The Photogram - a History

“Captured Shadows”

“The shadows that things make, The things that shadows make”


Les Rudnick

© 2004-2011 Les Rudnick

"Projections....... of objects that dream and talk in their sleep"
(Tristan Tzara description of Man Ray photograms)


History - Photographic adventures in the creation of photogram images in the early 1800s

The history of photography is punctuated by unique practitioners who have developed a technique or style that has become a part of art history.  The first period of “photogram” exploration was to gain scientific record of natural objects (e.g. Anna Atkins).  The second period was a rediscovery of the artistic potential as illustrated by Christian Schad, Man Ray and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in the Dada, Surrealist and Constructivist periods of art, respectively.

Joseph Nicephere Niepce, in France, in 1824 created a recorded image of a drawing by coating a sheet of pewter with Bitumen of Judea, a type of asphalt.  By exposing through the drawing, and washing off the soft unexposed asphalt resulted in a photogram copy of the drawing. Niepce continued to explore ways to improve his process without significant success. He abandoned the concept of creating photogram type images for experiments in-camera and later worked with Louis Jaques Mande Deguerre on the Daguerreotype process.

Hippolyte Bayard, French (1807-1887) was an early photographic inventor, was interested in photography and developed a way to create negatives on paper by February 5, 1840.  He had actually invented earlier, but published too late, the invention of the photography.  He had actually displayed as many as thirty of his prints in 1839, while Daguerre described his “invention” to the French Academy of Sciences later.  His photograms of arranged plant materials from about 1842 were direct positive cyanotype images. One remaining example is an arrangement of floral and other materials including a feather entitled "Arrangement of Specimens" created in about 1842. Most of his photographs are at the Society Francaise de Photographie, where he was a founding member, By about 1843 to 1846 Bayard was producing delicate cyanotype images of lace gloves, and his multi-object photograms demonstrate a hand-of-man quality in contrast to Talbot and Atkins whose photograms more resemble natural arrangements or single botanical items isolated on the field of darker color.

Experiments leading to the discovery that silver salts can be made sensitive to light and the associated discoveries for the practical application to capturing images of the natural world were reported in Paris and then London in January of 1939 [Weston Naef, J. Paul Getty Museum of the Photographic Collection Handbook, 1995, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, p3]. William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) an English scientist and mathematician, advanced the infant science and art of photography. Necessity is the mother of invention, or in Talbot's case, frustration was the catalyst. Talbot, while traveling in Italy in the early 1830's used a camera lucida (a portable camera obscura) for drawing from nature and because of the difficulties in detailing various subjects, he decided to investigate the use of photography as a way to capture the details of nature.

Talbot began investigating the properties of silver salts in mid-1834 and in 1835 and began to produce photosensitive paper by sequentially coating paper with sodium chloride solution followed by silver nitrate thereby producing silver chloride impregnated paper. In 1839 Talbot published a paper in which he described his process. The steps consisted of soaking good quality writing paper in a weak solution of sodium chloride (table salt), The paper was then wiped dry. In dim light, this paper was then coated on one side with a 1:6 to 1:8 solution of silver nitrate. This paper was now photosensitive. Contact of a translucent object or fern or lace in a printing frame, and exposure to sunlight until a reddish image appeared, followed by washing the print in salt solution under low level of light, resulted in a relatively permanent image. Later Herschel would discover that sodium thiosulfate (hypo) would permanently fix the image on the paper. In the mid to late 1830s, Talbot created photograms of plant material by allowing sunlight to pass through leaves that he placed on his photosensitive paper. 

This was the not only the beginning of photography but the application of the light to draw an image without a lens on a photoreceptive substrate – thus the photogram was born. Talbot called these images "photogenic drawings", a term that is used periodically today, but has generally been replaced by the term photogram. By using "salted paper" Talbot began making photograms of various botanical specimens including leaves and flowers and also of a variety of translucent and opaque objects.

The first photograms created, therefore, were silver-based photograms of plant specimens and of linen (textile) materials, generally lace and other objects that would show a pattern in the image. These were created by contacting the photosensitive paper with the object and exposing the combination to light from the sun. On January 30th 1839 William Henry Fox Talbot announced the results of his experiments in producing photographic images.  His report was published with the title of ”Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing of the Process by which Natural Objects may be made to delineate themselves without the aid of the Artist’s pencil” [Linda McCartney, Sun Prints, Bulfinch Press, Little, Brown and Company, 2000],

By April 1939 Talbot had created a photogram "Leaves of Orchidea, an image that survives today [Weston Naef, J. Paul Getty Museum of the Photographic Collection Handbook, 1995, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, p3]. Talbot used the term Calotype from the Greek “calos” meaning beautiful” to describe these images. . Talbot was the first person to expose sensitized paper in a camera. Since film was unknown at the time, Talbot oiled the paper to make it transparent and this "negative" was used to produce a positive by contact printing through the oiled paper. Talbot is considered the first person to create a photographic process that produced a negative that could be converted into a positive image.

It would be difficult to describe the photographic process of making photograms without periodically referring to what are currently referred to as “alternative” processes.  Many of these alternative processes were in fact the standard photographic processes of their day.  The cyanotype is one of the oldest photographic processes for printing an image and is still used today both as an alternative (non-silver) printing method and for making blueprints of engineering drawings. Sir John Frederick William Herschel (1792-1871), an astronomer, chemist and mathematician, invented the cyanotype process in 1842 and photogram images of peacock feathers from 1845 and other objects produced using this method survive to this day. The cyanotype process is based on the photosensitivity of iron (ferric) salts and Herschel was the first to discover this photosensitivity. Herschel was to use the photomechanical aspect of the cyanotype method to make copies of his notes, purely a practical use, however, his photograms of natural objects reflect the positioning of natural objects to form an artistic image.

We owe a great deal to Anna Atkins (1799-1871).  Anna, the only child of John George Children (1777-1852), was born in Tonbridge, Kent. Anna spent her childhood in the presence of many of the leading English chemists at the time including Davy. She helped her father in scientific endeavors including the production of detailed engravings to illustrate his translation of Lamarck's Genera of Shells.[]. This was probably very influential in terms of her later use of the not yet invented cyanotype process which she would use to produce permanent records of British plants and ferns.

Herschel and Talbot were friends of Anna's father and thus Anna knoew early on about the cyanotype and Talbot processes for creating images. Anna later used the process of making cyanotypes to produce detailed images of botanical specimens.  She then used these to illustrate her book entitled “British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions”.  This was the first book that was illustrated using photography.  Atkins and her father John Children began in 1840 to explore the use of the new photographic processes being developed by William Henry Fox Talbot and Sir John Herschel. Anna Atkins began her work, using the cyanotype process, on British Algae before 1843, and published British Algae in parts from 1843 to 1853. [] Anna was interested in producing a photographicaly illustrated version of the Manual of British Algae, published by William Harvey which was unillustrated. []

Her first publication in 1843 pre-dated the Pencil of Nature (1844), published by William Henry Fox Talbot.. Anna with the help of Anne Dixon, (born Anne Austen, a second cousin to the writer jane Austin) printed and assembled albums of the botanical specimens. She used the method of photogenic drawing, Talbot's term, or the process of making photograms to document the botanical specimens. Her book entitled, British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions” which was issued in several parts over ten years and contained 424 cyanotype photograms (these were called Shadowgraphs in the 1800s). The use of cyanotype process and the subject detail obtained by the photogram method as illustration, created a reputation for the medium as accurate and appropriate for scientific publications. A second album, entitled "Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns was produced by Anne Dixon and possibly Anna Atkins in 1854 and a third album "Cyanotypes" was produced by Anne Dixon in 1861.[see Mike Ware, Cyanotypes, Science Museum and National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, 1999, pp83-85]

Atkins learned to make cyanotype exposures for her book projects by arranging her specimens on sheets of glass for repeat exposures. To save time and effort and also to maintain a common methodology and feel for the final book, Atkins also used cyanotype printing to produce the title pages and contents lists ratherthan having them typeset.

Her sentiments reflect a similar frustration with the process of drawing that prompted Talbot to originally seek a method of capturing nature using a photographic process as noted in the following quote:

"The difficulty of making accurate drawings of objects as minute as many of the Algae and Confera, has induced me to avail myself of Sir John Herschel's beautiful process of Cyanotype, to obtain impressions of the plants themselves," explained Anna Atkins in October 1843.  []

Working at about the same time were the Rev. John Wheeley Gough Gutch (British, 1806-1862) who produced collage of leaves created on salt prints by reprinting them as positives and Amelia Bergner (American, active in the 1870s who produced photograms of leaves on chromate-based print out paper (an example of her work ca 1873) [SFMOMA, Picturing Modernity: Highlights of the Photography Collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, September 2006-ongoing].

By corresponding with William Henry Fox Talbot, she learned about photogenic drawings and from her acquaintance with a friend of her family, Sir John Herschel, the inventor of cyanotype, she learned how to print her specimens as cyanotypes.  Herschel was a scientist, inventor and astronomer. He invented the cyanotype in 1842 by observing the photosensitivity of ferric salts. He also discovered that sodium thiosulfate would "fix" images and essentially stop images from fading with further exposure to light. The cyanotype became an important and popular method for producing images during the 19th and 20th centuries because of the ease of coating the paper with photosensitive solution and because the image can be developed using water. [].

The cyanotype process is very permanent and many of the photograms produced in the mid-1800s survive today. The photogram method of contacting botanical and other specimens with a photosensitive medium, cyanotype for Atkins and salted paper for Talbot, was chosen because of the immediate detail that could be obtained. Larry Schaaf has written that "Anna Atkins combined a sense of beauty with precise observation and that she stands as one of the most innovative and bold of the early practitioners of photography". [Larry J Schaaf in Hans P. Kraus Fine Photographs, Anna Atkins, 2006 Calendar] Her British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions was both the first book illustrated using photographs, but her arrangement of specimens and the use of the photogram process provided detail that was essentially unattainable at the time she created these images.

Her arrangements of Rivularia (Photographs of British Algae, c 1850, cyanotype), for example, demonstrates that Atkins has done more than merely trace the scientific details of rivularia, but has transformed these objects of nature into artistic creations on the two-dimensional plane. [Ocean Flowers:Impression from Nature, ed. by Carol Armstrong and Catherine de Zegher, The Drawing Center in association with Princeton University Press, 2004]

See also [Peter Frederick, Creative Sunprinting, Focal Press, NY 1980 London 1st Edition, US ISBN 0 8038 1269 8, ISBN 0 240 51045 3],  [Anna Atkins, Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns circa 1851-1854],  [Anna Atkins with text by L. J. Schaaf, Sun Gardens: Victorian Photograms by Anna Atkins, NY 1985].

The cyanotype process is a negative-acting process producing white lines on a blue background, Because of it's main application in the engineering and architectural fields it is commonly referred to as the blue-print process. [Jones, Bernard E., Peter C. Bunnell and Robert Sobieszek, Eds., Encyclopedia of Photography, Arno Press, New York, 1974]. A positive-acting version of the cyanotype is referred to as Pellet's process or positive cyanotype. Pellet's process is alternatively known as "Cyanofer", "Positive Ferrotype" and "Cyanographic" processes.


Radioactivity tracks observed on photographic film through a plastic bag represents the first observation of a chemically transformed surface by electromagnetic radiation. On November 8, 1895 Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, (1845-1923) a professor of physics at the University of Wurzburg in Germany, observed the fluorescence of a barium platinocyanide screen located nearby a Hittorf-Crookes tube in his laboratory.  He observed that objects placed between the tube and the screen caused shadow images to appear on the screen, and that this occurred even after covering the tube with black paper to eliminate the possibility of the effect being due to visible or ultraviolet light.  He then tested the idea that this might affect a photographic plate as it had the screen.  This represented the first exposure of a photographic plate to x-rays and radiographic imaging was a reality.




Johann Heinrich Schultze – silver nitrate image of letters due to sunlight exposure –non permanent image.

William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) - salted paper photograms of botanicals and other objects.
Hippolyte Bayard (1807-1887) - direct positive cyanotype images.
Sir John Herschel (1792-1871) - inventor of cyanotype and discovery of sodium thiosulfate as a way to fix the photographic image.

Anna Atkins (1799-1871) - “British Algae: Cyanotype Images", first book that was illustrated using photography.
Anne Dixon - worked with Anna Atkins on cyanotype photogenic drawings.
Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen (1845-1923) - discovery of X-rays, photogram of human hand.

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