Magazine article Tate Etc.

Out of the Light: Into the Shadows

Magazine article Tate Etc.

Out of the Light: Into the Shadows

Article excerpt

The photogram is an image made without a camera by placing an object directly on to the surface of a light-sensitive material and then exposing it to light. Since the dawn of photography it has been explored by practitioners such as Anna Atkins and Henry Fox Talbot, keen to expand the boundaries of representation. It was a technique much employed by early modernists such as László Moholy-Nagy and György Kepes (the latter's photograms go on display at Tate Liverpool this spring) and is enjoying something of a revival as seen in the works of Liz Deschenes, Nathaniel Mellors, Walead Beshty and Raphael Hefti

A photogram is not a photograph, not really. Sure, it is usually discussed as a subset of photography, and it was born around the same time, from similar chemistry, but is practically and conceptually only remotely related. It is no more a photograph than a photocopy, an X-ray or a digital scan. Photography typically uses lenses to project light on to film, and then on to paper, in order to render an objective representation of a scene or object. It changed the world because of its reproducibility, and because of its capacity for vivid mimesis.

A photogram, on the other hand, is a 1:1 scale negative record of a shadow. It is unique and unpredictable. Photographs tell sweeping, barefaced lies; photograms tell the truth, but only a thin slice of it. Genealogically, photograms have more in common with print-making, or even with the world's oldest known paintings: outlines of hands silhouetted by pigment blown on to cave walls in Indonesia and northern Spain, dating from around 40,000 BCE.

Is this why photograms, and other cameraless photographic techniques, currently proliferate in contemporary art? The ocean of images that surges and swells around us is mainly photographic; we are awash with manipulated half-truths and shameless fictions. Smartphones allow you to edit and enhance images seconds after you shoot them. We are all of us eloquent in the language of photography, from the shallow depth of field of the expensive SLR lens and the all-over focus of the large-format Hasselblad to the vignetted corners of yellowing Polaroid snaps. Even children can interpret the subtly different meanings of Instagram's palette of 20 filters.

Nathaniel Mellors recently embarked on a series of colourful and inexpert photograms of his own sculptures in order to contemplate, as he put it, 'a return to the cave'. They were exposed in complete darkness and developed in his friend's bathtub. Sam Falls has left lengths of hand-dyed fabric out in the sun with objects including tyres and planks laid on them, making basic photograms with exposures weeks- or months-long. Falls has also used coloured lightto make luminogramsclose cousins of the photogram, records not of shadows but of light itself. In pictures such as Untitled (PP 14) 2011 he emphasises this painterly process by applying acrylic to match the printed colour.

Liz Deschenes and Wolfgang Tillmans have made luminograms, respectively, of moonlight and fairy lights piled directly on photographic paper. Along with influential figures including James Welling and Walead Beshty, they use cameraless processes to reach for a kind of self-reflexive formalism. Beshty and Christian Marclay have both used the old cyanotype process, Marclay in prints of unspooled cassette tapes (another obsolete technology) and Beshty in a recent installation that archived objects from his studio as cyanotypes on chemically treated scraps of paper and card.

Some people contend that photograms came into existence over a century before photographs. The German physicist Johann Heinrich Schulze noted the darkening effect that sunlight had on a jar of silver nitrate solution in 1727. He cut out a paper stencil of letters, and amazed his colleagues by printing a word on to a piece of gypsum soaked in the solution. (It is sadly not recorded what he wrote.) This differed from subsequent photograms only in its impermanence. …

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