At the V&A until 20th February 2011
Sponsored by Barclays Wealth
by Sue Hubbard
In his Allegory of the Cave, Plato’s chained prisoners, trapped in their subterranean world, mistook shadows cast on the wall for reality. When they spoke of the objects seen what was it they were speaking of; the object itself or its shadow? Such conundrums lie not only at the heart of western philosophical debate about the nature of reality but, also, of photography. The essence of photography involves an apparent magical ability to fix shadows on light sensitive surfaces. As far back as the second half of the eighth century, the Arab alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan (c.721-c.815) recorded that silver nitrate – the significant element of the light-sensitive emulsion of photographs – darkened in the light. In the eighteenth century Thomas Wedgwood experimented with painting on glass placed in contact with paper and leather made chemically sensitive to the effects of light. Sadly the results remain unknown as Wedgwood lacked the know-how to fix his images.
From 1834 William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) created ‘sciagrphaphs’ (the depiction of shadows) and ‘photogenic drawings’ using botanical specimens and lace placed on sensitized paper. These spectral images implicitly posed questions about the nature of reality. The term for all such works is a ‘photogram’, though strictly speaking they do not depict shadows as they are caused by the blocking of light rather than by a cast shadow. The photogram was later usurped by the process of projecting negatives through an enlarger lens. In an increasingly mechanist age this new technology proved more seductive to the scientifically minded Victorians than camera-less photography, which became the idiosyncratic realm of those interested in exploring the subconscious and the so-called spirit world. The playwright August Strindberg took to leaving sheets of photographic paper in developer exposed to the night sky, believing that his resulting ‘celestographs’ were caused by this exposure to the heavens rather than to the more prosaic explanation of dust collecting on the surface of the paper. In 1895 the previously unwitnessed interior of the human body was revealed by Wilhelm Konrad von Röntgen’s newly discovered x-rays, mirroring a growing interest in the unconscious and the revelation of that which could not be seen by the naked eye.
During the 1920s the photogram was rediscovered by a number of modern artists, particularly the Dadaists. Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy were both attracted by its automatic qualities and the possible patterns of light that could be developed on sensitised paper without the use of any apparatus. László Moholy-Nagy wrote: “The photogram opens up perspectives of a hitherto wholly unknown morphosis governed by optical laws peculiar to itself. It is the most completely dematerialized medium which the new vision commands”. In 1937 his move to Chicago, to teach at the New Bauhaus, ensured that an interest in camera-less photography was transported across the Atlantic.
During the Second World War the role of documentary photography, with its ability to act as a witness to unpalatable truths and humanitarian concerns, became ever more important. In 1947 Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David “Chim” Seymour – photographers who had all been very much affected by what they had witnessed during the conflict – began the photographic agency Magnum, leaving the more experimental practice of camera-less techniques to the fringes of fine art practice. Now the V&A have mounted an intriguing exhibition entitled Shadow Catchers , the first UK museum exhibition of the work by contemporary camera-less photographers that includes Pierre Cordier (Belgium), Floris Neusüss (Germany), Susan Derges and Garry Fabian Miller (UK) and Adam Fuss (UK/USA).
[Photo credit: Floris Neusüss, Untitled, (Körperfotogramm), Berlin, 1962, Collection Chistian Diener, Berlin, ©Courtesy of Floris Neusüss.]
Pierre Cordier discovered the chemigram over 50 years ago, on the 10th November 1956, to be exact. With his puffed grey hair and whimsical sense of humour – exemplified by his allegorical tale The Life and Times of Chemigram, or The Tale of Mr. Painting-Physics and Mrs. Photo-Chemistry’s Illicit Love (1987) he exudes the air of a slightly dotty alchemist. Yet his rectangular labyrinthine works evoke not only the minimal paintings of Joseph Albers and Agnes Martin, along with the esoteric calligraphy of Henri Michaux, but the philosophical games of writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Umberto Eco. Seen as an oddity – neither as pure science nor quite art – his work has rather languished in an aesthetic backwater despite the fact that his way of working has many similarities to that of the painter and the printmaker. On seeing his work the photographer Brassäi said; “The result of your process is diabolical – and very beautiful. Whatever you do, don’t divulge it!”
[Photo credit: Chemigram 25/1/66 V, 1966, Pierre Cordier, © Pierre Cordier.]
Wax, glue, oil, egg and even honey are applied to the photographic emulsion in which Cordier makes incisions or marks. Repeated dipping into the photographic developer and fixer creates a variety of chemical and physical reactions that are both eerie and slightly wondrous. Like the rings of a cut tree the number of lines flowing from the original mark indicates the frequency of the dipping. The resulting images might be Islamic texts or Buddhist mandala. Given his fascination with both randomness and control it is not surprising that his Chemigram 31/7/01 is a Hommage à Georges Perec, that experimental Jewish French writer whose novels were often constructed around chess-based mathematical problems and challenged language’s absolute authority. Yet beyond the element of games playing there is a strange spiritual beauty to Cordier’s work. The labyrinth at the Abbey of St. Bertin in St. Omer, France, as well as the one on Crete that housed the Minotaur, are all alluded to.
The German artist Floris Neusüss pioneered the use of life models in his photograms after abandoning a career as a muralist. Using the simple technique of laying a model directly on the photographic paper he has created white figures on black ground and, using auto-reversal paper, black figures on white. The parts of the body in closest contact with the paper register more clearly than those further away, creating a ghostly effect. In their suspended state his silhouettes seem to fly or tumble through space as in a dream. His shadowy female archetypes they might be read as figures in a frieze or as psychic muse. There is a theatricality to his work which evokes the cut-paper silhouettes popular in the eighteenth century or the art of Javanese shadow puppets. His debt to photographic history is played out in his Hommage à William Henry Fox Talbot: Sein ‘Latticed Window’ in Lacock Abbey als Fotogramm, Lacock Abbey, 2010. Elsewhere he has allowed natural forces to produce mysterious and abstract works. The first, Gewitterbilder, was made by placing photographic paper in a garden at night during a thunderstorm and letting lightening expose the paper to painterly and expressionistic effect.
The natural world also plays a big part in Susan Derges’s work, best known for her evocative, metaphorical images of water. Despite her original training as a Constructivist painter at the Chelsea School of Art in the 1970s her work has strongly naturalistic and Romantic associations. These she melded with an interest in Japanese minimalism to create her first major work Chladni, inspired by the research of the German physicist Ernst Chladni (1756-1827) into the visualisation of sound waves. Sprinkling powder onto photographic paper that was exposed to sound waves of different frequencies she was left with a variety of geometric patterns, making what had previously been invisible visible.
Throughout 1992 Derges made a cycle of photogram works Full Circle, Spawn and Streamlines that charted the transformation of clouds of frogspawn and chains of toad spawn into tadpoles, frogs and toads. Vessel No.3 (1995), a series of nine photographs also explores the life cycle of these amphibians. Water becomes the element of birth, of dissolution and change. A move to Dartmoor in the southwest of England lead her to study the River Taw and to making a series of delicate abstract images of the frozen and defrosting river that suggest flow and fixity, transience and depth. For Dergis the river becomes a stream of consciousness, a circulatory system within the landscape that sustains and connects everything. In her recent series Arch she has created four dreamlike landscapes that represent the seasons. These pantheistic images evoke a prelapsarian domain, like something unobtainable just out of reach. In autumn the golden ferns create a luxuriant bower, while in winter the scene is bleached and spectral.
[Photo credit: Arch 4 (summer), Susan Derges 2007/08, © Susan Derges.]
Gary Fabian Miller has also lived on Dartmoor for many years. It must have been back in the late eighties that I visited his remote cottage to write about his work. Essentially over the years his approach has not changed. He still uses the essential photographic elements of time and light to create stark, minimal and very beautiful imagery. This is ‘slow’ art that explores the cycles of the days, months and seasons. At the centre of his practice is his vision of the contemplative life of the artist inspired by being a Quaker. An extreme sense of calm and stillness flows from his work that may at times, as in the series Reed with Eight Cuts (1985), with its trinity of spear-like forms that highlight the changes that occur in the plants from summer through autumn and winter, suggest religious symbolism.
[Photo credit: Garry Fabian Miller, The Night Cell, Winter 2009/10, Collection of the artist, © Garry Fabian Miller/ Courtesy of HackelBury Fine Art London.]
Gradually he has abandoned the use of leaves and plants to make works in the dark room with beams of light, cut-paper forms and glass vessels full of liquid. A sense of distillation characterises this work. Becoming Magma (2004-5) not only makes implicit reference to the landscape around his Dartmoor home but the circular shapes evoke planets and space as well as minimalist abstract painting. Influenced by Joseph Albers Interaction of Color (1963) that advocated practical experimentation and personal observation over theory, Gary Fabian Miller has spent more than twenty-five years working with camera-less photography. Full of ecstasy and wonder his displays of incandescent light appeal equally to the heart and the head. His images contemplate the universe and its processes and are at once secular yet spiritual, visionary yet based in natural science.
Adam Fuss grew up between rural Sussex and Australia before moving to New York in 1982. Originally a commercial photographer it was when working on a job taking photographs of old Master prints for a scholarly encyclopaedia that his subject matter began to have an influence and he started to make his own work, breaking into and photographing the inside of abandoned New York warehouses. It was by accident that he discovered camera-less photography but once discovered it appealed to his desire not to document what he could see but to discover what he could not. Drawing on childhood memories and personal experience his work, which has a strong element of composition and formal elegance, deals with an array of metaphorical themes. Using recurring symbols such as the serpent he alerts us to our inner shadows and to the possible redemption of light. He has created a richly emblematic lexicon that includes spirals, snakes, ladders and birds in flight to illuminate the ephemeral nature of life and to ask questions about death. “The darkness is me, my being,” he has said. “Why am I here? What am I here for? What is this experience that I am having? This is darkness. This is a question I ask, and when I ask it, it’s like looking into a black space. Light provides an understanding.”
[Photo credit: Invocation, Adam Fuss, 1992, © Courtesy of Adam Fuss/V&A Images.]
In this digital age the rising interest in camera-less photography can perhaps be understood as a desire to return to fundamentals, a way of reaching back to experience that is unmediated by technology, to the smear of breath on glass, the fingerprint on a walnut table or bird tracks left in the snow. Icons and relics such as the Turin shroud that seem to have been made from nothing but light suggest the miraculous and the alchemical. They like all camera-less images speak of essences, of the mysterious, of making visible that which is invisible, in a way that still seems, even to modern minds, somewhat magical.