The goal is to overcome that.

Remarkably, in this workshop we already see signs of a stirring in that direction, a pushing at the boundaries.

Mike Clasen, 2016

Nancy Raven, 2016

Greg Albertson, 2016

Debbie Wolff, 2016




Diane Kaye, 2016





Vanessa Stephens, 2016


 

Susan Watson, 2016



Piera Bernard, 2016


David Laws, 2016


On a technical note, many of the papers provided in the workshop were expired - Kodak, Forte, Luminos, Agfa, Azo - and purposely so, as this is known to be a productive path to follow in chemigrams.  Everyone was encouraged to explore the ways these handled and colored, and to discover the paper's individual signature.

The work turned in by these workshop participants is of a high order indeed, and I believe many veteran chemigramists will come away impressed by it.   Let us hope they continue, for this is just the beginning, not the end.  Each of these artists has taken steps that will become more momentous the further they go, toward an emergent vision, toward something which today they only dimly see but which will unfold as they develop and as the monotonies of the everyday recede.  They arrived with imagination, and now they have the tools to nourish it as well.

If you have questions on particular methods, you may contact Nolan through his website www.nolanpreece.com.

Nolan will have a solo show at Missouri State University's Brick City Gallery, Springfield, January 24 - February 22, 2017, and a two-person show at The Loft at Liz's, Los Angeles, February 18 - March 20, 2017.





Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Some more Michael Jackson

Jackson, #444, 2016

A year ago we introduced you to a fellow to watch named Michael Jackson.  We told you he was out in the UK's west country doing interesting things, photographing ripples in the sand, building paper constructions of mysterious hulking islands, and best of all, playing with light and shadow in the quiet of his darkroom.  He is a prolific artist, we even had trouble trying to calculate how many pieces he'd created - something like one per day was our best, not terribly well-informed, guess, a testimony to both the confidence he has gotten in his system of production and to his obstinate, unflagging energy and creativeness.  At anything near that rate a new Jackson show was a surefire necessity.  Earlier this summer London's MMX Gallery rose to the challenge and exhibited a batch of recent work.  It was a good moment to catch up with him to see how he's doing.

We're talking of course about that part of his output which he terms luminograms, as if to emphasize the primordial role of light in their making (another might call them photograms or skiagrams for similar reasons but let's not get into that discussion) and to distinguish them from the rest of his photographic corpus, which uses light as well, just not primordially.  A slip of theory underlies it: the idea that light, by bending and twisting and refracting, can so to speak show itself, that it can reveal to us something hidden about itself, its inner nature.  So there is a definite quest for knowledge, a search that will have no end because on this earth it seems we can never learn enough; and its waypoints must be intuited, as the knowledge to be found is more likely spiritual than scientific.   

This is very like Mike, his inquisitive frame of mind turning to awe in the face of natural phenomena: he is at home with the big questions and the small to the point of reverence - or innocence.  So that the record of his search becomes the work of art itself, the very pieces we have before us, at once both as documentation and object.  In this examination of his materials - light - Mike can be said to strike at the extreme end of modernism, along with painters like Jasper Johns, Robert Ryman, or Barnet Newman, each with their own quite disparate material obsessions in their day, or of photographers such as the under-recognized Jack Sal.  We can perhaps be grateful, however, in 2016, that his work is less austere than those, and far more sensuous, because the times have changed.  Here are some pieces from the MMX show.  There were 21 in all, each unique, 12 x 16 in. unframed, each of an uncanny beauty.

Jackson, #396, 2016
Jackson, #447, 2016



Jackson, #485 (Valley Landscape), 2016

Jackson, #524, 2016

In the year 1225, Robert Grosseteste wrote a treatise at Oxford in which he said that light extends matter by spreading itself infinitely in every direction and so forms material bodies.  It projects, it induces, it calls into being, it envelopes and continues on.  Mike understands this.  'In a certain sense,' Grosseteste wrote, 'each thing contains all other things.'  Mike gets that too.  He would have been a star pupil.

Jackson toying with light and shadow



Jackson in his studio


installation view at MMX Gallery

The discoveries he makes are not those of the great modern Swiss artists of the photogram, Humbert, Mächler and others, whose results were astounding and simple, astounding in fact because they were so simple.  Rather, he moves from the real world (but what is real about shadows?) to the fantastic and then back again, confusing the two, confounding us in the process and dragging a great deal of references with him, and much of his charm is that his path never fails to astonish.  Jackson is a magician.  Light beckons and he follows wherever it may lead.  'There are senses of reality [in my work],' says Jackson, 'but the rest is so fantastical that it could never be.'

For more information on his motives and methods, check out this video on YouTube produced by the gallery.  I'd like to say 'illuminating' but we're pun-free at the blog.

His website is www.mgjackson.co.uk











Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Mark-making in light and shadow

W.H. Fox Talbot, photogenic drawing, ca. 1839

W.H. Fox Talbot, paper delivered at The Royal Society, 1841

We've been ruminating about things - it's a slow month - and have begun to feel that our friends who work in cameraless photography come in two distinct species (exclusive of outliers from the heavily conceptual or apocalyptic strains).  First let's identify them, label them, and then let's try to make the labels go gently away.

We begin by plunging into the deep end.  So OK, there are folks who write on their working surface - let's call it a matrix - with a tool, be it stylus, pen, stick, or brush, and encourage these marks, through friction or abrasion, to define an expressive content.  This activity is similar to painting and is modeled after painting, no surprise here.  Most of the work shown in this blog is of this type, but not all by any means, and it is certainly not the only way to go as we'll see in a moment.

In this camp we find the chemigramists with their incisions, their clingy resists, and the glassprinters (cliché-verre artists) with their daubs and scratches, and not forgetting the brutalists (Marco Breuer comes to mind, or Brittany Nelson, along with many others emerging from the schools nowadays, where deconstruction is trendy) with their hammers, tongs, their strong mordants.  The matrix we're talking about may be the photographic paper itself, as in chemigrams, or it may be a glass plate, plexiglass, or acetate for the glassprinters, who will contact-print to achieve their end result.  Have I left anyone out?  I don't think so - they're all included here one way or another, and clearly there is a lot of cross fertilization among them.

Then there are the others, in many ways the more interesting group because their approach is so unexpected, and it is these we want to talk about today.  Instead of a brush or knife, they use that gratuitous, everpresent commodity we know as light.  Using just light and light's dark brother, shadow, they make a trace on photographic paper that is captured by the process of photographic development that we've discussed elsewhere (for instance here).  They have marked the paper, or matrix, but have touched nothing: the paper needn't be handled at all, since the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum does all the work.  This is a very old tradition, which reaches back to the origins of photography and is in some respects its very definition.  Fox Talbot called it photogenic drawing, drawing arising from light.  Moholy-Nagy called it the photogram.  Other names have been used, schadograph, rayograph, vortograph, luminogram, skiagraph, light-painting, the list is endless.  When an artist sees how pain-free this procedure basically is, how miraculous, how magical, he is often so overcome that, ignorant of tradition, he names it after himself, or connects it to terms from a golden age of classicism.  He is unwilling to use the common expression because that word, degraded, cheapened, in the service of the most profane employments, has no common measure with the wonder he is seeing.  That word of course is 'photograph', drawing with light.

Alvin Langdon Coburn, Vortograph, 1917

László Moholy-Nagy, photogram, 1925
A few words and examples to get the feel of it.  In the darkroom, something is interposed between light source and the photosensitive paper.  An object, a hand.  Curled paper constructions, as with Francis Bruguière, or cut-outs as with Walead Beshty.  Gauze, as with Wolfgang Tillmans in his Freischwimmer series, which he calls 'abstract photos'.  Gobos, scrims, translucent things, lit by Fresnel lights, pen lights, candles, strobes.  Multiple exposures.  Or nothing at all, just the play of refraction and scattering of light-beams at an edge, or in movement, as in some of the work of René Mächler.  An exposure is made, the paper is developed.

Jaroslav Rössler, Akt, photogram, 1926

Francis Bruguière, Abstract Study, ca. 1926
Lotte Jacobi, photogenic drawing, ca. 1940
Arthur Siegel, Photogram #9, 1946
The work stands firmly in a relationship to the history of silver gelatin photography, to a compendium of darkroom practice, and could not exist without it.  It is reflexive, examining itself as both subject and object.  It acknowledges dependence on the physics of light as a wave phenomenon and on the physiology of the eye, much more so than other cameraless methods do, and it exploits these.  Thomas Young, in his famous 'double-slit' experiment of 1801, had demonstrated the refractive nature of light and both the constructive and destructive interference of waves.  His work is as much fundamental to the photogram journey as Talbot's.

double slip experiment



wave nature of light

When we peer today into the far recesses of pictures where light ends softly and shadow begins, at the roundness of objects, we thank him for helping us understand that.  We see it in Siegel or Jacobi, we see it wherever a reflective surface falls away into a vague smokiness, just as it starts to leave us.  Try these to get the idea.


Kilian Breier, Knicke, 1960-65

György Kepes, Feathery Light, photogram, ca. 1939-1940

René Mächler, Kollision, photogram, 1990

Thomas Ruff, phg.01, photogram, 2012

Fox Talbot, in a journal entry of 1833, wondered if a way might be found to make pictures of things without having to go to the trouble of drawing them, for he was, by his own admission, a terrible drawer.  He was vacationing in Italy near Lake Como and wanted to record impressions of mountains, ruins, old villages.  He set his mind to it and after a few years his attempts at sensitizing paper with silver salts succeeded: you put the paper in the sun with something above, a leaf, a bit of lace, and you get the example at the top of this post.  He called it photogenic drawing.  You couldn't exactly take pictures of mountains with it, the paper wasn't yet sensitive enough, but it was a start.  Sir John Herschel, always more clever than anyone else around (who would shortly announce his discovery that certain salts of sodium could fix, or stabilize, photographs, opening the way for an entire industry to flourish later in the century) immediately devised the word 'photograph' from photos = light and graphein = write, draw, to describe what was happening.  If photography had stopped right there, everyone might be making photograms today.

But it was not to be. The camera obscura, a box that had earned its keep for a thousand years from China to Baghdad to medieval Europe as an intellectual curiosity for the focusing of light rays, was given a new assignment.  Hooked up to the photogram, it came to usurp and far exceed the photogram's function.  The genie was out of the bottle.  Photography was now pointed away from itself - more 'usefully' one might say - out into a world of people, plants, and objects.  Photography had left the shop, taken its notes, and the only ones behind were the men and women whose works you see above.

Accept it or not, this is understood to be how it has been.  Photography is now the province of everyone.  Yet we notice a curious thing: people - artists and amateurs alike - are beginning to turn back to the old methodologies, pausing to examine the beauties left along the path of our adventure - there are so many! - and to reinvent them, remake them in new ways for a new age.  Not in droves just yet, but that will come.  It is a good time then for all of us to rejoin the family of photography, to embrace and reclaim its name and put aside the squabbles of process and ownership, of territory and priority, that have plagued us from the beginning.  We draw with light.

This past summer, a gallery in Germany invited a chemigramist to submit a picture to a group show of experimental work.  He sent them a chemigram.  On the wall it was labeled 'photograph, silver gelatin print.'  No mention of chemigram, skiagraph, bamboozlegraph, nothing.  There is much more that joins us than divides us and I say bravo to that artist and that gallery.  Our words do matter, and our allegiance.