No Camera? No Problem!: Poetic Photograms
This unusual and easy-to-make darkroom procedure is a great way to express your creativity. Supriya Joshi shows how you can try this art form too!
Generating photograms is one of the oldest processes in photographic history. Photographic legends like Man Ray and Imogen Cunningham have all practised this art. In fact, this technique has been subject to various incarnations over the years. Many photographers still make photograms to create unique, yet striking imagery.
What is a Photogram?
These are images which are produced by placing objects on light-sensitive emulsion or paper. They are made using traditional darkroom
techniques, but can be created at home too, with a little effort.
Difficulty Level: 3/5
What are They?
Almost like block art, photograms are made by placing objects directly on photosensitive paper and then exposing the paper to light. Once the paper is developed, the image you end up with is an outline of the object that was placed. If you expose a photosensitive paper to light, it will turn black. So, when an object is placed on the paper, it blocks the light, and hence it forms an outline on the paper. The rest of the paper then turns black, while the area where you had placed the object remains white.
In fact, Henry Fox Talbot, one of the founding fathers of photography, first referred to this technique as ‘photogenic drawings’. While Talbot popularised this technique, it is the works of surrealist Man Ray that are the most striking and memorable. Traditionally, this technique requires the use of a darkroom and an enlarger, but photograms can be made at home too. Here is how.
The most common objects found at your home can make the most artistic photograms.
An Organised Workflow
To get started on photograms, you will need photosensitive paper, a darkened room, photo developing chemicals (developer, stop bath, fixer), trays for the chemicals and a safe light along with a UV lamp. You can source all of these from most specialised photography equipment stores. However, remember to wear gloves and a face mask when you use photographic chemicals. It is a good idea to set everything up in a systematic manner, as it will allow you to streamline the process of creating photograms.
This technique gives you plenty of scope to compose your images at leisure. You can explore various possibilities by using differently shaped objects around you. While finding subjects that look good together, you do not need to limit yourself to things you can find at home. A few examples of things you can use for photograms include blades of grass, pieces of glass, small stones, or even audio cassettes.
Just Like Magic!
In a completely dark room, set up a simple table lamp to throw light on the photosensitive paper. It is best if the lamp has its power switch right next to it, to control the duration of the exposure. To help you see in the dark, you can use a red photographic safety light, which will not affect photosensitive paper. Next, arrange your objects on the paper. Once you are happy with the composition, switch on the table lamp. You will need to time the exposure depending on the intensity of the lamp. Increasing or decreasing the exposure will control how dark or light your photogram appears, respectively.
Photograms allow you to compose your images at leisure, which you cannot do with regular photography.
Once you have made the exposures, ensure that you carefully remove the objects from the photographic paper, with only the safety light switched on. Submerge the paper in developer for about two minutes. After that, shift the paper to the stop bath for a minute, and finally, to the fixer for another minute. Finally, wash off the chemicals and allow the paper to sit in a tray filled with water for a short while, before drying it on a rack.
The photogram should have a black background with white silhouettes of the subject. For the opposite effect, you can use negatives or even cardboard cutouts. Photograms are a great way to create strong graphic art. Additionally, they will also give you a chance to really appreciate a technique used by some of photography’s greatest legends.
To learn about more non-camera photography techniques, click here.
This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of Better Photography.
Tags: Supriya Joshi, No Camera? No Problem!, Photograms, Objects, Darkroom Process, Man Ray, Henry Fox Talbot