Photograms at the Alt-Photo Festival

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…

First photogram - layers of leaves

First photogram – layers of leaves

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!

Second photogram - an image of halves

Second photogram – an image of halves

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:

Third photogram - Karine Polwart, "Hole in the heart"

Third photogram – Karine Polwart, “Hole in the heart”

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):

Fourth photogram - delicate leaves

Fourth photogram – delicate leaves

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:

Fifth photogram - a bunch of flowers

Fifth photogram – a bunch of flowers

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…!

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2 thoughts on “Photograms at the Alt-Photo Festival

  1. Lucy Telford

    Hi Michael,

    Really pleased that you went along AND that you enjoyed the festival/exhibition AND that you had a go at making some photograms. Thanks very much for the mention and the kind words too!

    I think you are spot on about one of the big pluses of this process being its simplicity – yes, there is no gear to get in the way or worry about. There is only you, your paper, your objects and your imagination… In some ways this is also the challenge – one has to actively create or make a photogram, it does not present itself as a ready-made scene. As you so rightly say – a pre-visualisation of a concept is needed to make something a little more thought-provoking than plant and flower images (which many photograms/lumen prints etc are). I’m also experimenting at the moment with encompassing the fact that, once scanned, an unfixed print disappears – I am incorporating that into my work as part of the whole conceit. I’m all for working with rather than against a process…or maybe I’m just lazy! 😉

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      I don’t ever think of you as a lazy photographer, Lucy! I look forward to seeing what you continue to come up with. Thanks for reading & commenting…

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