Photography by Rowan Lear
14 / 08 / 2012
To enter the Democracy in Action in Wales photographic competition, the rules state “you don’t need to be a photographer, or even have a fancy camera.” Actually, you don’t need a camera at all to make interesting and thoughtful photographs.
This becomes clear when looking at the root of the word “photography”. It comes from two Greek words, “photo” meaning light and “graphy” meaning writing. Photography is therefore “writing with light”. There’s no implication that a camera has to be involved in the process, and actually, there is no reason why a camera is required to make a photograph.
Camera-less photography has a rich history. The first photographs by William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), one of photography’s inventors, were actually examples of what we now call photograms. A photogram is created by placing an object directly onto a light sensitive surface and exposing it to light. The result is a negative shadow image showing tonal variation dependent on the transparency of the objects used. Fox Talbot used leaves, flowers and pieces of fabric to create a series of images which he later published in a book titled Photogenic Drawings. He went on to invent the photographic negative – crucial to the development of photography as we know it – and develop the three primary elements of analogue photography: developing, fixing, and printing.
Simultaneous experiments with photography in other parts of the world involved attempts to fix the image produced by a much older technology; the camera obscura. Once the room-sized camera was transformed into the box-sized object that we are familiar with today, modern photography was born and flourished. However, and perhaps in response, many artists adopted the original photogram process for their work. Christian Schad (1894-1982) making work in the early 20th Century, called his beautiful compositions, ‘Schadographs’. In Experimental Vision: The Evolution of the Photogram from 1919 (Republic of Ireland: Roberts Rinehart, 1994) Floris Neusüss writes that “Christian Schad took his inspiration from discarded fragments, worthless stray objects, and the microcosm of the wastebasket. In his tiny, jewellike photograms, this amorphous stuff, this hairball of civilisation’s flotsam and jetsam, shaped itself into noble groupings of fine figures obviously in a state of grace and illumination.”
Floris Neusüss (b.1937) was himself one of the first artists to attempt to capture the human figure in photograms. He is well-known for his life-size images of nudes, made on huge pieces of photographic paper placed on the floor. His models lay or crouched on top of the paper and were exposed to light. Where the body was closer to the paper the outline is sharper, and the further away the less focused it becomes.
The process of making photograms is really simple and there are many different methods to use and forms that the final image can make. There are plenty of handy guides on the internet – Photo-jojo have written step-by-step instructions for making photograms with your old photo-paper without the need for a camera, chemicals or a darkroom.
But can this camera-less approach to image-making be translated in the digital age? Well, yes. A process commonly called scanography (or scannography) involves making images without the need for paper, film or a camera – all you need is a scanner (and a computer…)
An image made with a scanner is characterized by extremely fine detail and a very shallow depth of field. Katarina Jebb (b.1962) is a British artist, well-known for her use of scanners and photocopiers to make beautiful images. Jebb had Tori Amos clamber on top of a photocopier to create the arresting cover image of her 1998 album “From the Choirgirl Hotel”.
The most surreal example of an artist who uses this approach is Maggie Taylor (b.1961). Her photographs are created from multiple layers of scanned objects, images and photographs. In the image below she started with a scan of a 19th century tin-type, then composed, combined, and coloured her image digitally. A typical photograph created by Taylor contains as many as 60 layers! As each layer is photographed from real objects then combined, this can essentially be seen as a progression from multiple-exposure prints made in a darkroom.
And if you have any doubts that this kind of photography can be politically or socially relevant, Oliver Chanarin and Adam Broomberg (b.1971, 1970) recently produced a photogram of sorts, which makes a strong political statement. In 2008 they spent a period in Afghanistan as photo reporters embedded with a front-line unit of the British army. In response to the overt censorship exerted by the army over the images they were allowed to produce, and to a general disaffection with the claims of truth and objectivity attached to documentary war photography, Chanarin and Broomberg decided to take a roll of colour paper and simply expose it to daylight for a limited time each day. This process gave rise to a photographic work up made of coloured lines, patterns and structures that stretches for a length of six metres. Each day is given a straightforward, but poignant title, that relates to the events of the day, such as ‘The Day Nobody Died’ and ‘The Brother’s Suicide’. As an image and a documentary object, the work is startling, and a strong critique of what the photographers thought of as sensational, biased photographs of war zones.
Rowan Lear is an artist, writer and filmmaker based in Swansea, currently studying MA Photography: Contemporary Dialogues.