Henry Fox Talbot, Botanical Specimen, 1839, "Photogenic drawing"


You may have experimented with a relative of photograms if you have made "sun prints" using blue architect's paper which, when exposed to the sun, turns white. Perhaps you laid leaves across it, put down your hand, or created a composition with kitchen objects before exposing it to the sun and developing it in the kitchen sink using running water. A photogram is a photographic image made without a camera, by placing objects on a light sensitive surface (photographic paper or sheet film) that is exposed to light. The forms block the light, leaving white or gray imprints, like shadows, on the paper or film when it is developed. Opaque objects leave white areas because no light gets through them; translucent objects leave shades of gray.

Photograms are a good way to teach composition, shape, and value. They can be made with a sheet of photographic paper (please use quarter sheets in this class), with objects put on top. The sheet and objects are arranged under the enlarger and exposed for about 30 seconds with a wide aperture (e.g. f 5.6 or wider). The paper is then developed according to normal procedures. Photograms are one-of-a-kind prints, because once the objects are removed from the paper, that particular arrangement is gone. Photograms invite experimentation with different objects and techniques. Using a flashlight, for example, would give very different lighting than the enlarger. Liquids on glass (cliché verre), cellophane, coal pitch, chemical salts on glass ("crystallography"), and moving beams of light have all be experimented with to create different effects.

A word of caution: at this beginning stage (and with our low level of funding), photograms should be pre-planned. Decide what you want to teach using phtograms and have students plan their compositons ahead. Because sheet film is much more light sensitive and is more expensive, it is generally not used with beginning students.

Photograms have borne a number of names. Henry Talbot made "photogenic drawings" in the 19th century. Christian Schad, a German artist, made "Schadographs" after World War I. He exposed chance arrangements of found objects and waste materials (such as torn tickets, receipts, and rags) on photographic film. U.S. artist Man Ray undertook similar experiments, which he called "Rayographs," that were effected by arranging translucent and opaque materials on photographic paper. Lucia Moholy and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy's cameraless images bore the name that we most often use now with this class of images, "Photograms." They were interested in photography as a medium of light and form, not sentiments or personal feelings that are the concerns of other art forms. Lotte Jacobi called her lyrical abstractions, made in the 1940s and 1950s, "photogenics." *

Christian Schad, Schadograph, 1918

Man Ray, Untitled (Wire Spiral and Smoke), 1923 [a Rayograph]

Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Photogram, n.d.

Lotte Jacobi, Photogenic, c. 1940s-1950s


* Naomi Rosenblum, author of A World History of Photography

Page location: http://www.arts.arizona.edu/are476/Davis/files/fotogr.htm

Page updated: 13 November, 2001