Camera-less photographs occupy an important yet underappreciated place in the history of photography. While still considered an experimental medium, the photogram, or camera-less image is a photograph produced by the action of light on a light-sensitive surface without the aid of a camera and lens. Camera-less photographs engage the core of the photographic process — light and a light-sensitive medium. When creating a photogram, the image-maker is literally writing with the light on a photographic medium.
Photographic papers are divided into two types: “developing out” papers and “printing out” papers. Printing out papers were widely used throughout most of the 19th century. The sepia-toned albumen photographs that we see from the 19th-century photographs are printing out papers. In order to create a positive image on a printing-out paper, a negative was placed over a sheet of photographic paper and exposed to sunlight in a contact printer. The photographer monitored the slowing conversion of the silver halide to metallic silver. Once the image reached the desired density, the paper was fixed to halt further development. No developer was needed with printing out papers. With “developing out” papers, traditional darkroom photographic papers, light exposure onto the paper produced a latent image (an invisible image), which must be developed out to be seen. With “developing out” papers, the predominant silver halide is silver bromide. These conventional darkroom print papers require a very short exposure time and require the addition of a developing agent to bring forth the latent image in the developing solution.
Lumen prints, as a rarely-used printing process, rely upon the principle that any silver gelatin photographic paper, if exposed to enough sunlight, will produce an image without a developer. Lumen prints use conventional “developed-out” silver gelatin papers like printing-out papers to create unpredictable results. With lumen prints, sunlight is used not only to expose the image but also to develop it.
The lumen prints from Wildflowers Series use 30-year-old Artista Classic 16×20 fiber-based paper placed between two sheets of plexiglass with full sun exposures of approximately 2-4 hours. The wildflower petals pressed onto the surface coupled with the moisture from the organic materials produced the unexpectedly vibrant colors on the black and white silver gelatin paper.
Lumen prints are ephemeral images; the colors will continue to fade before disappearing completely. Lumen prints can be fixed, however, the fixing process dramatically shifts the colors of the lumen print, with the rich colors becoming warm browns. In order to preserve the vibrant colors created in the Lumen Prints: Wildflowers Series, each lumen print was scanned with an Epson V750 flatbed scanner to produce a high-resolution digital file. Each print required 6 individual 8.5 by 11.5-inch scans that were then merged and retouched to remove dust spots using Adobe Photoshop. (Please see the short video below).
Photogram experiments first appeared in experiments silver and light, in the early 19th century. Early experimenters used the photogram to make impressions of leaves and flora taken directly from nature; beautiful examples that connect the photographic process to magic, and these early successes drove the later successes with photographs created with cameras. Anna Atkins’s cyanotype prints—her experiments with “light writing”—along with William Henry Fox Talbot’s photogenic drawings continue to inspire contemporary approaches to camera-less imaging. Emerging from essential photographic processes, these elemental shapes and forms ask that we consider them as photographs, and even though no camera or in some cases no subject was used in the creation of the photograph.
The discovery of x-rays by William Röntgen in 1896 set off a flurry of new scientific discoveries and provided artists with exciting new source material. In the early 20th century, modernist photographers Christian Schad, Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy, and others were inspired by Röntgen’s negatives to re-invent an old photographic form—the photogram. These modernist artists were influenced by the photogram’s expressive potential for celebrating the aesthetics of light and suggested seeing beyond the conventional reality. Modernist photographers used the photogram to produce abstractions of objects of every day; their studies of the geometric form, light, space, and time spoke to the art of seeing beyond sight. These images also inspired the photographic expressions of Henry Holmes Smith, Frederick Sommer, and Robert Heinecken among others.
The directness of camera-less imaging has great appeal to many artists. The absence of technical apparatuses engages the basic elements of photography: light (at an elementary level) and a blank sheet of photosensitized paper. In an age when cameras and lenses occupy every public and private space, photographers are returning to core experiments in light and chemistry. By pointing at the absence of a camera and lens, photogram experiments reconnect photography to the early experimenters with photography. By questioning our reliance on cameras and lenses, contemporary photogram photographers stress the intimacy with the processes of photography as a means to engage our imaginations. As an oppositional experimental approach that relies upon chance and accidental and random effects, the photogram offers rich opportunities for individual expression.