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Cambridge University Science Magazine
Painting without colour? Writing without a pen? Singing without a voice? None of these seem to be possible. But what about photography without a camera? Is there a way to capture an image, the light, a mood, or a person directly onto paper? This rare thought experiment was recently addressed at the London Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition Shadow Catchers, which featured the work of five contemporary artists who use camera-less photography techniques in their work.

Your first steps into the darkened exhibition room welcome you into a new world you have never experienced before. Being used to natural or artificial bright lights and the colourful life outside, it makes you feel uncomfortable initially. Your first gaze falls on what seems to be the shadow of a woman leaning over a chair, and after only a moment you realise that the image cannot be a real shadow, as no one is sitting in the room. Looking further, shadows of people in various different poses, somehow appearing three dimensional, are captured in true size. Images with fine lines like broken glass and pictures which appear to be made of waves of water come into view. Scenes captured with careful thought, people and objects arranged precisely, and pictures that are beyond reality; all created by camera-less photography.
The basic techniques of camera-less photography can be traced back through history. As early as the 8th century the Arab alchemist Jābir ibn Hayyān made the discovery that silver nitrate changes its colour upon exposure to light. In the 16th century Georg Fabricius experimented with silver chloride and also found that under certain circumstances a darkening of the material can be observed, although the nature of the chemical reactions involved was still unknown. In 1725, the German researcher Heinrich Schulze proved that the reaction of silver compounds was due to light exposure. The use of an artistic technique based on these chemicals was first described in 1802 in a publication by Thomas Wedgewood and Humphry Davy. Leaves and other small objects or paintings on glass were placed onto surfaces covered with silver nitrate. After exposure to sunlight, only the painted or covered areas were not affected by light. However, the ability to fix the images was still lacking, so they disappeared immediately when fully exposed to light. This problem was solved by William Henry Fox Talbot with the help of Sir John Herschel in 1834, when they fixed images using a sodium hyposulphate solution and made the artwork durable. This also led to the development of the first real, if simplistic camera, by placing light-sensitive paper into a ‘camera obscura’, basically a box with a lens.

In the late 19th century advances in camera-development were fast, and dominated by commercial and practical pressures. Only a few artists such as Talbot and Anna Atkins kept experimenting without the use of a camera to create art or botanical illustrations in true scale.

Much later, in the early 20th century, Christian Schad rediscovered the use of camera-less photography as an artistic medium, which led numerous artists to revive the nearly forgotten technique. After 1922, Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy became the two artists to adopt the techniques into their art. Man Ray was an American artist best known for his modern photography. He described photography as “a comfort, because it reproduces what is known” and implemented camera-less photography as a means of creating a “sensual realisation of dreams and the subconscious”. The images he created and called ‘Rayographs’ often contained recognisable objects and geometrical forms but in new ways of visualisation as light and shadows. He also used variable exposure times on single objects and exploited the effect of movement in Rayographs. In contrast to Ray’s realism, László Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian painter and photographer, created images that were more abstract, showing dynamic white forms in black space. “The light can play a central role as the pigments do in a painting”, Maholy-Nagy stated.

After the Second World War, photography was heavily used for documentation of political and social events and the art of camera-less photography again was close to being forgotten. Only between 1950 and 1960 did artists and photographers revived their interest in experimentation and alternative techniques. Two of the protagonists at the Shadow Catchers exhibition started their careers during this time: Floris Neusüss, a German Professor of Photography, and Pierre Cordier, a Belgian artist.

The five artists of the Shadow Catchers exhibition exploit different strategies to capture light and shadows on light-sensitive surfaces. The most intuitive technique uses gelatine-silver prints and creates pictures termed ‘photograms’. In this technique, photosensitive surfaces, mostly coats of gelatine containing silver salts, change colour upon exposure to light and subsequent development. Objects that are placed onto these surfaces in certain light conditions will produce pictures of their shadows. Parts of objects, as seen in Floris Neusüss’ ‘Körperfotogramms’ (whole-body photograms), can partially block out light and therefore give rise to lighter shadows, while other parts that are in close contact with the surface create dark shadows of complete light exclusion. This creates a 3-dimensional effect in the picture and gives Neusüss’ images a surreal quality. The full-sized nude females he recorded as photograms are an example of his ability to create “a feeling of surreal detachment, a sense of disengagement from time and the physical world.”

Another technique of camera-less photography involves creating ‘chemigrams’ by treating photographic paper with varnishes, oils or photographic chemicals. It has been adopted by another of the exhibition artists, Pierre Cordier, who has perfected his techniques over fifty years through experimentation and research. Describing his work as painting, he makes the pictures step-by-step, usually by carefully blocking the light sensitive surfaces with wax or plastic patterns and applying developer and fixer to unblocked regions. The pictures Cordier creates are often technical, including labyrinths and tiny details nearly invisible without a magnifying glass.

In contrast to Cordier’s exquisitely planned detail, Susan Derges’ images are created by the forces of nature. She mostly uses gelatine-silver and dye-destruction prints, which use positive colour paper that is bleached out upon development where the dyes were not exposed. She employs various techniques to create magnificent effects on her pictures: by exposing photographic paper to moonlight, flashlight, or immersing the paper in a river before exposure to light. Her images often involve an element of chance and are influenced by the wildness and unpredictability of the elements. In her early work in the 1970s, Derges used sound waves to form geometrical patterns in carborundum powder on light sensitive paper, thereby creating a visual representation of waves. In her series on the development of frog spawn into frogs, she placed spawn-filled jam jars on an enlarging lens which she exposed to light in a darkroom and recorded on the paper below; the cycle of life was captured without a camera. Derges has an intimate connection to science and many of her images make commonly hidden forces of nature visible to the imaginative human eye.

Adam Fuss is an English photographer who discovered camera-less photography in 1986 and has since used this technique to create photograms that, as he describes it, “give the alphabet unfamiliar letters. What is seen has never been in a camera. Life itself is the image. Viewers sense it. They feel the difference.” His pictures seem to capture movements frozen in time. Recurring motifs in his work include animals such as snakes and butterflies, babies and water. For this exhibition, he placed a child onto photographic paper which was submerged in shallow water and fired a flashlight onto the paper. The resulting image captures the baby and its movements as reflected in the wave patterns the movement created in the water.

Bristol-born artist Garry Fabian Miller’s work is influenced by the properties of light and time. His images are simple, yet energetic. His early works included leaves collected during spring as they change their colour from pale yellow to green or petals recorded over a day’s time span. In recent works he created more abstract minimalistic pictures emphasising strong colourful shapes on a black background. Today he mostly uses dye-destruction paper, beams of light or water-filled glass vessels to create the desired effects. For Miller, light “is not a symbol for something else but the very embodiment of creative energy.”

Without any real sense of dimension in the images, objects seem to float above the pictures rather than resting on the surface. This unusual experience makes the viewer uneasy, giving rise to unexpected curiosity. Each picture is formed by the creative vision of one of five artists who use camera-less photography to portray what Floris Neusüss describes as “the tension between the hidden and the revealed.”

Leaving the rooms of the exhibition, you return to normal life, leaving the warm darkness and dreamy landscapes behind you. What remains is the discovery of a photographic art that always creates originals directly, without negatives involved.

Stephanie Glaser is a PhD student in the Department of Biochemistry