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.