Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The end of the photogram: Roger Humbert

Humbert, IMG_2699. 01.10.2013, 2013

When you first see a picture by Roger Humbert, you know you're in the presence of an artist unlike any other who has dealt with light.  It is a medium he has made his own (as if he had the authority to do so), along with its consorting twin, shadow.  Each defines the other, whiteness and darkness, energy and its absence.  His mind runs over the wavelengths of its spectrum as a pianist's fingers run over the keys.  It's both immanent and elusive, and he thinks about it all the time.

Humbert, IMG_2764. 01.10.2013, 2013

Much has been written of his connection in the early 1960s with the movement known as Concrete Photography, which promoted the idea that a certain minimalism had a philosophic content, or perhaps the other way around, that phenomenological currents in intellectual circles led to a reductive photography.  Influenced in any event by the writings of Max Bense and the graphic work of Swiss compatriot Max Bill (all these Maxes in the service of minimalism!) it found its roots ultimately, going back further, in the Bauhaus teachings of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and before him to Coburn.  We touched on that in an earlier post last year.

That agenda - and the work of the four or five artists gathered at the time for ground-breaking shows in Basel, Bern and Zurich - seems at this juncture, in my opinion, to have been little more than a pretext for critical ponderousness or puffery for a sales pitch to an uncomprehending public.  Addressing those critics, it's not helpful or insightful to claim that photography was becoming self-referential, gazing at the processes that undergird it.  That comes off as obvious, but only because those making the work had driven themselves to do it: it was not necessarily in the plan.

Humbert, IMG_1429. 15.12.2011, 2011

Humbert, IMG_1960. 20.04.2012, 2012
Humbert, IMG_1160. 03.11.2013, 2013

And still, the record shows Humbert preceding the movement by a decade and surviving it happily for many more, no thanks to the commentariat.  He is the real deal, and he is still producing the work.  His is not a postured minimalism but rather one informed by a passion to understand - and, if not understanding fully, for who can, then to depict at least what light really is for us or may be, this thing that is not object but event, surface, density, and more.

Mächler, Sechs quer strahlend, 1971
Even his great countryman and contemporary, the late René Mächler, was not able, in the end, after many years, to approach the mysteries of light with the sensitivity of Humbert.

It all began in the darkroom in the late 1940s, with an enlarger and a tray of photographic chemicals.  Using stencils he would cut out and computer punch cards, a relic most readers of today have never seen, he created photograms.  Then he would move light around to make luminograms.  He used all the methods others have used to explore light (Matter, Jacobi, Arthur Siegel) but without the theatrics or the sentimentality.  Some would say he has paid the price but he would just give us that wan enigmatic smile of his and say he has only gained by it.

Humbert, untitled, 1955

Today he has transitioned to digital in keeping with the times, but here are some earlier works, all analog, now housed in the Fotostiftung Schweiz.  Notice how much the energy in these earlier pictures was made explicit through rapid gestural shifts and the layering of photographic material, whereas now, to imply this energy, all he has to do is massage the depth of field and the bokeh, and use the reductive tension set up by nuanced pools of darkness.  Humbert is a master of this and his recognition is growing.  Photo Edition Berlin recently hosted a solo show of his latest work and published a catalog from which some of these images are taken: you should go out and get it.

Humbert, untitled, 1968

On YouTube, in a conversation with Gunther Dietrich, he recently said he's approaching the end of photograms and of his life-long study of light, that there's nothing more to be done.  From this it's evident that each picture for him is more than just a picture, or less than one: it's an exploration, a journey.  His work is as much science as art.  There is no need to revisit where he has gone before, he has already shown us what is there.

Roger Humbert, 2015


  1. In your account of influences and precursors, you might have mentioned Otto Steinert, who was teaching and doing work similar to Humbert's untitled 1955 piece back in the 1940s. Steinert's work might be due for a reappraisal.

    1. As Archilochus says in his poem, foxes see many things but the hedgehog sees the one big thing. Steinert is the fox, Humbert the hedgehog. The distance between the two is vast. But I agree Steinert should be studied again for many reasons. Incidentally, he was Cordier's first, and only, teacher.

  2. Great post. Give the man the recognition he deserves.