June 11, 2010 3:32 PM   Subscribe

Photograms are photographs achieved without cameras; shadow-pictures made by placing objects upon or in front of photo-sensitive surfaces, and then exposing them to light.

The first permanent photograms were made by the pioneers of photography: Niépce produced photoengravings in the 1820s; and in the 1830s, Fox Talbot created "photogenic drawings" i.e. "Natural Objects [...] made to delineate themselves without the aid of the Artist’s pencil." In 1843, Anna Atkins (a friend of Fox Talbot's) self-published what is considered to be the first book illustrated with photographic images.

In 1895, a picture of a woman's hand introduced the world to a revolutionary new kind of photogram.

In the 20th century Christian Schad's Schadographs, Man Ray's Rayographs and Moholy-Nagy's photograms helped transform what had been a strictly documentary technique into a new means of artistic expression.

Some more recent examples: Jerry Burchfield's lumen prints; Martha Casenave's lumens & silver photograms; Angela Easterling's natural photograms; photograms on Flickr.

How to make your own!
posted by misteraitch (20 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Hey neat, I experimented with photograms when I was in school. I found it takes quite a bit of trial and error to achieve anything even remotely appealing. Mine always came out looking cloudy and low-contrast like this one here, rather than crisp and detailed like this.
posted by tuck_nroll at 3:45 PM on June 11, 2010

You can also do this with the sun by leaving objects on a piece of UV sensitive paper all day and wash it to stop the exposure. It's a great way to explain how photography works to kids, plus they can use different SPF sunscreens as "paint".
posted by Juicy Avenger at 3:50 PM on June 11, 2010

Nice. I saw one of Talbot's first "photogenic drawings" in an exhibit at LACMA, titled something like "150 Years of Photography," so that was quite a few years ago. The earliest work in the show was the Talbotype, a rare, early experiment from the 1830s. Early Talbotypes are extremely unstable because they are not "fixed," if one was exposed to bright sunlight, it would be destroyed instantly. So these prints are exhibited rarely, under closely controlled conditions.

At the museum, the Talbotype was exhibited in a special room, all by itself. Viewers were admitted one at a time through an opaque black curtain, then the security guard would make sure the curtain was in place to block any outside light. The room interior was extremely dim, with barely enough light to see clearly. The guard stood next to the print mounted on the wall. It was covered by a thick velvet curtain. The guard explained I would have ten seconds to view the print, he would lift the curtain when I was ready. Ready? Go!

He lifted the curtain, and I saw a small print, about 5x7, a photogram of some curled fern fronds, one of Talbot's favorite subjects. As I strained to see it in the dim light, I could barely make out the most beautiful mottled colors, greens and browns, that added the most beautiful texture across the print. Then suddenly the curtain dropped, oh no, I was really enjoying this, I could have looked for an hour. And then I was ushered out.

I came back an hour later, there was no line of people waiting, I asked if I could look again. I was refused. Only ten seconds per person, ever. And I was probably lucky for that. Since then, most Talbotypes have been permanently withdrawn from exhibition as now it is believed that even these ten-second showings are cumulatively damaging the prints.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:50 PM on June 11, 2010 [4 favorites]

posted by prak at 6:17 PM on June 11, 2010

Awesome post.
posted by nev at 6:21 PM on June 11, 2010


One of my favorite toys as a kid, which I had more or less completely forgotten UNTIL THIS POST was the Sunprint Kit, which develop with water. I think the paper was essentially some sort of blueprint paper.

OH MY GOD it's one of those brain things where you all into hundreds and hundreds of memories you haven't used for so long you forgot you had them. The precise granularity of the paper! The little pane of glass! The varying shades of blue!
posted by mwhybark at 7:08 PM on June 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

charlie don't surf: "As I strained to see it in the dim light, I could barely make out the most beautiful mottled colors, greens and browns, that added the most beautiful texture across the print."

ohhh, dude, that is so awesome. The literal rarest looking experience. It's the ortolan of pictures!
posted by mwhybark at 7:10 PM on June 11, 2010

Leonardo da Vinci and the Shroud of Turin.

I don't know if it's true or not. However, I like the idea of Leonardo with a camera. If anyone could come up with something like this, he could.
posted by SPrintF at 7:37 PM on June 11, 2010

I googled and I still don't quite get the ortolan reference, but whatever.. Actually, the rarest sight would be to look at one of these prints in bright light so you could get a really good look, and you'd see it blacken and fade away before your eyes. There are a few of these early Talbotypes in archives but they are usually stored in total darkness with strict temperature/humidity control, even expert curators are afraid to take them out and look at them.

Anyway, I have been doing photograms like forever, and I figured this might be a good spot to mention the best photogram I ever saw. I've been looking for any reproduction of this image for years, unsuccessfully. So.. sometime around 1975 I attended a seminar by Robert Heinecken, his specialty was photograms. He showed a slide of his photogram of two fried eggs, bacon, orange juice, and coffee, onto Cibachrome (color positive paper). Everything was on glass (including glass cups) and it made the most beautiful white eggs with yellow yolks, diffused but golden reddish rectangles of bacon, a circle of orange and a circle of brown with little shiny caustics from the glasses, all set against a stark black background. And then there were the white outlines of a knife, spoon, and fork. Oh it was beautiful. What a great concept.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:34 PM on June 11, 2010

L'Ortolan (2)

L'Ortolan (1)

charlie don't surf: "Actually, the rarest sight would be to look at one of these prints in bright light so you could get a really good look, and you'd see it blacken and fade away before your eyes."

I would guess that the loss of the image cross-wired my brain with the bizarre idea of blinding your meal before eating it. My expression of excitement and admiration and envy was NOT intended to tie the viewing to, like, animal cruelty.
posted by mwhybark at 10:18 PM on June 11, 2010

I knew I'd put my hand on it:

The Last Meal, by Michael Paterniti, Esquire, May 1, 1998. l'Ortolan (0).
posted by mwhybark at 10:24 PM on June 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Don't forget Adam Fuss.
posted by Drab_Parts at 6:00 AM on June 12, 2010

Okay, let's not beat each other's metaphors to death, I don't see any analogy to animal cruelty and I certainly didn't mean any.

I'm just saying that I feel like one of the few people on earth to have seen that image, while ironically, it is probably the single most-viewed Talbotype, due to that exhibit. I merely mused about the chances of me ever seeing one under conditions that I'd be able to fully experience the richness of the print, which would mean I would be the last person to ever see it.

I mean, if you really want a rare, singular viewing experience, I just had one. I made a little drawing on a scrap of paper, then tore it up and threw it away. I'm the only person who will ever see it. That's not terribly important. The thing is, these Talbotypes ARE important, should be seen, and cannot be seen. Their very importance and the demands of an interested audience would destroy them. At this point, they are almost a postmodern artwork, a image that is destroyed by looking at it.
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:48 AM on June 12, 2010

Early Talbotypes are extremely unstable because they are not "fixed,"

Talbot's early experiments (he wasn't the first to do this btw) were what he called photogenic drawings which aren't the same as his later invention, the Calotype Process which uses gallic acid. And he did fix them, but the chemicals used left something to be desired. Talbot rinsed the prints in either a strong solution of salt or, potasssium iodide (IIRC) which made them "permanent". The problem is salt doesn't do a very good job of removing the unexposed silver chloride leaving it on the surface to be further exposed. Potassium iodide, otoh, would make the print more light sensitive. Either way, both are a bad idea if you want the image to last and, which is why all those special light conditions to view them are necessary.

At this point, they are almost a postmodern artwork, a image that is destroyed by looking at it.

I think the Impossible Project calls that Fade to Black ...

(I'll let myself out ...)
posted by squeak at 2:55 PM on June 12, 2010

Ooh, lately I've been making some photograms in a color darkroom, abstracts with lines and circles. It's so fun. I don't have many digital images of them yet (they're 16"x20" and 11"x14", too big for my scanner ... I guess I'll take digital photos of them to put them on the Web soon).

I've used a color darkroom for about a decade, printing images from film. It's a dying art; even for photographers who still shoot on film, by far the most common method of making prints these days is to get a good scan of the neg and do a digital print. I actually haven't made a color print in a darkroom in over a year, though I've got a backlog of negatives. But a traditional color darkroom is a fun place once you get how it works. I love making photograms there, images that truly couldn't be made anywhere else.

(Well, they're on Fuji Crystal Archive paper, the same paper that's used to make digital C-prints ... I suppose I could painstakingly Photoshop images that look identical to my photograms and print them out, and the end product would look the same. But but ... it's the process that counts, right?)
posted by lisa g at 9:54 PM on June 12, 2010

Well I knew some weisenheimer would go into the photochemistry details. Since that's my particular specialty, I decided I would be boring people to death to go off on that tangent.

Yes, squeak, you are correct. Let me rephrase what I said, Talbot tried to fix his early prints, but was only partially successful, so essentially they are not fixed. The prints would have to be stable to be considered fixed. Or at least that is how I would explain it, being a photochem geek and archivalist. You can see why I didn't go there.
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:59 AM on June 13, 2010

You can see why I didn't go there.

Actually I can't, because its intriguing to think that Talbots efforts to preserve his work would lead to their eventual destruction along with the cumulative effects of viewing them. Bit of a head scratcher as to why he thought adding more salt to the mix would make his efforts permanent. I'm probably in the minority on this one, but I don't find the mechanics of why that is boring at all. Early photographic processes and, the chemistry behind them fascinate me.
posted by squeak at 9:45 AM on June 13, 2010

Well I didn't go there because this Metafilter and not The Journal of Antique Photochemistry and Archivalism. You know how photogs get when they talk tech, it can suck the air right out of a room. But yeah, between specialists, this is a very interesting issue.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:38 PM on June 13, 2010

I think you missed my point, I can't (on a personal level) understand. Sure, I get it on a larger scale, but that hasn't stopped anyone from doing it here before or, that some didn't find it interesting. I think it's one of MeFi's strengths that people do at times get overly technical and bogged down in details. There are lot of smart people here, I've learned a thing or two 'cause of it ... I'm richer for it.
posted by squeak at 6:59 PM on June 13, 2010

Alright, I'm still new here, after some initial turbulence I am a little hesitant to let it rip. I kind of did already in this post, I just didn't feel like a long digression into arcane photochemistry. Yeah, I am always surprised at the level of expertise I find on MeFi (or even interest in arcane expertise). Well, I suppose I will get comfortable with this eventually. Thanks for your comments.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:11 PM on June 13, 2010

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