The Photogram - a History

“Captured Shadows”

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


Les Rudnick

© 2004-2011 Les Rudnick


Concepts of art and design:

In principle, a photogram is made sometimes without our intervention.  Let us consider a photogram, as the transformation of a surface by the action of light.  We normally consider a photogram as a photograph that has been made without the use of a camera or lens.  In addition, we usually associate a photogram as being made by the action of light on either a cyanotype paper or silver gelatin paper.  However, at least for the moment let’s consider the action of light on any surface (again without the use of a focusing lens).

Then, it is probable that each of us today, as well as those of ancient civilizations have experienced the process.  Take a few modern examples – a book is left to rest on a table that is exposed to sun every day.  After months, we pick up the book and discover that the varnish is darker where the sun could reach the surface, but the surface that was under the book is lighter and preserved.  Draperies in a sunny window are faded to a greater extent where the sun can reach them, and if in contact with the window frame, relatively sharp delineation of the faded and un faded portions can be seen.  Consider other examples from your experience.  Depending on the material being exposed, there may be fading or darkening of the exposed surface.  Even photographs can be made to produce a photogram by the process of fading or color shift where exposed to light when an object is placed on it.

The sun has continuously over millions of years produced transient unrecorded photograms of objects on earth by virtue of the shadows produced by one object on another.  Just as in Schultz’s image of letters in silver nitrate, these images are not fixed and are, therefore, transient.

For example, the exposure of the skin to sunlight darkens relative to covered areas. A child in school or camp may do the common experiment of placing a key or lea on a piece of “blueprint” paper to make a Sunprint®.  This is actually a photogram made using the alternative “cyanotype” process, a process discovered in 1854 by Sir John Herschel and used by Anna Atkins.  This process is still used today both as an alternative photographic process and as a way to produce blueprints for architectural drawings.

“Art defined space as a by-product of vision, echoing our presence as stationary observers residing in the world of resemblance.  Resemblance played a constructive role in the knowledge of Western culture." "Photography was in part conceived from the collective ideas of perspective and space and their refinement over centuries.  Another of its aspects was born of scientific, optical and artistic aspirations….Photography’s capacity to record the light-reflected world reconfirmed veracity while preserving literal special representation as a primary artistic purpose." [From Steve Yates, Poetry of Space: A Critical Photography Analogy, University of New Mexico Press 1995.]

The camera and light-sensitive materials of conventional photography articulates space, however, the photogram essentially frees the artist from the requirements imposed by the lens.

One important aspect of the development of photography that is generally not considered is that it developed because of the constant experimentation by the inventors of the photographic process and photographers.  William Henry Fox Talbot, began his early studies by creating photogenic drawings, photograms created using sunlight induced exposures of an objects shadow to photo-sensitive paper. Photograms represent a clear break from the conventional pictorialist approach to photographic imagery.  Perspective, if it is desired in the image, is created rather than captured via optical phenomena.

“Artists after the turn of the century acknowledged the surface of the photographic print as an active part of the final form of expression”  The development and increased use of collage and montage by the European, German and Russian avant-garde in the first decades of the twentieth century provided the framework for unlimited perceptions of space across artistic disciplines. Dadaism and Surrealism, which followed, added dimensions of chance and the dream.  Picture space was no longer measured in terms of human form or proportion." [From Steve Yates, Poetry of Space: A Critical Photography Analogy, University of New Mexico Press 1995.] At the beginning of the twentieth century, photographers and artists expressed more of their personal visions rather than creating art that portrayed or perpetuated the values and ideas of the prevailing government and the church.

Photograms can be considered “light montage” , perhaps a s a subset of photomontage, because originally photomontage was created by the combination of images created in-camera and then printed, cut out, and reassembled.   Photograms are generally created using multiple objects at the same time or by sequentially exposing the photo-sensitive medium to multiple objects with light of different intensity or for different time to create the desired effect.

A more recent example is the book by Zeva Oelbaum, a New York-based photographer, entitled Blue Prints (Rizzoli International) in which she uses the cyanotype process to make her prints of various botanical specimens.  While Atkins made her photogram images (photogenic drawings) by laying the botanical specimens on cyanotype paper directly and exposing, Oelbaum places her objects on large format silver-gelatin film and exposes to produce a negative, and then contact prints the photogram negative onto cyanotype paper to produce a contact print positive. [Zeva Oelbaum, Blue Prints: The Natural World in Cyanotype Photographs, Rizzoli, New York 2002]

One can employ the distinction of trace or transformation, so nicely described by Eisinger [Joel Eisinger, Trace and Transformation, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1995, p6].  In this classification, “a photograph that emphasizes the trace is a record, while the photograph that emphasizes transformation is art.”  For Eisinger’s definition, “at least in modernist theory, trace and transformation is an either-or proposition”.

The period of trace and transformation cannot really be delineated, in contrast to what has been proposed by Adolfo Martinez in [PhotoVision 22, a quarterly publication, 1981, Arte y Proyectos Editoriales, S. L. p 4].  Examples of transformation are clearly expressed in some of the work of Anna Atkins in the way botanical samples were arranged.  This, in the author's opinion, is also true of Herschel's photograms of natural objects, such as his surviving photograms of feathers. Other experiments prior to the period between the wars include a photogenic drawing made in 1839 [PhotoVision 22, a quarterly publication, 1981, Arte y Proyectos Editoriales, S. L. p 18] by William Henry Fox Talbot which represents a two dimensional contact photogram of isolated botanical fragments printed directly with the express purpose of documenting botanical variety.

It is interesting to note that the differentiation of documenting reality and creating what we refer to as “art” was first expressed by William Henry Fox Talbot in the earliest days of photography.  Talbot’s descriptors for this differentiation in 1839 were “visual reporting” versus “visual expression.”  Joel Essinger in 1995 differentiated these concepts by referring to the making of a “trace” versus a “transformation.” 

In the same year “Photogramme de Fleurs” by Hippolyte Bayard represents a similar botanical subject with layering of the botanical pieces.  This may be interpreted as a photogram(ic) representation of the depth and layering of foliage in the forest.  A sloping straight edge shadow at the lower portion of the image may represent the ground with plants growing upwards, hanging above and falling as pieces back to earth.

Photogenic drawing became the method of documentation for natural specimens beginning with Talbot and Anna Atkins.  However, it is clear that from the arrangements of specimens within the visual frame define by the photosensitive substrate both of these early artists were intently aware of visual expression as a means to create from the traces of nature the artistic form to embellish the object being portrayed. 

The photogram is in essence the purist’s concept of life-size macro photography, at least for the outline of opaque objects, and for translucent objects it can provide exquisite detail when suitably exposed and processed. 

These precede the avant-garde period beginning with Christian Schad, Man Ray, and Moholy-Nagy.  The modern aesthetic of the camera-less photograph developed from the experimental musings of these three photographer-artists. [Museum of New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts: IDEA: Photographic After Modernism, photogram aesthetic] Transformation must be taken in the sense of metaphor even if a direct image is represented.  A simple object that contains transparent, translucent and opaque areas can be represented as either an outline of its shape, or a creative representation of some portion of its internal structure, or “essence”.

The photogram is a construct, a photographer’s vision or dream, a collage or perhaps the negative of a collage.  A shadow of the photographer’s construct – a dream’s shadow.  The play of light on the geometry of elements blocking the full light flux from exposing the paper.  The photogram is not reality, sometimes constructed to represent reality – but it can never be.  The collection or assemblage of objects used to create the photogram are separated, dispersed, lost, consumed,… only the two-dimensional representation of their shadow remains.  A transient existence.  The photogram is a shadow of a temporary arrangement of objects blocking (modifying) the transmission of light.

A photogram represents a record of a transient light experience – like a flash of lightning, which will never be of the same shape, position, or intensity again.  Or if it should happen, then the landscape will have changed between flashes. A. D. Coleman in a B+W Photo article describes Carl Chirennza constructions as: “A temporary conjunction of physical objects”.  The photogram then can be considered the “intersection of physical objects – object and light (particle and particle or particle and wave).

Vilim Flusser in "Towards a Philosophy of Photography" states, " If one wishes to deepen the significance, i.e. to reconstruct the abstracted dimensions, one has to allow one's gaze to wander over the surface feeling the way as one goes. This wandering is called "scanning". In doing so, one's gaze follows a complex path found on the one hand by the structure of the image and on the other by the observer's intensions." Vilim Flusser in "Towards a Philosophy of Photography", p 8.

In a recent review it was stated that there are two ways that a photogram asks to be read. The first focuses on subject matter and suggests that the viewer tries to determine the objects used to create the photogram, almost in the same way one would look at an extreme close up of something or a pattern and try to figure out what the subject. The second approach is more formal in that the viewer takes in the image in an overview, almost ignoring the images of individual components and approaching the image from a gestalt point of view. In fact that was Moholy-Nagy's concept of the photogram image. "Fotografie ist Lichtgestaltung" was Moholy-Nagy's motto. Since photography (and certainly the photogram) is the manipulation of light, it is also a manipulation of the viewer.
[], from a review of an exhibit at the Houk Friedman Gallery, NY, of the works of László Moholy-Nagy, originally published in Artforum Magazine April 1995].

The twentieth century represents the period in history when individual production of hand-made objects of art was essentially replaced by mechanical mass production. [Dieter Daniels, see, essay, "Art and Media in the Twentieth Century", published in "The Age of Modernism- Art in the 20th Century, catalog for the exhibition Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin 1997, Hatje-Verlag, Stuttgart].
Daniels points out that the fact that this affects the status of the work of art was first published by Marcel Duchamp in his principle of the Readymade. The hand-made unique photogram, in and of itself is unlike conventional photographs in that reproduction from the original negative by the original artist or by someone considered later as worthy enough to print his or her negatives is impossible. Today, the exception to this would be by scanning or re photographing the original unique photogram and then reprinting the image.

A timeline of photographers and artists who have employed the photogram as a way to create imagery can be found in Chapter 10.


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