I had a wonderful time at the Alt-Photo exhibition in the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens yesterday – not only seeing work by Alastair Cook, Alex Boyd, Lucy Telford and others (it is always a delight to see actual prints, rather than just images on a computer screen) – but also having the opportunity to create photograms, something I had never done before. The process of creating a photogram is very simple, but offer great potential to create unusual and conceptually-stimulating images. Kenny Bean, the organiser of the Alt-Photo Festival, led the workshop. Here are my five efforts…
Photograms are a form of camera-less photography: light-sensitive paper has objects placed over it to prevent or change the amount of light that can reach it, and the paper is then subjected to a light, and put through standard developer baths, and washed and dried. And that is all there is to it!
Kenny had 5″x7″ wooden frames for us, with a clear sheet of plastic over the top, and a collection of all kinds of interesting leaves and plants – this was all taking place in the Botanics! – that we could place onto the plastic, along with scissors to manipulate and cut the leaves as we wanted – as you can see, for the second image above I cut half the needles off each little piece. Having arranged the image, the frame was taken through to the darkroom, photographic paper inserted under the plastic, and this was then exposed under an enlarger light. All the images here were exposed for between 6 and 20 seconds. Then the paper goes into the developer (60s), stop bath (10s), fixer (60s), and then washed in a tub of water and left to dry. The key issue here is the length of time that the enlarger is on for: too short and insufficient light gets through the leaves and there is no detail of leaf veins etc., but too long, and it burns through.
Kenny told us that each time we went into or out of the darkroom we were to whistle a tune so that we’d avoid running into people who might be going in the other direction. I can’t whistle, but after the delight of making the first two images and beginning to appreciate the possibilities here, I was cheerfully singing to myself anyway. The song going through my head at this time was Karine Polwart’s Hole in the heart (from her Scribbled in Chalk album), that I’d been listening to in the morning:
This resulted in an obvious kind of image:
I wanted to try something with more fragile leaves, since the first and third exposures had not shown the veins in the leaves in the way I had hoped for (I had guessed the exposures incorrectly):
My fifth image was intended to be a representation of a simple bunch of flowers, trying out something with the fine needles to see if I could use them as I wanted for my final image, which would be a bit more intricate:
That worked just the way I wanted – but I didn’t manage to actually create my final image because I ran out of time. This means I have a great excuse to get do more with photograms at some point! 🙂
Why is this process so wonderful? I had great fun, but after an hour practising in a workshop I don’t think I’m really qualified to answer this question. However, I am really struck by the fact that the process is so simple, and therefore it doesn’t get in the way of creativity. It is sort of obvious to use leaves to create images, and a quick online search turns up lots of photograms a bit like my fourth image here. That’s lovely, but just like the ‘arty’ Lensbaby blurs of flowers, a bit boring after one has seen the first few. The challenge with this process is very obviously in the pre-visualisation of something new, something that speaks of a wider concern or interpretative need, something that other photographic processes can’t achieve, for whatever reason. If you want to look at some rather amazing examples of what I mean, take some time for Lucy Telford’s photograms: she is creating really thought-provoking and emotional images (in colour too – apparently that’s even more difficult!).
Finally, if you haven’t previously been to the Alt-Photo Festival, make sure you go (if not this year, then next…). All the developer and paper used were provided by those lovely people at Ilford – now I’m off to look up their website and think about what I might need to order!
PS the promised blog posting on the privatisation of modernity in contemporary photography really is coming, once it’s been completed and shortened a bit…!