The etymology for the word “photography” comes from the Greek words for “drawing with light”. 1 Cameraless photography is fundamental to the story about the creation of photographic images. The Houston Center for Photography’s (HCP) exhibit “The Surface of Things” 2, curated by Keliy Anderson-Staley, Assistant Professor of Photography and Digital Media at the University of Houston, includes 12 artists that have explored the creation of photographic images without a traditional camera and lens. 3 The exhibit by HCP provides a framework for a viewer to better understand this approach to the creation of images by the capture and manipulation of light, whether visible or invisible.
Camerless photographs are a product of a variety of elements: the type of paper or surface material used, the type of light sensitive surface, the object placed at, near or against the light sensitive surface, the type of chemical or chemistry applied to develop the print and, or the manner in which the chemical/chemistry is applied to the light sensitive surface. An original cameraless print is a unique object. These images can not be duplicated or reproduced except by copying or photographing the original, which is in contrast to an image from a traditional camera which, with a few exceptions like “polaroids”, can then be printed as many times as desired.
The “photogram” is a basic way to visualize and understand cameraless photography. “A photogram is a photographic image made without a camera by placing objects directly onto the surface of a light-sensitive material, such as photographic paper, and then exposing its surface to light. The usual result is a negative shadow image that shows variations in tone that depends upon the transparency of the objects used. Areas of the paper that have received no light appear white; those exposed through transparent or semi-transparent objects appear grey.” 4 HCP’s booklet for the exhibition has an introduction written by Ms. Anderson-Staley that states: “A photogram might seem simple - it is just a silhouette, made by preventing light from reaching light sensitive paper (or other material). It is a shadow. It can be made without a camera in a dark room.” Photograms are, indeed, not simple. Understanding more about this form of “photograph” and the questions to ask, will make the images in this excellent exhibit all the more impressive and visually satisfying. Of the 12 Artists 5 in the HCP exhibit, all, except three 6, have used an approach that can be defined as a “photogram”, albeit using very different techniques. 7
The work of Hernease Davis is a photogram created by use of her own body as the object on and over the surface of the paper. Almost any object, subject to size constraints, can be placed on a light sensitive surface, in this case silver gelatin light sensitive photographic paper, and then exposed to light. An early example of photograms are the botanical cyanotypes images of Anna Atkins in the 1840’s and 1850s. 8 Cyanotypes are prints where the light sensitive solution cause the object placed on the paper to appear white, where the light is blocked by the object, against a blue background where the paper surface has been exposed. There are many names that are used to describe photograms. Some alternative terms are named after photographers who developed a particular style such as a “Rayograph” (Man Ray) for created images in a darkroom under artificial light. Also, there is a “Shadograph” after the German photographer/artist Christian Shad. Other names may refer to a particular process used.
Understanding and accepting cameraless photography as part of the history of photographic is significant, as it pushes back the commonly understood beginnings of photography. Most textbooks suggest that photography begins with Nicéphore Niépce’s image that was taken from his window around 1826/1827. 9 Geoffrey Batchen, in his book “Emanations”, points out: “Some scholars have suggested…that the German natural philosopher Johann Heinrich Schulze … discovered, in 1727, the sensitivity to light of silver salts”. 10 The science involved is fundamental to many photographic processes as we know it today, with or without a camera. It is the discovery that led to the creation of “photograms”. That event, as Batchen suggests, should be part of the discussion about the dawn of photography. That pushes back the beginning of photography 100 years! So, to fully appreciate cameraless photographic processes, and the images within the HCP exhibition, one should understand that there are many different sources of light that photographic artists have used to create cameraless images as well as the use of many different image surfaces, other than paper.
Sources of light used to create a cameraless image could include, but not limited to:
- Radioactivity, either directly as a source, or by the radiation emitted from contaminated materials, like soil,
- Electrical energy around organic matter,
- Electricity passed thru metal or other objects,
- Cathode ray tubes (aka x-rays and “radiographs”),
- “Xerox” machines or other scanning devices,
- Radiation from uranium crystals - aka “radioactivity”,
- The nighttime sky - “Celestographs” 11,
- Electromagnetic radiation from the human body (“od”, “effluvia”, “emanations” resulting in “skotographs” , “iconography” or “Kirlian Photography”) 12,
- Artificial lights, both stationary and moving in lines or circles or swinging down the light sensitive object surface,
- Light passed through and distorted by translucent substances (such as colored film, filters or liquids),
- Projecting images onto light sensitive paper or other material,
- Light emitting insects, worms or other creatures,
- Charging an object with electricity to illuminate it as the light source.
The impact of light in creating an image is not always a single, one-time only, event. An artist may choose to allow light to continue to change the image. With traditional silver gelatin or other non-digital photographic prints, once the image is exposed and developed, it is “fixed”. In other words, the chemical impact on light sensitive paper is stopped, and the image on the paper becomes “permanent” and, in general, does not change. An image may deteriorate/degrade over time from continued long-term exposure to the elements and light, but the intent of the artist is to stop the development process. In the creation of some some images, the artist may choose to allow an image to evolve and continue to react to light. The chemistry to make an image appear on the paper, or other material, is not “fixed”. So, the type of light source used by photographers through history is one tool they can employ to differentiate their work and images from others.
Another variable to give the artist a unique “visual voice” is the material upon which the light sensitive chemical is applied and if, and how, the chemistry is used or manipulated to bring forth the image. Methods to manipulate an image could include:
- A single image placed on the paper or light sensitized surface,
- Placing or layering multiple images,
- Distortion of the image in some manner, directly indirectly,
- Managing the way the developer and/or fixer is applied to the exposed photographic paper to impact how the image develops and appears,
- Scratching or painting the surface of the base material used,
- Capturing all or parts of the image on multiple panels,
- Folding or cutting light sensitive surface.
The ways of manipulating an object or the manner in which the image is developed is limitless and is subject only to the creativity of the artist. Still, if the image creation involves the use of light, then it may well be in the photography family even though it defies our conventional understanding as to how a “photograph” is created, and what we expect a photograph to look like.
Another type of “photogram” in the exhibition was made by Adam Fuss using a Cibachrome paper that inverted what would otherwise be a white space unexposed to light to black, creating a “positive” rather than “negative” image. The color of the image background was made by using light through colored filters.
Tere Garcia created a 24 silver gelatin photogram paneled image, “Record of Not Revealing the Mural (2016)” through another novel process. She acquired an image of a mural that she projected onto the light-sensitive paper. Anderson-Staley further described the process: “Garcia interjected her body between the projector and the paper as it was exposed. … She sponged and dripped liquid chemical developer onto the separate sheet of photographic paper, producing her own hand-crafted mural.” In a sense, by the use of her body, she becomes the object that is on the photogram, albeit the mural is in the background. The manner in which the chemical is applied is another intervention that impacts the image.
Meggan Gould’s images do not fit easily into the definition of a photogram or photograph. Her work is more like a “Cliché Verre”. A cliche verre image is “is a combination of painting and or drawing, with photography. In brief, it is a method of either etching, painting or drawing on a transparent surface, such as glass, thin paper or film and printing the resulting image on a light sensitive paper in a photographic darkroom.” 13 Keliy Anderson-Staley wrote on the wall text explanation: “Meggan Gould works with sheet film, rubbing away the light sensitive emulsion and then applying pigment ink to it in layers, rubbing it away and reapplying. The film pieces record the history of this manipulation”. Whether these were photographs at all is a relevant inquiry as light has no direct role in the image creation, other than its impact on the previously unexposed film on which the etching is done. If these images were on paper rather than photographic film, these images would be better described as paintings. Yet, the base material used, film, is light sensitive. On the other hand, is the light directly creating the image? Anderson-Staley adds: “…her manipulation of the film interrupts the light sensitivity. In that sense it may be a negative photogram or the opposite of one - an object whose purpose (to make a photogram of itself) is rendered useless, even though it becomes something beautiful.” Arguably, it is useful to have included Ms. Gould’s work in the exhibition to define limits as to what might be included in the genre of photography, and what might not.
Alison Rossiter is known for her collection, and experimental work with, old film and papers. As these dated materials are exposed to the light, the outcome is uncertain. By exposing and developing these papers, the artistry is the unexpected images that one will get. Four of her works are included in the exhibition: “Agfa Ansco (1950s); Eastman Kodak Super Pancho-Press Type B (1944); Geveart Gevapan (1958) and Eastman Kodak Contrast Process Panchromatic (1961). The four photographs are from her series called “Lament”. On the Yossi Milo Gallery website, similar works are described in highlighting Rossiter’s work in her series “Paper Wait”: “Each of the unique, hand-made photographs in Paper Wait is a relic of photographic history and reveals the echoes of times passed. Alison Rossiter activates unused, expired photographic paper by pouring or pooling liquid developer directly onto the surface, or dipping the sheets into developer. The embedded histories of these papers are then reawakened, revealing fingerprints, light leaks, oxidation or mold in the photographic emulsion.”
Various light sensitive papers were used by Aspen Mays in two different types of her work included in this HCP exhibition. The first image is “Dodge Collection 1”. This is a traditional sort of silver gelatin photogram. The objects placed on the silver gelatin paper are ironically different dodging tools that were used in a traditional “wet” darkroom to “burn in” ( to add or subtract light) various parts of an image during a traditional darkroom printing process.
In another set of images from Aspen Mays are a set of brightly colored images with a graphic design. These images are from her grandmother’s scarves. The color however derives from a type of old novelty paper from the 1940’s that produced the blue, red and yellow background color. This colored silver gelatin paper used here by Ms. Mays was acquired from another photographer included in this HCP exhibition, Alison Rossiter.
Several other types of cameraless works are included in the exhibition. A very unusual work included in the exhibition is a video, “Wake (2014)”, produced by Eric Stewart. His father had passed away and was cremated. His father’s ashes were then sprinkled onto unexposed 35mm film, the light turned on, and as the exposure occurred, Stewart hit the table with drum sticks to make the ashes move. According to Anderson-Staley, the drumstick represented a special relationship and bond between Mr. Stewart and his father, and so incorporating their use into the project had, for him , a special meaning. The 35mm images were then transferred on to 16mm movie film and turned into a video.
Another style of “chromogenic” photogram was created by Farah Karapetian. Chromogenic prints are yet another type of chemical process that create the color dyes that make up an image. In a complex series of steps, Karapetian creates a digitally rendered object that has a very real appearance. In a totally dark room, color photographic paper is place below a glass plate upon which the digitally rendered object is placed along with ice and other objects. The artist then selectively applies light, colored by different filters, along with fire as another light source.
Myra Greene used an alternative method of image capture by scanning constructed images made from African fabrics, collage, silkscreen and embroidery to create her series “Sketches for Something Better/Bigger/Wider/Higher”. The scanning of the images creates an image different from a photograph. A different depth and shadowing appears in the images.
In yet another form of experimentation, Brittany Nelson, in her images “Science #15 (2012)” and “Science #3 (2012)” examines the impact of chemicals on paper. The images are a micro examination of the chemistry occurring on the photographic paper surface, photographed and then printed. Anderson-Staley comments: “Rather than fixing and preserving photographic works, she captures the reactive photographic process at a brief moment.”.
Meghann Riepenhoff has three images in this exhibit that she refers to as “dynamic cyanotypes”. She takes light sensitive paper and puts it outside in different places to interact with nature. For example, letting the paper sit in the rain to capture the impact of the water rivets on the paper and chemicals. On her website, there is a similar series titled “Chronographs”. Her artist statement from her website for her series “Littoral Drift” is remarkable and a great insight into what this artist has created: “…the series consists of camera-less cyanotypes made in collaboration with the landscape and the ocean, at the edges of both. The elements that I employ in the process—waves, rain, wind, and sediment—leave physical inscriptions through direct contact with photographic materials. … Photochemically, the pieces are never wholly processed; they will continue to change over time in response to environments that they encounter, blurring the line between creation and destruction.” 14 In the actual exhibition she is actually creating a cyanotype that is exposed each day of the exhibit creating a unique record of the light each day in the same place in the gallery. Each day a new page is turned and exposed.
The next artist , Shimpei Takeda, created images generated from a different sort of light source - radioactivity. The series is “Trace: Cameraless Records of Radioactive Contamination”. AtHCP, the wall card next to the images states: “Shimpei Takeda … collected contaminated soils from the affected landscape … and exposed it for a long time to large sheets of film.” What the viewer sees is a ghostly pattern of radioactive emissions that is unsettling. The photographic record however is helping us visualize what we can’t see or feel emitted from the ground in the areas where these soil samples were taken.
As the curator Keliy Anderson-Staley wrote in the introduction to the exhibition’s catalogue: “The materials the photographers have chosen and the surface of those materials contribute to the meaning of each piece. Color film has been coated with inkjet inks; living bodies have been photogrammed onto paper; textiles have been collaged and scanned; expired film has been exposed and printed; photo chemistry has been painted onto color paper; film has been exposed to radioactive soil; human ashes have been placed onto film.” As noted at the beginning of this commentary, photograms are anything but simple. These images require time and reflection to appreciate the work undertaken by these photographer/artists going back to the earliest days in the history of photography in order to create new images today. An understanding of the choices artists can make in working in this genre of photography allows the viewer a much deeper appreciation of the image.