Exploring the Photogram - How Does Cameraless Photography Work?
How can you take a picture without using a camera? Apparently, the process is not as unimaginable as it may sound at first. In fact, cameraless photography is a technique not much different than photography itself, but it seems that it hadn’t been put to right use until Man Ray and his contemporaries discovered it once again in the 1920s and created something that is now called – photogram. The outcome of a photogram appears quite different, more reminiscent of x-rays and photocopies than actual photographs. The aesthetics of a photogram brings the medium closer to other forms of art that seem to mystify the subject rather than expose it directly, like photography aims to do, more often than not. Ultimately, comparing the two – photograms and photographs – may lead to a conclusion that while their initial purpose may seem similar, and so do the chemicals that surround the process, their final outcome reveals quite opposite things. As much as photography aims to document, or to give a touch of subjectivity throughout the process, photograms seem to put a mantle of peculiarity over things that strike us as familiar. A photogram is the main advocate of the uncanny, juxtaposing that which we think we know with a vague context of the unfamiliar. In photograms, we recognize the silhouettes of objects surrounded by the shades of grey, overlapping or standing next to each other, creating amalgams that take on a form that seems to be more than it initially represents. And while a photographer sees almost exactly what his photograph may look like, the appearance of a photogram is slightly harder to predict.
So, What Is a Photogram Exactly?
A photogram is an image made by setting objects directly onto a light-sensitive surface and exposing it to light. This cameraless photography technique gives a sort of a photographic picture, but it displays tones in order opposite from the one seen in reality. This means that photograms show negative shadows, or in other words, the portions of the surface that do not get touched by the light remain white (not black, as we would expect to happen in real life). The variety in tone depends on the quality of the materials used for the completion of the image. Therefore, those objects that lack opacity or appear transparent to a certain extent show up as grey, and the darkness or the lightness depends on the amount of transparency. However, if the objects are placed so that they press against the light-responsive sheet, and none of them is transparent, the image will probably appear as a high contrast black and white photogram picture, with no shades of grey.
Just like photography, making photograms began with an intention to document the physical world. Although a certain fascination with the medium did exist from the start, it is more likely that photograms were primarily used for scientific purposes and the enhancement of knowledge, rather than artistic expression. Since the first impermanent proto-photograms existed long before photography was invented, ironically, they were not documented. German physicist Johann Heinrich Schulze was reportedly the first one to notice the effect of sunlight on a silver nitrate solution in 1727. He used the chemical as a coating for a piece of gypsum that he overlapped with a stencil cut out from paper. After having it exposed to light, the letters that were cut out remained printed on the surface of the object. This was probably the first utilization of the photogram, but the only evidence left is in written form.
The British botanist Anna Atkins, often dubbed to be the first woman to make photographs, used the technique for illustrating her books, mostly displaying seaweed and other types of dried algae in order to record the exact shapes of natural phenomena. Her interest in photographic techniques was stirred up by her friendship with Henry Fox Talbot, from whom she had learned about the “photogenic drawing”, as he used to call photograms before the word was invented later in the 19th century. The first book of photograms was published by Atkins herself in 1843, and it is often commended as the first book ever to contain photographic illustrations. The name of the book was Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, and here the second part of the title refers to the light-sensitive substrate and the process used for the creation of these images – the cyanotype, which is the photogram process that produces cyan-blue prints instead of achromatic ones. The cyanotype was invented as a technique concurrent to Talbot’s calotype, by Sir John Herschel. The word impressions, from the aforementioned title, nonetheless reveals that the idea was not merely to objectively represent the plants, but also to share the impressions of dried algae, as rendered by the photogram.
Progress of the Photogram Medium
Not so long after Anna Atkins’ beautiful botanic photograms, photographic technology aspired to more advanced levels and soon the film was introduced, first as a coating on paper and then as a separate material. The technique was almost entirely replaced by the more advanced and seemingly more interesting camera photography in time. However, the avant-garde movements from the 1910s and the 1920s were the ones to rediscover photograms and their potential in the light of the new age. Artistic movements such as Dada, and later the Bauhaus (two of which did not have much in common ideologically) came back to examining the potential of a photogram. As an interesting play of words, the term Schadogram was coined by Christian Schad, quite possibly to resemble the phrase “shadowgram” as well. The photogram technique was later embraced by Man Ray, who was allegedly introduced to Schad’s work by Tristan Tzara, widely known as the founding member of the Dada collective. In the end, it was not Schad but Man Ray to popularize this technique, inasmuch as his own approach to photograms was more delicate and attentive, having reinvented some of the conditions, such as using a dark room and a source of light instead of directly exposing the material to the sunlight.
Later in the ’20s, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy continued Ray’s work in a way, making pictures that were more obscure thematically. Instead of making the objects appear clearly outlined, most of the elements in his photograms were blurred or seemed to be captured in movement, displaying translucency and ambiguity of form. From that moment on, the photogram evolved and became widely used as a tool independent from photography, which it stems from. It was commonly overlapped with specific genres, such as portraiture, most easily recognized in the work of Len Lye in the 1940s. The artist persuaded many eminent figures to press their faces against paper and help creating the unusual, characteristic type of photogram portraits – Georgia O’Keeffe and Joan Miro among them.
Significance of the Rayograph
Among numerous fundamentally original ideas Man Ray contributed to the scene in his time, which subsequently turned him into one of art history’s most distinguished names, the greatest addition was the concept based on the photogram technique – rayograph. After he emigrated from New York to Paris in 1921, the photographer desired to somehow create genuine photography without using an actual camera, so he devised a method in which he placed an object such as thumbtacks or wire coils directly on a sheet of photosensitized paper and exposed it to light. In order to achieve the desired effects, the experimental photographer had to expose the composition to the light at least three times – yet every time he exposed the piece to light, another object was placed on the photosensitized paper, meaning every exposure added something new to the overall result. Man Ray actually dabbled in photography for years prior to the birth of the rayograph, but never so radically different from the nature of this youngest medium at the time – the unique, visionary images he was able to produce immediately put the photographer on par with the avant-garde painters of the day, solidifying his 20th-century modern art role as a crucial one. Results of rayographs were somewhere between the abstract and the representational, a feature which popularized Man Ray in both Dadaistic and Surrealistic circles which were about to reach their creative peaks in war-torn Europe at the time.
A Closer Look at Rayographs
The nature of rayographs was arguably best described by the late John Szarkowski with the following statement: “It is impossible to say which planes of the picture are to be interpreted as existing closer or deeper in space. The picture is a visual invention: an image without a real-life model to which we can compare it.” This observation also explains why contemporary fellow artists fell so deeply in love with Ray’s creation – it uncovers a reality all the more valuable and fragile because it is otherwise invisible. However, we should really state that Man Ray never publicly proclaimed himself as a Dadaist nor Surrealist, but rather refraining himself and keeping a distance from both movements whilst supporting them both from afar. During the year of 1922, a book of collected rayographs titled The Delightful Fields (“Les Champs délicieux”) was published with an extensive introduction by the influential Dada artist Tristan Tzara. In the later period of his life, the famous avantgardist experimented with another technique called solarization which renders a portion of a photographic image negative and another part positive by exposing a print or negative to a flash of light during development. Another extension to the rayograph concept appeared as M.R. applied the technique to motion-picture film, creating patterns with salt, pepper, tacks and pins – the film’s title was Return to Reason (“Le Retour à la raison”) and it was featured during the year of 1923.
The State of Cameraless Photography Today
Although rayograph has an excellent ring to it, a Hungarian artist Moholy-Nagy popularized the term photogram which eventually took precedent over the original name that paid homage to the propagator of the method. Nowadays, photograms are also known by the prolonged name of cameraless photography and, despite a common belief that this is an extinct method, they are actually quite popular in the 21st-century. The desire behind photograms stayed basically the same as it was with Man Ray one hundred years earlier – to enjoy an unpredictable pictorial adventure instead of a more mechanical approach which is basically what today’s cameras are able to offer to someone who wishes a bit more creative freedom. However, technically speaking, the tactics for achieving desired effects have changed quite a bit and now there are numerous different methods through which it is possible to create a photogram. Besides the already established hundred-year-old method Ray himself practiced, other two popular techniques extensively used today are the luminogram and the chemigram. In a luminogram, light descends straight on the paper and forms an image of objects placed between the light and the paper that are NOT touching the paper – this way, shadows are filtered in different ways, depending on whether they are transparent or opaque. Chemigrams are made by directly molding the surface of the photographic paper, often with varnishes or oils and different photographic chemicals. Other less conventional methods of achieving photogram effect are digital C-print (a photogram made from digital images), dye destruction print (an image made using direct positive color paper) and gelatin-silver print (made using paper that has been coated with gelatin containing silver salts). It should be noted that, although most of the artists working with photograms today seem to stick to only one method mentioned above, there are some photogramers out there that combine different methods and manage to achieve spectacular results by doing so.
A Magical Concept
As is common knowledge, the 20th-century opened many doors in the artworld, starting numerous avant-garde movements that shook the very foundations of everything known about art back then. The very concept of making photographs without the use of a camera may as well be the slogan describing the early 20th-century art – a radical change that forced new concepts onto the audiences and disregarded everything already established, literally fighting avant-garde (in the first battle rows). What remains the most magical aspect of photograms ever since Man Ray made his first rayograph and all the way to this very day is the sheer fact that every single piece created through any method mentioned above is a complete original – whilst regular photographs are always nothing but implications of realities and have a documentary role, in contrast, cameraless photographs show what has never really existed. They are fragments of memories, traces of dreams, footsteps of imagination, transformed visions – shortly put, they are as close as art can get to magic.
The book introduces the photogram-making process, as seen by the author, a prominent art director Norman S. Weinberger. The writer is known for another quite famous book, called “Encyclopedia of Comparative Letterforms for Artists and Designers“, and regarded as an “invaluable tool”. In a similar manner, the author takes the reader step by step through the process, but he also gives some smart and inspirational ideas which would help a person achieve striking effects. If you’re interested in photograms, this book might serve as an excellent guide. It is also well illustrated, providing a selection of 25 beautiful photograms that appear in the book.
Featured images: Laszlo Moholy-Nagy photogram 1924; Farrah Karapetian – Muscle Memory 2013, Chromogenic photograms from performance, three panels, each 2743 x 889mm, image via Tate; Christian Marclay – Allover (Genesis, Travis Tritt and others) 2008, image via Tate. All images used for illustrative purposes only.