Paul Brobbel. Len Lye Curator
15 Apr 2020
We continue our regular feature, with a weekly pick of an artist, artwork, exhibition or publication by a member of the Govett-Brewster curatorial team.
This week, Len Lye Curator Paul Brobbel discusses how he has been using the time during lockdown to investigate the technique of cameraless photography used by Len Lye, and highlights some of the artworks, both by Lye and others, that have caught his attention.
Right now, as we’re working from home during the Covid19 lockdown, I’m working on research around Len Lye’s cameraless photography. It’s not a well-known body of work but one that I find fascinating, particularly since Lye is more familiar to audiences for his films and sculpture.
The idea of a cameraless photograph is challenging for many people. We see photographs every day in a vast number of ways. Even in the unlikely event that we’ve never made a photograph ourselves, we know exactly how photographs come to be.
The technical apparatus behind “taking” a photograph is taken for granted. Yet it pays to consider that photography exists with or without the use of a camera and its name can tell us as much. It’s simply, “drawing with light”. A camera lens is one particular tool that artists use but others do so without.
In Lye’s example, he arranged objects on top of light sensitive paper in a dark room and then “burnt” their silhouette into the paper, when exposing the arrangement to light. When removed, solid objects would render the paper below unchanged while more translucent objects would give dark tones. Parts of the paper not covered with an item would receive the most light and be darkest.
Generally called a “photogram”, this is a technique that reduces photography to some of its most basic principles. In the hands of artists, it can be a wonderfully potent way of making images.
Two of Lye’s “shadowgraphs” (his preferred term for photograms) appeared in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London alongside works by Max Ernst, René Magritte, Man Ray and Pablo Picasso.
Later, in New York in 1947, Lye made portraits of friends and acquaintances by having them lay down with their head in profile on a piece of photosensitive paper. He created an image of their profile on paper which could be used again as a negative in order to make a further print of the portrait (with the tone and orientation of the sitter now reversed). Each time he used one image to make another, he would introduce other objects (such as leaves or fabric) to add new layers of imagery.
The portrait of Lye’s colleague and filmmaker Roy Lockwood is one of my favourites. You can see that a simple silhouette of Lockwood has been patterned on the interior with the impression of a textile featuring a medieval jousting scene. The border on the image is made from pages of The New York Times.
To create this, Lye would have used a basic photogram outline of Lockwood’s head along with a piece of fabric and pages of the newspaper to assemble a collage on top of a piece of unexposed photograph paper and captured all these layers together in a final exposure.
Contemporary artists working with cameraless methods show us how varied this realm of photography can be. I’m thinking of US-based artists Madge Evers working with the effects of mushroom spores on photosensitive paper or Robert Buelteman, who uses electrical currents to record the image of plants rather than traditional light sources.
Within Aotearoa, I’ve been recently drawn to works by Wellington artist Poppy Lekner. One of Lekner’s photographs, Shattered Form Study (2017), is similar in its creation to the Len Lye photographs mentioned.
Here, we have a dark plane strewn with what looks like small rocks. You can’t be sure exactly what the material is but the dark areas in the objects tell us the material is translucent. It might be glass, crystal, or even ice.
For me, the trick to appreciating Lekner’s image is in the truths that this type of photograph tells. The light that made the image has travelled through these objects and reached the paper to record an impression of an object similar to an X-ray. It’s a quick example to suggest that what might be considered a technique obscuring reality, is a rich and different view of reality.
One of my favourite Lekner’s photographs is Morning Light from her Chromogenics Series (2019). All the examples shown here are a challenge when you think about how they were made or what you are seeing but knowing a little about the techniques involved, you can work a great deal out. Morning Light leaves me wanting. I know there’s much more to understand about this photograph. I’m tempted to ask the artist more information but for now I’ll ruminate on what I know.
The first time I saw this work (on Instagram) I only registered the image, bold fields of colour that made me think of painting more than photography. The image tricked me into thinking on a larger scale but I now know the photograph is small. It’s an instant camera format (a Polaroid or Fuji format), so about the size of your palm. I now know too, that in Lekner’s exhibitions, these instant camera works are presented in boxes for the audience to unpack and handle as they view.
That seems an unusual way for an exhibition to present artworks but photography has a history of being tactile and hand-held. We carry photographs in our wallets, in lockets and even now, close to hand on our phones.
Knowing Morning Light involves an instant format process, I have to pause and wonder if Lekner is still working cameralessly. Was the image here composed in front of a lens or is the artist exploring a process of making images within the technology of instant cameras?
It’s certainly the latter but I only have suspicions as to how and I’m not going to ask. Photography goes hand in hand with science but there’s also a little bit of alchemy associated with capturing light, especially when you can hold it in your hands.
View Poppy Lekner’s photography on Photoforum and follow her on Instagram @poppylekner.
Further reading @ Govett-Brewster Shop:
Shadowgraphs - a complete account of Len Lye’s cameraless photography
(published by the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery)