Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Photos Without Cameras

What? I can hear you all screaming, how can you possibly take a photograph without a camera? Well a new exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London demonstrates how. You may not know but there are at least five exceptional camera-less photographers in the world.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue which presents the work of these five leading practitioners - Pierre Cordier, Susan Derges, Adam Fuss, Garry Fabian Miller and Floris Neusüss - who, by casting shadows on light-sensitive paper or by chemically manipulating its surface, capture the presence of objects, figures or glowing light. The results are powerful images, often with surreal effects and symbolic content. In an age of mass-produced imagery, Shadow Catchers offers hand-crafted photographs that are both haunting and thought-provoking.

So, how do they do it? Well, it's very simple actually. These artists create images directly on photographic paper, which uses silver salts that darken in exposure to light. By casting shadows and filtering or blocking light, or by chemically treating its surface, the paper is transformed into an image. Perhaps the most important question is 'why'. Well, read the descriptions below to find out more.

In addition, The V&A commissioned a short film on each of the five international artists featured in the 'Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography' exhibition, showing their studios and the places that inspire them. This is a revealing and evocative look at their working environments and an insight into their creative ideas. Go here to watch the films.

Working in his darkroom and studio, Adam Fuss creates a series of daguerreotypes of butterflies.

Still from the film 'Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography' (Adam Fuss) 2010 © Courtesy of V&A

Garry Fabian Miller

Garry Fabian Miller, 'Year One. Giamonios: Shoots Show', 2005/6. © Garry Fabian Miller, Image courtesy the artist/Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh

In 1984 Garry Fabian Miller discovered a method of using a photographic enlarger that allowed a direct translation between plants and the photographic print. Later, in 1992, he turned to making abstract images in the darkroom, using only glass vessels filled with liquids, or cut-paper forms to cast shadows and filter light.

Many of his works explore the cycle of time over a day, month or year, through controlled experiments with varying durations of light exposure. His works are enriched by being seen in sequences that explore and develop a single motif and color range. Often, the images are conceived as remembered landscapes and natural light phenomena.

For the series Year One, Fabian Miller produced one work every day over the course of a year. At the end, he selected ninety-six of the images for a book. He divided them into twelve equal sections, titled according to the Celtic ‘Coligny’ calendar, one of the oldest of its kind, and chose one work - as shown here- to represent each month. The result is a sustained investigation into form and color alongside the cycle of time. His work is collected by Elton John.

Susan Derges

Susan Derges, 'Arch 4 (summer)', 2007/8. Collection of the artist, © Courtesy of Susan Derges

Susan Derges studied painting at Chelsea School of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art, London. She then lived in Japan for six years, before returning to the UK in 1986. Her images reveal the hidden forces of nature, from the patterns of sound waves to the flow of rivers.
During the 1990s, Derges became well known for her photograms of water.

To make these works, she used the landscape at night as her darkroom, submerging large sheets of photographic paper in rivers and using the moon and flashlight to create the exposure. 'Working directly, without the camera,' says Derges, 'with just paper, subject matter and light, offers an opportunity to bridge the divide between self and other'.

In these dreamlike landscapes, she first made images of cloud by direct digital scans of ink dispersing in water within a small glass tank. She printed these scans onto large transparencies, then placed them beneath a glass tank containing water, bracken, grasses and reeds. Next she made direct prints onto dye destruction paper placed beneath both tank and transparency. Finally, she photographed these prints and digitally stitched them together to make the large-scale digital C-prints.

Floris Neususs

Floris Neusüss, 'Untitled (Körperfotogramm), Kassel, 1967', 1967. Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Graphische Sammlung, Germany, © Courtesy of Floris Neusüss

Floris Neusüss has dedicated his whole career to extending the practice, study and teaching of the photogram. Alongside his work as an artist, he is known as an influential writer and teacher on camera-less photography.

Neusüss brought renewed ambition to the photogram process, in both scale and visual treatment, with the Körperfotogramms (or whole-body photograms) that he first exhibited in the 1960s. Since that time, he has consistently explored the photogram's numerous technical, conceptual and visual possibilities.

His works often deal in opposites: black and white, shadow and light, movement and stillness, presence and absence, and in the translation of three dimensions into two. By removing objects from their physical context, Neusüss encourages the viewer to contemplate the essence of form. He creates a feeling of surreal detachment, a sense of disengagement from time and the physical world. Collectively, his images explore themes of mythology, history, nature and the subconscious.

Here, the varying proximity of parts of the body to the paper has created sharper or softer outlines. 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.

Pierre Cordier

Pierre Cordier, 'Chemigram 8/2/61 I, 8 février 1961', 1961. Centre Pompidou, Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne/Centre de Création Industrielle, © Courtesy of Pierre Cordier

Pierre Cordier discovered the 'chemigram' process in 1956. Over many years, he has explored the potential of the chemigram like an experimental scientist. The simplest form of chemigram involves the application of photographic developer and fixer to gelatin-silver photographic paper, using the chemicals like watercolors. Developer creates dark areas, while fixer produces lighter tones.

Cordier used this method here, pouring rather than brushing the chemicals on to a lightly oiled sheet of photographic paper.

The Book - Shadow Catchers


The first camera-less photographs could be said to date as far back as the 8th century, when the Arab alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan recorded the fact that silver nitrate darkened in the light. In Britain, during the 1790s, Thomas Wedgwood and Humphry Davy created images on paper and leather made sensitive to light with chemical treatments, but failed to fix the results, which faded.

After William Henry Fox Talbot solved this problem in the 1830s, camera-less imagery became popular with botanical illustrators in the 1850s. There was then a lull when the camera became dominant – but camera-less photography was picked up by artists like Man Ray in the 1920s.

But why use camera-less photography rather than traditional photography? Barnes says: "By removing the camera, these artists get closer to the source of what they are interested in: light, time, traces, signs and visions – things which have spiritual and metaphysical rather than simply physical qualities. Laying down the camera frees them from documentation to become, like alchemists, more focussed on transformation."

Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography, V&A, London SW7 (www.vam.ac.uk), 13 October to 20 February 2011. A hardback book of the same title by Martin Barnes, priced £39.95 (order for £35.95 from the Independent Bookshop, 08430 600 030) is being published by Merrell Publishing.

US visitors can check the price at Amazon here. UK readers can can check the price on Amazon here: Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography

Shadow Catchers competition

'The Lattice Window Lacock Abbey', 2010. Collection of the artist, © Courtesy of Floris Neusüss Floris Neusüss (made in collaboration with Renate Heyne)

To celebrate the Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography exhibition the V&A are offering the chance to win a trip to Lacock, where Floris Neusüss recreated his 1978 image of the lattice window in Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire especially for the exhibition.

The prize includes a two night, luxury bed and breakfast stay at The Red Lion in Lacock and a visit to the Fox Talbot Museum in Lacock.

To find out more and to enter the competition, go here.


  1. Simply Amazing!

  2. Unsurprising, since there was only a pinhole to begin with.

  3. so......is the lattice window picture a copy of William Henry Fox Talbot's Lattice Window??

  4. Yes, kind of. It's the same window.

  5. Very nice, but..... there are tons of artists doing this, in many countries. The V&A with its usual breathlessness presents this as somehow new and surprisng. (and no, not me, this isn't sour grapes!)

  6. @BRSmith, THIS is an exhibition of collected works from multiple artists from different countries working at different times. They are not saying that this is a new technique (since one of the works pictured is from 1967). What they are doing is highlighting & explaining the technique to inform and delight us.

  7. Not to put down Cordier's, or works by others listed here, which is planned and intentional, this sort of thing was commonly done by beginning photographers, sometimes unintentionally and ended up in the circular file. The British photographer, Anna Atkins, made photograms with the cyanotype of algae in the early 1840's. Exposing photographic paper under moonlight in a river may sound idyllic, but is nothing more than using the sun, albeit as a weak reflection from the moon. The point is that while the means aren't very exotic as compared to what was commonly done previously, but that the results are artistically pleasing and interesting; the backbone of photography. A generation not using a wet darkroom is being mesmerized by what is becoming lost technology.

  8. those were excellent...

  9. speechless...if we who are daily photographers think that we've got imagination...let's reconsider this..,


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