The Photogram - a History

"Captured Shadows"
"The shadows that things make, the things that shadows make"

Les Rudnick
© 2004-2010 Les Rudnick

"The enemy of photography is the convention…. The salvation of photography comes from the experiment".
-Lazlo Moholy-Nagy from Taken by Design

The photogram is distinct from photography in the mechanical sense. Therefore, it, like drawing or painting is art. It might even be considered collage without the need for scissors or glue.

The purpose of this is to describe the many possibilities and variations of the photogram; it's history and practitioners, its science and art, the "alchemy" and process. Although this document contains many details about some of the photograms, and even how some of them have been made, it is not meant to be a list of recipes or a treatise on "how" to make a photogram. I am more interested in the types of photogram possible, the creative aspects of making a photogram and how it is different from the conventional photograph created in camera with a lens.

The photogram is more about light and the shadows that are produced by the interaction of light with the object on the projection of light onto a photosensitive surface. As will be described that surface can be far more varied than conventional photosensitive silver-gelatin paper.

Before photography and both the random and methodical quest for the chemistry that could make it happened, where are the origins of the early photogram paradigm? Might it be in the stencil, or it's early equivalent? Perhaps the earliest form might have been a shadow of a leaf on a nearby rock. Early man, with a charcoal chunk from the previous night's fire might have first traced the outline of the shadow and then done a rubbing. Cliché-verre?

Photograms represent some of the earliest photographic images and some of the newest. They have been produced as very small scale images and larger in scale than a human being. Photograms are, and have been created on a large variety of the photographic media both previously and currently available.

Throughout this writing, the name photograms will be used. However, the first artistic use of the concept was by William Henry Fox Talbot and he referred to these as "photogenic drawings". Thomas Wedgewood called these images sunprints, which is a term that is used today for some cyanotypes. Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966) used the term Vortograph for his images and Christian Schad refered to his images as Schadographs. Man Ray later called these Rayographs incorporating his own name into the designation, but Laszlo Moholy-Nagy called them photograms, which is the term generally used today.

In order to get away from the use of anyone's name in the designation of the process or product, I suggest the name "Umbragraph", where umbra comes from the astronomical term meaning shadow, and graph from writing as in photograph. This seems especially appropriate since the earliest photogenic drawings were produced using the sun, and in fact several photogram artists are still using illumination from both the sun and moon to produce images.

Some of the most beautiful photographic images are those photograms that have been created from natural objects, where light has captured the nuances of nature.

The many references to the early history of the photogram are surprisingly similar in content. Very little new information has been added recently, though there have been a few artists and practitioners who have explored new ground. Efforts have included reexamination of the simple photogram, usually a single object but from a different point of view. Others have explored photograms consisting of many objects arranged next to each other or multi-layered. Many of these seem to be random and others have intentionally been created with the objective of exploring the technology of the image rather than its content. Black and white and color media, mostly Ilfochromes (Cibachromes) are the predominant media at the time of this writing. However, with the fanatical shift by many practitioners to digital methods and materials, llfochrome images, other than for commercial prints, have become less prevalent as a medium. Some other color media have been used by some artists.

By photogram, it is not meant that a negative is contact printed in the conventional sense, nor is conventional enlarging considered since it employs the lens to focus (or defocus) the intended image onto the paper. The enlarger is, in fact, a camera. More will be said about this later.

What continues to make the photogram intriguing to the experimental artist? Why are people so fascinated with the images and constructions? Is it the detail revealed in the photograms of botanical specimens? Or is it that a first generation photogram shares its reversed tonal values with the negative? Or is it the preoccupation with the shadow?

Perhaps it is a bit of all of these.


As with any subject, it is prudent to try to define some terms. For the photogram, creating a definition is like trying to capture a shadow. Without doing a thorough analysis of the literature descriptions of photograms it is instructive to read some of the definitions that have appeared in print and on the internet:

Photogram. NOUN: 1. An image produced without a camera by placing an object on photosensitive paper and exposing it to light. 2. A photograph. [The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000]

Photogram: A photo image produced without using a negative or camera by allowing an object to cast its shadow directly onto the recording surface." [In Laura Blacklow, New dimensions in photoprocesses: a Step-by-Step Manual, 3rd Edition Focal Press, 2000, p 188].

photogram - A photographic print made by placing an assemblage of objects on photosensitive paper exposed to light to yield an image of ghostly silhouettes floating in a void of darkened space. [From].

The photogram is a type of photograph that is made without the use of a camera or lens. Objects, either transparent, transluscent or opaque are placed on or above the photosensitive substrate and after exposure to light, the film or paper is developed. The image produced is a negative in the sense that an opaque object blocks light from the film or paper and therefore is not exposed. The areas where no object blocks the light is generally black for black and white materials and for color or alternative techniques the background is the color produced by the filter pack or the fully exposed color of the process.

…"Nowadays, the word is generally reserved for pictures of an abstract kind which, though made on photographic material, are created without the use of a camera." [The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, The McMillan Company 1958 Focal press Limited, Focal press, 31 Fitzroy Square, London, W1, p836]

"A photogram is a picture created – usually of the shadows of objects – without a camera or negative, only with light, light-sensitive materials and the chemicals that develop the changes taking place in them". [Dora Maurer, Fenyelvtan [Light-syntax]. On the photogram].

Most of the artists queried agree that in principle a photogram image must be the same size as the object. There are many descriptions on the internet where the photogram is defined as an image where the object is in direct contact with the photographic paper. I agree with this in principle in that no intentional enlargement or reduction should be made by mechanical means using an enlarger or digital methods. However, the photogram image of an object does not necessarily have to be the same size as the object. Just as an individual can be associated with a long or short shadow at early morning or noon, respectively, the shadow cast by an object on a photographically responsive substrate can be changed depending on the angle of light during the exposure. Development merely reveals the action of light and fixing makes the image permanent. There are several artists using a technique that is refered to as a "non-contact photogram" where a translucent or lace-like object is placed in the negative carrier of an enlarger and this image is projected onto the photosensitive surface. Although many of these images are intrigueing and creative they are not in the authors opinion photograms. An enlarger is basically a camera - lens, bellows or rotating focusing mechanism, film plane. For this technical reason, these images are not true photograms. Furthermore, they are not true photograms in that they are not created in the spirit of the photogram which must, by rejection of the technical trappings of the camera, be created using the unpredictable reflections, refractions and distortions created by the interaction of the light with the intervening objects.

The definition of Man Ray seems appropriate, e.g. that the photogram is " une photographie obtenue par simple interposition de l'objet entre le papier sensible et la source lumineuse ". The word interposition provides the flexibility to include direct contact of the object with the photographic paper or alternatively the placement of the object at some intermediate position between the light source and the photosensitive paper. This definition also includes luminograms, which are the use of light to create the image directly on the light sensitive substrate.

Schaaf [Larry J. Schaaf in Sun Pictures: Photogenic Drawings by William Henry Fox Talbot, Hans P. Kraus, Jr. New York, 1995, p9] presents a distinction between the use of the terms photogenic drawing and calotype and also discusses the use of the term photogram which was not used until the late 1850s. Photogenic drawing relies completely on light energy to produce the visible image. Thus the photogenic drawing is a print out process. The calotype relies on chemical amplification of the original light exposure. A photogenic drawing can be a photogram, for example if the photogram is being made on a print out paper, and a photogram therefore, can be a photogenic drawing using the same process. Photograms today are typically not photogenic drawings because they are made on silver-gelatin photographic paper and the paper is then processed in the usual way (chemical amplification). The photogenic drawing can be made in camera on print out paper with very long exposure to the sun. Alternatively, the photogram is a cameraless imaging technique.

In discussions concerning the photogram and methods of creating the photogram image, several questions were posed. For example, does the photogram include a paper negative contact print?

We must distinguish between contact print and photogram. If a real photogram is made as the original image the reversal print is of an original photogram should be considered a photogram. If the concept or intention of the contact print is the reversal of the negative image, created with a lens, so as to be normally viewed, then the contact print is not a photogram in the author's view.

In the author's opinion, the contact printing of images will not be considered a photogram even though these are made through the action of light without the use of a lens. Otherwise, every contact print made by a user of large format film (or small format film for that matter), and even the process of contact printing negatives to view or catalogue them would represent a photogram. In reality, the process is the same, but the intention is not. This would also include every blueprint, every platinum, palladium and gum print since these are all made via the direct contact of a large negative in contact with a photosensitive surface.

So overall it seems that two criteria should be met:

- direct exposure of object's shadow onto a photosensitive substrate without the intervention of a camera.

- the image must be direct, therefore, not manipulated in size from the image produced by the object or the object's cast shadow.

A digital scan is inconsistent with the definitions of photograms – since it is neither direct projection to the final photosensitive image surface and the shadow produced is not the same size, unless forced" to the object's size. These methods produce images more correctly called scanigrams or digigrams.

Making a photogram is:

-- part art
-- part science, and
-- part alchemy

The photogram image, therefore, is often:

-- a magical blend of these features, never present in the same proportions and containing reflective and dispersive elements of the original objects cause by the interaction of light with the objects involved in the process.

If we further consider possible definitions of various methods for non-camera image creation on a photosensitive surface the following can serve as a way to differentiate some of these techniques.

A luminogram can be defined as an image created by the modulation of only light. 

Some have considered the luminogram as an photographic image created by the modulation of light using not only the intensity and direction of light but to include filters, gels and other objects.  By using this as a definition, one includes essentially all non-camera images, e.g. photograms, cliché-verre, etc.  Therefore, all of these techniques fall into the luminogram category because a filter or gel could be opaque just as well as translucent or transparent.  So the process of just placing any object in the path of light which is the common way to describe the photogram, now is also a luminogram.

A cliché-verre is only different from a photogram in that at least part of the image is created from a man-made negative or positive.  Originally, the cliché-verre was created by smoking a piece of glass flowed by scratching a pattern, design or drawing onto the surface, thereby removing the soot and making those regions transparent to light.  This glass plate would be placed near or in contact with a photosensitive surface and exposed in the same way contact sheets (especially of large negatives are created today.  So is a cliché-veree a photogram since it represents the intervention of an object between a light source and a photosensitive surface?  Or is a cliché-verre merely a contact print with the difference being the way the negative of positive was created?  Obviously, those who create images that they refer to as cliché-veree will not prefer this definition but we must ask these questions in order to come to a self-consistent set of definitions for these techniques. 

I have previously published that I do not consider the intentional contact printing of a camera-made negative or positive as a photogram.  If this were true, then every photographic image is a photogram except perhaps cliché-verre if defined as being a man-made negative or positive.

I think that the definition needs to include the intention of the image-maker.
I agree with the first definition of luminogram – that it be an image created only with the interaction of light on the photosensitive surface.

Then a photogram is an image created by the intervention of objects (transparent, translucent and opaque, from nature or man-made) between the source of light and the photosensitive paper.  This then defines cliché-verre as a subset of photograms but reserves its place as a cameraless art form rather than as a subset of contact printing.  No limitation is placed on what photosensitive surface can be used, e.g. cyanotypes, Van Dyke Brown, Kallitypes can all be used to create these images.  An image created, for example, in the same way except by using x-rays instead of visible light is thus still defined as a photogram.

A chemigram is more like a luminogram, in that it is an image created using only the interaction of chemicals applied to the surface of the photosensitive substrate.  One might consider the chemigram as a type of cliché-veree from the point of view that the chemical interaction is purposefully man-made (drawn) in the way a cliché-verre negative would be drawn.  One difference is the timing.  The cliché-veree negative is drawn (created) prior to the photographic image creation, whereas chemical interaction occurs immediately to the photosensitive surface perhaps not visually at first but chemical diffusion and reaction at the molecular level occurs.  Chemical development, fixing or other post-processing further alters the image.

I do differentiate between analogue photosensitive surfaces and digitally captured images.  The methods of digital capture should be a part of the naming convention for these image-making techniques, e.g. a scanogram or digigram for a digitally scanned or directly-captured photogram. 




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