This exhibition contends that while the conventional camera has constrained the photographer to look into a viewfinder and gaze out at the world, the camera-less photographer has been freed to gaze within. Shadow Catchers brings together five of the most prominent practitioners of camera-less photography: Floris Neüsuss, Pierre Cordier, Garry Fabian Miller, Susan Derges and Adam Fuss.
The exhibition, which comprises some 75 images and a video installation, elucidates the underlying philosophy and intriguing aspirations of its protagonists, who have all worked with the medium for at least 20 years. Shadow Catchers then, can be seen as a forceful argument for the relevance of this marginalised practice, particularly as one that holds the promise of opening new channels of visual expression.
Miller epitomises this attitude; by shining light directly onto photographic paper, with coloured glass or liquid placed in between, he creates images of luminous colours. Susan Derges’ series of landscapes is constructed using direct digital scans and dye destruction prints, assembled together digitally. The technique accomplishes an uncanny comingling of the observation of the real with a private imagination. Framed in arches, they are pervaded by a fairy-tale ambience, of the Grimm kind. Derges’ and Fuss’ works in particular, are suffused with a spiritual sensibility. Though Fuss can be more overtly symbolic: his photogram of a snake swims up towards the heavens.
Camera-less photographers argue that there is an authenticity to their works. According to Derges, ‘working directly, without camera…offers an opportunity to bridge the divide between self and other.’ In theory, it circumvents the criticism that the camera forces us into a voyeuristic position, and hence a superficial view of the world. Of the processes used here, the photogram and chemigram involve the direct contact between what is depicted and the photographic paper. The contact, which can last days, records traces of existence much more intimately than the remote, split-second gaze of the camera.
There are problems with this argument. In order to appreciate the works fully, the process must be known by the viewer; they do not stand alone. Additionally, this direct translation has restricted the medium to subject matters of a certain scale. Neüsuss’ photogram recreation of William Henry Fox Talbot’s pioneering negative exposure image of a window is already quite a large-scale piece, which suggests the need to formulate new approaches should the medium wish to engage with, say, architecture and urbanism.
What makes camera-less photography exciting is that it is in a hyperactive state of experimentation and the way it stands as an antithesis to the documentary strand of camera photography. As illustrations of such a compelling theory however, these images appear underwhelming. Miller’s minimalist abstracts lack both the depth and the brilliance of paint pigments. The shadows caught in the net of photograms have little visual complexity. But, as Borges said of beauty: ‘epigones, those who frequent already lyricised themes, usually achieve it; innovators, almost never.’ This is not to say that the images in this exhibition are not beautiful and enchanting – they are – but a masterpiece of camera-less photography has yet to appear.