Shadow Catchers: Camera-less photography

Categorised as ART., PHOTOGRAPHY.

‘Untitled, 1967 by Floris Neusüss

I went to the V&A to check out the Shadow Catchers exhibition, for someone that doesn’t know a great amount about the scopes of Photography I was utterly amazed. The exhibition featured collections of work by five international contemporary artists. All five artists work without a camera. While lensed photography gives us an image that suggests a perspective on a spacial field, a window on to a now lost world, camera-less photography gives us an image with no perspective, a view from nowhere. What is so intriguing about this concept is that you automatically banish the documentary role, as camera-less photographs display what has never really existed. The images are created on photographic paper by casting shadows and manipulating the light, or by chemically treating the surface of the paper. They are also always an ‘original’ because they are not made from a negative. The images can be interpreted how the viewer wishes, but they don’t record an event as it happened so fragments, traces, signs, even memories perhaps float across the page.

‘Gewitterbild,1984 by Floris Neusüss

Floris Neusüss has dedicated his whole career to practicing the photogram. Photograms are made by placing an object in contact with a photosensitive surface in the dark and exposing both to light. Where the object blocks the light, either partially or fully, its shadow is recorded on the paper.

In ‘Untitled’, the varying proximity of parts of the body to the paper has created sharper or softer outlines. In the image above, where the model’s hands were in contact with the paper, the outline is clear. Where parts of the body, such as the head, were further away, it is blurred. Much of Neususs’s work feature bodies that are devoid of features and details, this leads the viewer to complete the figure using our imagination. I also found that many of the bodies appear to leap or float as though they are caught in space, implying dreams or nightmares of falling. He creates a feeling of surreal detachment, almost a sense of disengagement from time and the physical world. To me the images seem to resemble a shell of a person perhaps in some kind of transition period once the soul has left the body. ‘Gewitterbild’ was created by placing photographic paper in a garden at night during a thunderstorm, and letting lightning expose the paper. This eagerness to discover what natural forces might do when left alone, to me seems to touch on transcendental themes.

The most dramatic experiments with camera-less photography, however, are present in the works of Pierre Cordier. Pioneering the use of the ‘chemigram’, Cordier used materials such as egg and wax to artificially create patterns and shapes on photographic paper once exposed to light.

“from La Suma of Jorge Luis Borges” 1992 by Pierre Cordier

”Pauli Kleei ad Marginem” 1982 by Pierre Cordier

Cordier often found inspiration in poetry and maps and the images presented in the exhibition depict a series of surreal, almost futuristic, mazes and labyrinths. La Suma of Jorge Luis Borges (1992) is composed of letter forms that spell out Borges’s poem within its deeply abstract shape. The letters however are almost impossible to depict, their shapes adjoining together as paths forking in different directions. Some parts of the work almost look like crystallizing mercury, as though some of the code has been encrypted to make it unreadable to anyone except those possessing special knowledge. It’s hard to believe these labyrinthine patterns of creeping liquid metal, molten, are just images on paper.

Another of my favourites is Cordiers representation of Paul Klee’s painting Ad Marginem (1930) which shows prehistoric-looking creatures and foliage surrounding a solar motif. Cordier recasts Klee’s painting diagrammatically, transforming the solar disc into a triangle and retaining the original placement of forms but as if in an extraterrestrial code. “Their details seem too miniscule to have been rendered by hand, and yet organic enough not to have been produced by computer” (p.54)

‘Untitled, 2007 by Adam Fuss

Another piece of Fuss’s work features an X-ray like image of a christening dress, devoid of bodily forms. If you look closer into the image there appears to be a snake like figure woven in the fabric. This is a recurring emblem is Fuss’s work symbolizing a loss of innocence dealing with themes such as the coming of a self-reflective state and the ecstatic struggle he regards this to be. Fuss explains that he was interested in how the snake was depicted as a negative phenomenon. Exploring the paradox around the snake as being something very energetic, powerful, positive. And at the same time being something that is corrupting, repulsive, to be avoided.

From the series ‘My Ghost’ 1997 (Christening Dress) by Adam Fuss

‘Shadow Catchers’ confirms that the loss of perspective achieved in normal photography does not mean photogram’s are any less communicative. An example of a photogram is a medical X-ray which certainly does not lack information. If the traditional photograph has this revered position, then so too should the photogram, and we ought to consider camera-less works of photographic art no less seriously.

Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography (V&A 13 October 2010 – 20 February 2011)

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