Laura Norman / On curating ‘Light Works: The Art of The Photogram’ at Atlas Gallery
Light Works: The Art of The Photogram is a curated exhibition currently showing at Atlas Gallery, London. Below, Atlas Gallery’s Assistant Curator Laura Norman speaks with Photomonitor about the genesis of the photogram and the compelling works in this exhibition, which traces the history of camera-less artistic experimentation.
Christiane Monarchi: It is exciting encountering so many different types of photograms in a curated context, where one is able to consider the range of subjects of cameraless techniques and the object status of the physical imprint of light. Your selection of artists and works reads as a history of the photogram; could you tell me a little bit about the earliest works in the show? Can we trace influences from these to later artists working with camera-less process?
Laura Norman: The show itself is largely chronological, and though the photogram in its broadest sense was technically invented by Niépce, Fox-Talbot, and utilised by Atkins and the like – it was in the early part of the 20th century that artists really started to experiment with the photogram as a means of artistic expression. It was at this point that it was referred to and became known as, a photogram. We began with a piece by Christian Schad, which acted as a catalyst for the whole exhibition. Schad lived in both Zurich and Geneva, both of which were epicentres for Dada, and he is accredited with creating the first photograms in 1918, with one printed in Tristan Tzara’s Dadaphone publication in 1920. Seen as both anti-painting due to its autonomy; and anti-photography due to a reluctance to conform to traditional photographic representation, his photograms of detritus and trash from around the city delighted Dada sensibilities. These first works were so important, that unbeknownst to Schad, Tzara had supplied what he referred to as ‘Schadographs’ to MOMA in 1937 in their first ever photography retrospective. Schad stopped this work to paint in the realist style for some time, but revisited the photogram in the 1960’s – the period of our exhibited piece.
Interestingly experiments with the photogram are then headed by two contrasting schools of thought; Man Ray with the Surrealists in Paris, and László Moholy-Nagy with the Contructivists in Germany. Surrealism was concerned with the subconscious, the imagined, and finding an authentic self through Freudian analyses of dreams and thoughts. This is exemplified by the three pieces we have from Man Ray’s portfolio of 12 Rayographs (his ‘modest’ term for photograms!). Though Man Ray never acknowledged an influence, it is likely that he was aware of Schad’s work through Tzara. Man Ray is probably the most recognised artist working with the photogram, and his works were published widely at the time in Dadaist and Surrealist periodicals. At the same time, Moholy-Nagy had recently been appointed a position at the Bauhaus in Weimar. Constructivism, and indeed the Bauhaus, looked to re-establish a relationship between art and industry. An adherence to a practical application of aesthetics, rather than art-for-arts sake, led to Moholy-Nagy becoming the artist-as-engineer. Interestingly he taught in the metal workshop, but it was his outsider approach to photography that provided him with a richer bank from which to draw influence. His founding of ‘New Vision’ (Neue Optik) served to affirm the camera as an extension of our vision, a prosthesis which allowed us to see things such as the photogram, the x-ray, and even movement frozen in time. The show displays a photogram by Moholy-Nagy from 1925, an important time for him and the Bauhaus as both moved from Weimar to Dessau. Moholy-Nagy’s significance and overwhelming contribution to photography is hard to summarise briefly.
Moholy-Nagy’s ideas gave impetus to ‘Film und Foto’ (affectionately termed FiFo), a seminal exhibition in Stuttgart in 1929, in which he curated parts, and exhibited himself. We were extremely fortunate to be able source a particularly special photogram collage by self-acclaimed surrealist E.L.T Mesens, which was included in the original hang of FiFo. ‘La Lumiere Deconcertante’ (The Disconcerting Light) which featured his characteristic eye motif. It was such an exceptional piece that we had many offers, and sold it within a few days of the exhibition opening.
Due to political pressures of the period, the Bauhaus closed in 1933, only to be reincarnated in part by Moholy-Nagy in Chicago four years later. He invited our next exhibited artist, György Kepes, an artist, designer, and educator with whom he had a close relationship, to join him at the school and to head the Light & Colour department as part of the curriculum of the New Bauhaus. He had his first UK solo exhibition at Tate Liverpool last year, which included his photographs, photograms and photomontages. He is often discussed in tandem with Moholy-Nagy, but Kepes is an incredible artist completely in his own right, with a more scientific approach to his work and his interests. We have a large collection of his work, of which a small selection is hung in the exhibition.
One of the most important artists working with the photogram today is Floris Neusüss, who actually exhibited with Moholy-Nagy in the 60’s. Floris and his wife Renate are the authority on the photogram and Floris has dedicated his whole career to the study of the medium. Together they co-authored the catalogue Raisoneé of Moholy-Nagy’s photograms, and Floris openly acknowledges the strong influence of both Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray on his own career. Floris has only recently retired from his extraordinary tenure as Professor of Experimental Photography at Kassel University. He has exhibited widely, written extensively and contributed to the curation and research of numerous exhibitions.
We have two large format photogram pieces by William Klein, which comes as a surprise to many. I’m sure that it’s very difficult to find a photographer that hasn’t made photograms at some point – it’s such a versatile and accessible method of experimentation. Klein’s pieces, perhaps quite appropriately, exemplify for me ‘painting’ with light. Klein created holes in paper or card, effectively making stencils, which light could pass through. These stencils were held above the paper and moved around, the light passing through achieving differing levels of clarity and intensity depending on the stencil’s proximity to the paper and its duration over an area. These works constituted an extremely important photogram ‘book’, and their exhibition in 1953 at Galerie Apollo in Brussels led directly to his invitation to work at Vogue. Large silver gelatin prints of these works are now available.
We also have a series of works by curator-historian-cum-artist, Tom Fels. I think the influence from photographic history is particularly self evident in his use of the cyanotype process. A simple method of capturing images, its deep blue hue tends to catch people off-guard. It was brought to prominence by Anna Atkins (by way of her botanical studies with which she created the first ever photo ‘book’) in the 19th century, but fell out of fashion as more accurate photography practices flourished. It seems that it’s gaining popularity once again, along with a serious rise of interest in analogue methods, and techniques of production.
CM: The photogram lends itself well to artists looking to arrange compositions of objects, whose resulting shadow yields shapes and abstract images in their wake. There is a scientific feel to some of the works – of measurement, optics, frequencies, making visible the invisible phenomena around us. Could you tell me more about one particularly compelling work, ‘Gewitterbild’ by Floris Neusüss?
LN: It’s exactly the ideas of New Vision that champion the ability of photography to render the invisible, visible; if we think of Muybridge capturing evidence of flying horses, or Edgerton (Papa Flash!) freezing time with his stroboscope.
But I think Floris’s ‘Gewitterbild’ pieces are more poetic, and his openness to allow chance in his work is reminiscent of Surrealist ideas. This piece was included in the V&A’s Shadow Catchers exhibition in 2010, and the title literally translates as ‘Thunderstorm Picture.’ Relying on chance, Floris placed a piece of photographic paper out in the night during a thunderstorm – the lightning bolt itself exposing the paper, capturing shadows of the undergrowth and depicting light travelling through rainwater on the paper. It’s beautifully ephemeral, and my favourite piece in the show.
CM: Erwin Blumenfeld and Floris Neusüss’s figurative studies take the body to abstraction on the photographic paper, while Pablo Picasso and Andre Villers ‘Diurnes’ series create figuration from abstract shapes. Could you tell me more about the Picasso/Villers collaborative portfolio?
LN: Pablo Picasso and Andre Villers developed a deep friendship after meeting in 1953. Villers’s work was the only photography that Picasso truly integrated into his own practice, and the pair worked closely together for years, experimenting with their new creations, and informing each other’s process. Picasso supplied his découptages (cutouts), with which Villers interposed with his photography. He used the cut-outs as negatives, making photograms, re-capturing them, and continuously reworking the results. The experimentation with negative space, form, and the use of light and shadow– namely sculptural concerns, are indicative of Picasso’s interest in photography’s ability to create sculptural possibilities. After nearly a decade, they consolidated a selection of this work into a portfolio of 30 collotype prints, titled ‘Diurnes’ (Of the Day/By Day) – of which we have a full set. Though the exhibition is closing on Saturday, a further 13 pieces will continue to be displayed at Home House in Portman Square.
CM: A selection of works by Richard Caldicott seem to present positive and negative images of geometric patterns and cutouts, could you tell me more about how these works are made?
LN: Richard Caldicott creates intricate paper negatives, painstakingly cut by hand which are then exposed directly on top of photographic paper. They have a distinct modernist aesthetic and exude his methodical attitude, something emblematic of all Richard’s projects which by the way– are extremely diverse. He works in many different areas including photography, painting, drawing and collage. Richard particularly likes the process of creating his photograms as this allows him to closely monitor and review their creation, something he feels other processes can sometimes lack.
CM: The three dimensional coiled works of Hans Kupelwieser have broadened my idea of what a photogram could look like, what is the source of his imagery in the photogram collages and sculpture he makes?
LN: Hans Kupelwieser is a very interesting artist. Curiously enough we came by his work quite by accident, when the gallery’s director and myself visited Floris Neusüss in Kassel. We were discussing a group of his own works to be included in the exhibition, when we noticed a strange work on the wall, and Floris explained that he and Hans had each exchanged a photogram years before. Hans is an important Austrian sculptor, and concerns himself with the interplay between the 2D and 3D. Interestingly he sees the photogram as a mediator in this respect, it being the closest to the original object insomuch as the object and the sensitized paper have touched, yet also the farthest away due to a lack of traditional representation. The objects chosen are often of an everyday nature, spaghetti, electrical tubing, potatoes, moving onto furniture and bicycles. A piece that is garnering a lot of attention is his photogram sculpture of a bicycle, ‘Curled-Up.’ He’s currently exhibiting a larger example entitled ‘Turntables’ in the Museum Quarter in Wien which is situated on a rotating platform. It’s exciting as movement further amplifies the relationship between the 2D and 3D properties of the sculpture.
Light Works: The Art of The Photogram continues at Atlas Gallery, London to 13 February, 2016.
Laura Norman graduated from Kingston University in 2013 with a BA in Fine Art, and works as Assistant Curator at ATLAS Gallery. Her main photographic interests lie in the 20th century avante-garde, and performance within photography. She is currently working to complete the first issue of a new photography magazine ‘PhotoLocale’ – Launching later in 2016.