Photograms – a magical concept

A photogram is a unique cameraless art form that involves the placement of objects onto sensitised paper with the action of light. Stephen McNeill shares his experiences with this age-old process, along with some images and tips.

Writer and photography / Stephen McNeill


Photograms by Stephen McNeill
© Stephen McNeill / A Heartbeat Away, photogram 2020

An introduction to the photogram

The technique of creating a photographic image without the use of a camera is as old as photography itself. Commonly referred to as a photogram (or cameraless photography), it represents a unique art form that involves the placement of objects onto sensitised paper with the action of light. Although photograms may seem similar in their initial purpose to photographs – as are the chemical processes that make them happen – their final outcome is quite the opposite. Think of it this way: similar to how a painter begins with a blank canvas, the approach to a photogram is like photographing an idea. It’s only when the final brush stroke is applied that the painting becomes a visual invention. This concept applies to photograms. They too reveal what has never really existed.

A brief history of the photogram

Branded by various artists over the years, the exploration of the photogram began in the 1830s by a group of dedicated practitioners who sought to gain scientific record of natural objects. As an example, renowned British inventor and printmaker Henry Fox Talbot used this discovery to make tracings of his botanical specimens by exposing his chemically-treated paper to sunlight, calling his process photogenic drawings. But as photographic technology aspired to more advanced levels, the photogram was almost entirely replaced by the seemingly more interesting “camera photography”.

Decades later, thanks to the avant-garde movements of the early 20th century, the photogram veered in a radically different direction. The American-born artist, Man Ray, almost single-handedly popularised the technique, calling his creations rayographs. Other influential artists from this period include Marta Hoepffner, Lotte Jacobi, Christian Schad and László Moholy-Nagy. (It should be noted that Moholy-Nagy gained recognition for his luminogram artworks; a variation of the photogram process whereby imagery is shaped only with light.)

Unveiling a photogram

One of my earliest photograms, or stephographs, as I refer to them, was created almost entirely with a toy light that belonged to my daughter Olivia, who was eight at the time and my collaborator on the project. The light itself was embedded in a plastic saucer-shaped receptacle that held dozens of plastic fibre strands in an upright position. When switched on, beams of light traveled through the strands to their tips.

Fiber optics photograms by Stephen McNeill
© Stephen McNeill / Fibre Optics, photogram, 2011

Here’s what we did. After much trial and error, we positioned a small object on a sheet of light-sensitive paper and held the toy light slightly above the object to allow the fibre strands to partially caress the paper. We turned on the toy light for a count to three, then hand-processed the print.

Note: all of my work with this technique is printed on fibre-base paper and I use baths of dev, stop, water, double fixer and selenium toner. Print results with selenium toner will vary on paper type, the dilution of toner, toning time and personal preference. For the most part, my aim is to slightly intensify shadow detail and to assist in image permanence with little or no shift in tone.

Tips

Although it’s required to work with the photogram process under red safelight conditions, it’s not necessary to have a traditional darkroom with an enlarger. A small space is all it takes and any light source will do. The main thing is to be organised and have fun. The possibilities are as boundless as your imagination.

“As I’ve discovered, photograms generally require a great deal of patience, often yielding surprising results.”

It’s best to take notes and reference photos of your arrangements as you go along – especially if the image is comprised of multiple exposures and stagings. The degree of difficultly really depends on the level of creativity. Below are examples of two approaches.

Applauding Our Pioneers Photogram Stephen McNeill
© Stephen McNeill / Applauding our Pioneers, photogram, 2018 (Multiple arrangements of darkroom objects integrated with a film exposure to elevate the photomontage effect.)
Valley of the Livet Photograms by Stephen McNeill
© Stephen McNeill / Valley of the Livet, photogram, 2018 (A glass bottle exposed with a smartphone flashlight. The intensity of the light created stunningly crisp and unexpected detail.)
 
Stephen McNeill, Canadian photographer
Stephen McNeill is a Canadian fine art photographer and printmaker living in Toronto. For more information, please visit his website at stephenmcneill.com.
If you are interested in cyanotypes, also read Ruth Brown’s article on cyanotype photograms here.

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