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Emanations at Govett-Brewster Art Gallery

The Art of the Cameraless Photograph.

Ask a few people what a cameraless photograph is, and you’ll most likely be met with blank stares. Our experience of photography is manifestly entwined with the camera, the lens, and the act of looking through a device to see what is out there. The notion of a photograph made without a camera seems paradoxical. But the camera is ultimately a tool which causes light to fall on a light sensitive surface in a particular way – and if we remove the camera from the equation, what remains is the interplay of light, surface, and time. These are fundamentals every photographer engages with in the production of work. Yet on their own, they challenge our understanding of what photography is, or might be.

Emanations at the Govett-Brewster has a breadth of material that will appeal to the photographic community and a general gallery audience alike. There is a wide scope of national and international practitioners, historic and contemporary work, and the variety of aesthetic and conceptual investigations afforded by cameraless processes is engaging. It’s a substantial show, filling all of the Govett-Brewster and much of the Len Lye center.

The exhibition offers us an insight into a history of early cameraless photography not often given an outing. Salt prints from British photography pioneer (and inventor of the negative-positive process) William Henry Fox Talbot are present, as are the cyanotype botanical specimens of Anna Atkins. These photographs were rendered by placing objects – plant forms – on sheets of light sensitive paper and exposing them to light. The resulting images are darker where the light has hit the paper and lighter where the object has held light back. This type of process is generally now known as a photogram, though this name has varied. Man Ray and Christian Schad modestly called them ‘Rayographs,’ and ‘Schadographs’ respectively, and Len Lye was known to refer to his as ‘Shadowgraphs.’

Lye

Len Lye, Cameraless photographic portraits, 1947. Image courtesy of Bryan James.

Unsurprisingly, Lye’s work features prominently, forming what the brochure describes as “the heart of the exhibition.” The space containing Lye’s work and that of other mid-century modernists is the closest the gallery has to a ‘white cube,’ and both visually and conceptually, it’s one of the most satisfying aspects of the show. The work within it represents a dogged determination on the part of practitioners (including Man Ray, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Gyorgy Kepes, Max Dupain and Bronislaw Schlabs) to figure out what-this-thing-called-photography-really-is. Lye’s portrait photograms, created in New York in 1947, are the striking centerpiece. Playful and engaging, Lye has worked backwards and forwards between the initial photogram and its positive imprint, constructing and layering subjects, objects and photo paper to achieve a variety of results. If you’re able, spend some time deciphering the three photograms of Georgia O’Keefe, a visual rubik’s cube of twists and turns. Lye is best known for his kinetic sculptures, so it’s very rewarding to see his photographic work surrounded by that of his contemporaries, to consider him as part of a broader investigation into the possibilities of photography.

But what’s the appeal of the cameraless photograph to contemporary photographers? It’s evidently an enduring one, given the work in Emanations spans the existence of photography itself. Perhaps it’s a truism, but we’re surrounded with so many camera-based images that they often fail to resonate. Some photo historians have argued that traditional social documentary practice, for example, promotes indifference and emphasizes social division rather than remedying it. Many of the photographers in Emanations are concerned with raising awareness about particular issues, and the cameraless photograph offers an alternative method of communication – often based on touch as much as vision. For example, Japanese artist Shimpei Takeda’s work Trace #17-1, Joen Ji, (2012) was made using soil sourced from 12 locations around the Fukushima nuclear power plant after the 2011 tsunami and reactor meltdown. Spread over photographic film, the soil was left to ‘expose,’ resulting in a speckled arrangement of black and white that reveals the soil’s latent ‘power’ – radiation which would be invisible to camera-based photography. Lynn Cazabon’s ‘solar photographs’ explore another environmental concern – our immense production of e-waste. Sheets of silver gelatin photo paper were coated in vinegar, baking soda, digital and organic waste, and left to expose in the sun for several hours. The resulting grid of images suggests the disquieting experience of a landfill from within – the weight of our culture’s cast offs pressing against the photographic paper.

Takeda

(left) Shimpei Takeda, Trace #17-1, Joen Ji, 2012, (gelatin silver photograph) and (centre/ right), Justine Varga, Desklamp, 2011-12, and Exit (Red State), 2014-2015 (Chromogenic Photographs). Image courtesy of Bryan James.

Much work also shows a delight in testing photographic materials, and referencing photography and its history – American photographer Alison Rossiter’s work is a beautiful example. Her recent practice involves developing expired photographic paper from previously unopened packets, some of it dating to the 1920s. They’re delicate, precious and contain a reverence for the materials she’s working with. They’re also conceptually rewarding – an exposure, decades in the making; a slip of photo paper becomes a time capsule of compounded light.

Some of the work challenges even the boundaries of the cameraless photograph. How comfortably does Ian Burn’s Xerox Book #1 (1968) fit within the context of cameraless photography? A photocopier has a lens after all; but this hardly makes Burn’s work camera based – does it? What about Shaun Waugh’s series, produced by colour sampling Agfa photopaper boxes using a spectrophotometer (a device which measures the colour of light)? Waugh prints the resultant colour swatch, and uses the original box as a frame. Is his work ‘photography’ or art ‘about photography’? Or is the use of the spectrophotometer enough for us to classify the work as photographic? Emanations takes an inclusive approach and doesn’t give us any hard and fast boundaries. Rather, it provides us with a broad range of material and invites us to consider the possibilities of photography for ourselves. Indeed, one of the appeals of the exhibition is in observing New Zealand practitioners contributing to this international conversation about photography’s scope and potential. 

The exhibition is complimented by a substantial publication, featuring an essay from curator and photo historian Geoffrey Batchen which explores and expands on the exhibition material. It’s a lush publication, satisfyingly visual and providing historical and conceptual context to both the exhibition content and cameraless photography not included in the show. Unfortunately, Emanations isn’t travelling to any other venue (why has no other institution taken it up?) so your singular opportunity to see this very rewarding exhibition is at the Govett-Brewster, until August 14.

Deidra Sullivan

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