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A short history of cameraless photography

A short history of cameraless photography

In the history of photography, cameraless photography has always been relegated to the background. Too personal, too experimental, too strange, too iconoclastic. And yet, it is actually much older than camera photography! Praised by the Avant-garde artists, it is now a field of chemical, technological and philosophical exploration for contemporary artists, and it challenges our preconceived notions about photography.
The Awakener © Rachel Wolf

The essence of photography: that grey zone 

The American artist Rachel Wolf is one of the few photographers to work exclusively without a camera. In her studio in Portland, Oregon, which has more of a laboratory feel to it, she both creates and makes her photographs, playing with chemical reactions and exposing photosensitive paper to various sources of light.

“Cameraless photography is really a distillation of the essence of the photographic process. The primary elements of photography–light, paper, and chemical– are both the tools, and the subjects that create the image. Medium and object are one and the same,” says the woman who began her career in New York City, as Annie Leibovitz’s assistant.

Why is this technique so marginalized in the world of photography, when it actually came before it, accompanied scientific discoveries in the 19th century, and fascinated both the Avant-garde artists of the 20th century and contemporary artists? Perhaps because, as the young British photographer Luke Evans suggests, it is The grey area (…), that space in the middle where printmaking, sculpture, and photography mix.”

Evans got noticed in 2013 with his incredible cameraless series titled Inside Out, a kind of internal self-portrait that he made with his friend Josh Lake. After swallowing a piece of 35mm film, they let their bodies do the job of processing and digesting it. Once recovered, the film was cleaned, analyzed under a microscope, and the image obtained was enlarged and printed. Shortly after its publication, this project went viral in the press and on social media.

These kinds of images, which do away with the mediation of a camera or a lens, are also called photograms. And photographers each have their own technique and method. Photogenic drawings, cyanotypes, luminograms, chemigrams—all terms that designate the various works of those who choose to use rays of light as a brush.

Rachel Wolf in his workshop

Photography before photography

We often forget that Nicéphore Niépce, the inventor of photography as we know it and whose Le point de point du Gras (1827) is considered to be the first photo in history, took photographs without a camera. In the 1810s, with his brother Claude Niépce, he experimented with the exposure of images on paper dipped in silver chloride. The use of the camera–known as the camera obscura at the time—now completely overshadows the discovery of photosensitive materials, which back then were a prerequisite for any form of image reproduction and the favorite material for photos without camera.

It was by accident that, in 1727, a hundred years before “the first photograph,” the German physicist Johann Heinrich Schulze discovered that a mixture of chalk, nitric acid and silver was sensitive to light, after it had been left in the sun inside a vial. He then studied those chemical reactions on glass bottles soaked in silver chloride. He covered them with stencils in the shape of letters and exposed them to light, and watched words and sentences being imprinted. Were these first experiments not the very essence of “photography,” from the Greek word Photos, meaning light, and Gràphôs, meaning to write?

© Anna Atkins

A scientific tool in the 19th century

We also forget that cameraless photography was a precious ally of scientific research throughout the 19th century, allowing scientists to see and reproduce the world as it really was. New Zealand scholar Geoffrey Batchen, whose Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph came out in 2016, reminds us that cyanotypes have helped naturalists create accurate images of land and sea plants, as they are a “direct contact between the world and a piece of light-sensitive paper.” 

A simple, inexpensive and quick process, a cyanotype consists of sensitizing paper with iron ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide. The paper is then placed in contact with the element to be reproduced, an alga for example. Exposed to natural light, then rinsed and dried, the cyanotype then accurately reveals the white imprint of the alga against a background of characteristic Prussian blue. In 1854, the English botanist Anna Atkins wrote Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns, the first book of photographs that reproduced plants with such accuracy.

Another key discovery: the invention of radiography! Another form of cameraless photograph, which we owe to the German scientist Wilhlem Röntgen in 1895. This Nobel Prize in Physics discovered X-rays and their ability to pass through soft matter like skin, but not hard matter like bone and metal. By placing his wife’s hand between a photosensitive plate and these famous X-rays, he took the first X-ray in history: a very touching photo that suggests the presence of a wedding ring.

X- ray of the bones of a hand with a ring on one finger © Wilhlem Röntgen

In the 20th century, a new toy for Avant-garde artists

In the following century, photograms, which until then had been almost exclusively reserved for the scientific field, became a galvanizing means of expression for Avant-garde artists, who looked for unconventional ways of describing the world and reinventing representations of reality.

Among them was the German artist Christian Schad, who joined the Dada movement in Geneva. Geoffrey Batchen credits him as the first one to use cameraless photography as an Avant-garde field: Schad made a series of cameraless photographs by placing bits of detritus—often rubbish he found in the streets, including balls of dust and sheets of newspaper—under glass on a sheet of light-sensitive paper and then leaving this ensemble of paper and objects to develop on the windowsill of his apartment.” Tristan Tzara – who affectionately calls them “schadographs” – published them in 1920 in the Dada magazine. Then they went down in history when they were presented in New York in 1936 as part of the legendary MoMA exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism.

But more than anyone, it was Man Ray and the Hungarian artist from the Bauhaus, László Moholy-Nagy, who brought this alternative technique out of the shadows and raised the photogram to the rank of artworks. Ray, in the midst of a Surrealist wave, decided to use chance and the unconscious to take his photographs. He randomly placed everyday objects, his hands or even the face of his muse Kiki de Montparnasse on photosensitive paper, poetically leaving their random imprints in negative. An art critic of the time said that, “With these “rayographs”— a contraction of “Ray” and “photograph”— “photography acquires its own speech, self-determined and autonomous.” Moholy-Nagy produced photograms with characteristic lines, contours and geometrical shapes, reflecting an absolute desire to dispense with the camera and become one with the expression of reality. He took the experiment further with a large palette of translucent materials: water, oil, crystal, glass, and more.

Pierre Cordier’s invention of the chemigram in 1956 left its mark on both the dawn of the second half of the 20th century and on the new boom in cameraless photography. This technique is at the crossroads of painting, from which it borrows pigments, varnishes, waxes, oils, and cameraless photography, from which it borrows photosensitive paper, developers and fixer chemicals. 

From then on, daring artists have explored this new photographic path, without necessarily obtaining the recognition and the honors of classical photographers. Floris Michael Neusüss lit up the 1970s with her nudograms, scale photos of naked bodies. In the 80s, British artist Garry Fabian Miller started doing cameraless photography with traces of filtered lights and colored liquids, whose halos recall the fluorescent tubes of the minimalist artist Dan Flavin. Photographer Ellen Carrey, some of whose works are in the permanent collection of the Centre Georges Pompidou, uses improvisation in total darkness when she designs her photograms. These are “roughed up” by the artist: crumpled, folded, exposed to filtered lights, damaged by various objects. Her color-saturated photographs present such depth that they are like abstract trompe l’oeils.

Dings & Shadows 2017 (#41) © Ellen Carey / Galerie Miranda

The invisible and the unknown as a reaction to the visible?

While photography has never been so accessible, a new generation of photographers is turning to cameraless photography and engaging in a complex and exploratory process. Why? Perhaps because there are “so many pictures that you can’t see them anymore, you don’t know which ones are good or bad,” as the young photographer Laure Tiberghien told the New York Times during the last Rencontres d’Arles.  

When asked by BLIND about her feeling on photography today, the artist, who produces abstract cameraless photographs, evokes her journey as a real reaction to the image: “I no longer recognized myself at all in what photography is all about today. I think we all have an overflow of images in our heads. We all take photos and we see them everywhere. At one point, I felt like I strongly rejected it, and when I was at the Beaux-Arts, I actually thought of giving up photography.”

And so she changed her approach. As a true color technician, combining light with filters in her darkroom, the photographer composes unique photographs that represent the invisible. “It’s like I’m trying to capture movements, atmospheres, things related to non-representation. I keep trying to find new ways to explore the photographic instrument.” 

For Luke Evans, the artist who used his own digestive system as a developer, to voluntarily deprive himself of equipment as reliable and well regulated as a camera also means increasing the unknown, as well as his failure rate. Since 2014, he has been working on the Xero series, which consists of producing photos using traces of electricity. Not without difficulty. You’re playing with so many unknown variables. Take the Xero project for example, that took several months of building different electrical field generators just to get the first vague image. Then when I finally had a working process, the weather would influence the images: if it was humid, I couldn’t get an image at all.”

Making the image come alive rather than making it last

Just as the camera freezes the image, we have logically integrated the notion that a photograph is a static image, while it can be resolutely alive, in progress. American photographer Alison Rossiter, for example, uses expired photo paper from the previous century. When exhibited in her darkroom, their alterations, which were hitherto in gestation, are revealed, and are covered with compositions close to abstract expressionism. The photographer names them based to their expiration and printing dates.

Rachel Wolf, the Portland photographer, is currently working on photographs that are not properly fixed. “These images change over time in response to their environment just like we do, they are alive. It’s fascinating what happens when you nudge this concept of impermanence just a little, or a lot,” she says. “These images can fade, change, and even grow crystals. What does it mean to know an image is not going to last, and instead continually transform?”

So while a photograph can be reproduced endlessly with film or digitally, cameraless photographs are all absolutely unique pieces. Pieces, period.

As Rachel Wolf offers up in conclusion: I think cameraless photography challenges common perceptions about photography. Photographs that are not representations of something else in the world, that ARE that something else in the world.”

Cosmic Dance © Rachel Wolf
Fearless Abandon © Rachel Wolf
Where upon Spindle © Rachel Wolf
Choiceless © Rachel Wolf

By Charlotte Jean

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