The Photogram - a History

“Captured Shadows”

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


Les Rudnick

© 2004-20011 Les Rudnick

Reinterpretation versus inspiration
Trace versus transformation
Copy versus creation

“Remember, shadows stay in front or behind, never on top”
 M ‘s advice to James Bond, The World is Not Enough


Photograms on paper

Silver gelatin

Photograms, as exemplified by most of the descriptions in this work and the literature cited, are creative images made directly on either black and white or conventional color print photosensitive paper.

Another aspect of using the photogram process includes mixed photographic prints/photograms. This has and continues to be the most common medium for photograms.  In addition to the practice of combining a conventional photographic print or enlargement with a photogram of objects on the same piece of photosensitive paper, there are other applications of this concept.  The texture screen in classical photographic printing is an example of a photogram.  In this case, the photogram is combined with a conventional photographic print.  This has been used by the photographic artist to produce unique images and by commercial laboratories as a “package” offering.  Another example of a mixed-photogram is the vignette photograph created by the placement of an oval (or other shape) cutout above the print during exposure of the image to maintain an unexposed area around the conventional photographic image created in the center of the paper.  Placement of an oval on the photograph and then overexposing the outer area of the print, after development, results in a black background.  This is a process equivalent to laying a key or leaf on a piece of photographic paper and turning on the room light, followed by conventional processing of the print.

Dye destruction prints:
These prints are made on photosensitive material conposed of at least three layers of photosensitive material (dyes). Normally, there is one layer for each of the three primary colors. During exposure each layer records different information. During development the dyes are destroyed resulting in a color image. The material commercially available today is sold under the trade name Ilfochrome (originally marketed as Cibachrome)

Thermograms where a light-exposed photosensitive surface is modified using heat or a heat modified photosensitive surface is modified with light. Marco Breuer has explored the creation a of photograms where he has used combustible materials such as cloth and the use of alcohol, coals and fire to modify the surface and imagery. His imagery is concerned with everyday objects and rituals and include shadows created using materials that relate to his personal inventory of daily objects. He combines an element of control in the arrangement of objects with the chance and variability that occurs upon exposure. Józef Robakowski, Polish (1939 - ) has created a variety of images, many of the conventional tools of the machinist, by placing these heated objects in contact with photographic paper to create the thermal image of the object. The use of hot air was also incorporated into the methodology. These images are haunting in a way, producing the type of wavy patterns that one sees when looking at images of closeups of the sun- like mini solar flares leaving the surface of the objects. Robakowski was born in Poznan, Poland and he obtained his degree from the Department of Fine Arts and Film at Mikolaj Kopernik University in Torun. [] Energetic Angles (Katy Energetyczne) 1975-1996 is one of his projects which begins from his facination with his question of how angles can function as art. He creates the Angle as an energetic culltural sign which he explores in his images.

X-rays, although not light, are part of the electromagnetic spectrum, and therefore, in the author’s opinion can be considered a valid energy source for creating photograms.  Photograms created using only the energy (formally light refers to the humanly visible wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum) from X-rays produce a stark and sometimes very delicate image of natural objects that cannot be made in any other way.  Seeing through objects that are normally viewed as opaque is a contradiction to our normal thought about an object, just as in a conventional photogram on photosensitive paper, the negative imagery is in its own way abstract.

The first observation of a chemically transformed surface by electromagnetic radiation was that of radioactivity tracks observed on photographic film. 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.  He held his wife's hand over a photographic plate during exposure with the discharge tube and upon developing the plate revealed that flesh was more permeable than bones and the ring on her finger. This represented the first medial X-ray exposure onto a photographic plate and the use of x-rays and radiographic imaging was a reality. This was December 22, 1985. The image shown in Chapter 1 is not the image of his wife Ana Bertha, which is somewhat blurred. The image is the radiograph taken by Roentgen of the hand of professor Albert Von Kolliker. This can be recognized because of the ring which is different from the ring of his wife, Ana Bertha [private communication from Antonio Carlos Pires Carvalho, Professor of Radiology, Medical School, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro - Federal University of Rio de Janeiro].

More contemporary X-ray photograms have been created by several artists and photographers. X-ray photograms of floral compositions made by Don Dudenbostel [] are truly beautiful, having an eerie glow that is more ghostlike gray and in direct contrast to a colorful flower. The images are produced by placing the objects directly on top of traditional black and white film or Polaroid 55 film. His fiber-based silver gelatin prints are selenium toned. [Focus magazine, Vol. 2, Issue 7, June 2006, pp 101-106]. Other X-ray photograms of botanical specimens have been produced by Steven N. Meyers []. Several of this artist's images appear to represent leaves in a fan-like arrangement where incomplete specimens are exposed with emphasis on the overall design and the internal detailed structures of the foliage. Bert Myers [] has created black and white X-ray photograms and in addition has more recently printed these as Ilfochrome adding color via filtration in the enlarger. He also digitizes the images and adds color and manipulates the image via computer. These images in the author's opinion are not true photograms because they are made from more than the interaction of light on a photosensitive substrate. Judith K. McMillian [] has also made X-ray photograms of many botanical specimens. She seems to have taken a modern day Anna Atkins approach in her documenting so many botanical subjects. The photograms are printed and toned to reveal subtle tones that lends a unique and beautiful quality to the prints.

Dain L. Tasker (1872 - 1964) produced "Eucalyptus, An X-Ray", a delicate and detailed black and white silver-gelatin X-ray photogram of a eucalyptus flower leaves and stem. A graceful botanical specimen artfully done.

Robert Heinecken, 1931, lived in Chicago, Illinois, created a photogram in 1971, entitled L is for Lemon Slices, by using X-rays from a hospital X-ray machine.  More recently, Shieila Pinkel has employed xeroradiography of kachina dolls and has transformed these art objects into what have been described as extraterrestrial pseudo beings [PhotoVision 22, a quarterly publication, 1981, Arte y Proyectos Editoriales, S. L. p 15]. These images were produced at the Xerox Medical Research Center in Pasadena California from 1975-1985. Pinkel was greatly influenced by the work of Anna Atkins who used the cyanotype to create images of natural flora.  Christine Thomas has also used xeroradiography…. [PhotoVision 22, a quarterly publication, 1981, Arte y Proyectos Editoriales, S. L. p 15].

Helmut Newton has used the unique qualities of X-ray imagery to create photogram images for a fashion shoot. His image of a model's foot in a high-heel shoe "X-Ray and Cartier Bracelet," Paris, 1994 is well recognized as one of the most provacative and sensual images created using X-rays. The image is at the same time sensual and abstract in nature.

Christopher Giglio has created a "Cathode Rayogram" image in color directly from a cathode ray tube in 1997 [James Danzinger, American Photographs 1900-2000, Assouline, Plate 220, 601 W 26th Street, NY, NY 212-983-6810].

Photograms on Polaroid media:

A chemigram might be considered a photogram in the sense that the chemical action is produced in regions that have seen a lensless light exposure.  The shape and chemical nature of the solution on the paper or film gives rise to the resultant image.  The process is reversed, with the action of the exposed surface only transformed into image where there is a post-light chemical reaction. Chemigrams can change in tone due to the action of light, and temperature and sometimes humidity.   Artists have modified the surface of photogram images by the action of heat and even flame (brulage).  Since this represents changes in the chemical nature of the photosensitive surface, these photograms can be considered chemigrams.  The most notable of artists creating images of this type is Marco Breuer [] Enzymes and other organic materials affect the surface and color of images produced using these methods.

Pierre Cordier (1933 - ) Belgian experimental photographer who is credited with inventing the chemigramme (chemigram in English) in1956. Cordier combines the phsical aspects of painting with the chemistry of photographiy [Pierre Cordier, Chimigrammes 1988]. Cordier studied with Otto Steinert (1915-1978) the German photographer and author of Subjective Fotografie and who was an advocate of exploration and the use of creative techniques, including solarization, and cameraless images.

Frantisek Pavolny, a member of f5, and Miroslav Hak have applied chemicals to black and white silver-gelatin photographic paper and have created a variety of photograms. Hak refered to his work as "strukaz", meaning structure even though the images appear to be contrary to a rigid structural approach to art, they are more like ink blots and are reminiscent of high contrast biological observations. Pavolny has produced some very subtle dendritic images using the chemigram method. Pavolny also used other techniques, not directly related to the photogram. He was the first photographer to have made an enlargement of a melted photographic emulsion. [Antonin Dufek, Abstract and Non-Figurative Tendencies in Czech Photographic Avant-Garde 1918-1948, edited by Vladimir Birgus, MIT Press 2002, p77].

A variety of photographers and artists have employed the chemigram as part of their methodology. A list of these artists follows [private communication from Antonio Luis Ramos Molina]:
Andreas Müller-Pohle
Antonio Tapies
Erdély Miklós
Frank Heer
Frederick William Herschel
Guttorm Nordo
Joan Foncuberta
Jochen Lempert
Jon Lybrook
Julio Álvarez Jagüe
Les Rudnick
Marie-Louse Brehant
Mark D Roberts
Michael Flomen
Nino (Antonio) Migliori
Noland Preece
Norman Sarachek
Pablo Picaso
Phil Gree
Pierre Cordier
Pollo ó Paulina Marriner
Susana Rankaitis
Théodore Brauner

In Spain there are very few artists who use the chemigram. The more well known are Antonio Tapies, Picaso, and Joan Foncuberta. Others are Julio Álvarez Yagüe.
And another artist who does still photography and also makes chemigram images is Francisco José Sánchez Montalbán.


Chemigram - silver-gelatin - toned

Photo-batik, as a type of chemigram, may also be considered as a photogram, since the action of light on the photosensitive surface creates the image. The photo-batik chemigram shown here (by the author) was created by bothe the action of light, chemical treatment of the photosensitive silver-gelatin paper and the process of post chemical toning.

Yoshio Machida has produced what he refers to as "photobatik" in which only light is used. in his process all areas of the print are exposed. Photograms are produced by partial exposure and development of the entire photosensitive surface. Photobatik is "whole exposure and partial development." Machida has expanded his technique to overexposure of the photographic paper followed by only fixing the image, resulting in a pink image.


A luminogram is the resulting image caused by exposing the photosensitive medium to light without the intervention of an object.  The light is modulated by varying the intensity through distance from the photosensitive surface, power of the light source, or by the use of filters or gels or motion of the light.  The paper can itself be shaped to create the desired effects in the final image.  Many of László Moholy-Nagy’s photograms were luminograms. The image is created by variations in light shape and intensity. They can be created using a small light source, as from a flashlight, that is moved to expose the photosensitive substrate. Moholy-Nagy used this technique to create many of his photograms.


Joan Duran [PhotoVision 22, a quarterly publication, 1981, Arte y Proyectos Editoriales, S. L. p 16] Kirlian/Ionoelectrographs.

Cliche verre:
This process begins through the creation of a hand-made negative or mask that is then used either directly in contact with or near the photosensitive substrate during exposure to light. The mask can be prepared by simply exposing a piece of glass to the black soot from a flame. This deposit is then scratched to produce a pattern or image and this is contact printed to give a photogram. In essence it is the equivalent of finding a transparent or translucent object and using it to produce a photogram.

Photograms on coated paper:
The beginnings of photography were photograms of this type. Early prints such as cyanotypes and salt prints were all made by coating a piece of drawing or writing paper with the required chemicals. After drying the paper in the dark, an object was placed on the photosensitive paper and the paper was then exposed to sunlight. In the photogram made on cyanotype paper, the area hidden by the object remained white while the exposed areas of the paper became a deep blue color. Many of the methods which are now refered to as alternative, implying that they are not silver-based, were actually the first photosensitive processes available.

The photogram is a construct that allows the artist the ability to do what the painter does with a blank canvas, which is to create imagery that is not a part of human experience prior to the creation of the image.  This construct is actually a fluid experience with all of the nuances of the conventionally made photographic print, except that the mechanisms of achieving the effects are different.  Focus and non-focus are a parallel to the depth of field resulting from lens aperture.  Shades of gray or color are manifest through extent of exposure, and tone is a function of the paper, developer, toners, just as they are for the fine photographic print.

The difference is the freedom to create imagery from objects, light and imagination by infinite variation of these factors without the use of highly technological equipment.

The photogram process = Object-light-sensitive surface-imagination-realization-observation.

The photogram seems to represent a counter-culture within the field of photography.  It has been stated that in every decade critics and writers on photography ask the question “Are we at the present time witnessing a revival of the photogram? (e.g. Photo Vision 22 Adolpho Martinez, p4).

It is more logical that because photograms are outside the mainstream of conventional photography that when galleries are searching for new, imaginative, creative photography, that photograms are chosen as meeting these criteria. Photograms have been an experiential part of photography for virtually all practitioners of darkroom art and craft.  Photograms, are in fact, displayed globally on a fairly regular basis, rather than “resurfacing” every decade.

Photograms on film:

--cyanotype photogram images

Zeva Oelbaum, a New York-based photographer, uses the cyanotype process to make her prints of various botanical specimens. Oelbaum creates her images by placing botanical objects on large format silver-gelatin film and exposing to produce a negative. She 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].

As mentioned above, Don Dudenbostel creates his x-ray photograms by exposing directly onto black and white silver-gelatin photographic film, and then prints these film images.


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