That five billion digital photographs are taken every day lies beyond comprehension. Worldwide, smart phone and web users often experience images in manic, Koyaanisqatsi-style scrolls in which each picture barely registers. Photography before the twenty-first century, with its physicality and relative slowness, seems alien and barely relatable to this onslaught. Like so many historic mass media that include engraving, letterpress, and lithography, chemical-process photography, often referred to today as “alternative-process-” or “alt-” photography, has become either elevated or relegated to use in the fine arts. The works assembled in the exhibition Direct Contact: Cameraless Photography Now heighten this alternative quality: they are not only anachronistic but with their conspicuous haptic qualities, they challenge expectations about pre-digital photographic prints. With approximately fifty works, the museum’s curator of photography, Lauren Richman, filled the exhibition space, and the show invited meaningful contemplation about, and comparison among, these diverse objects. Each work comes across as peculiar and a bit of a mystery; the exploratory technical processes require viewers to decelerate and ask not only how the pieces came to be, but what messages lie in these untraditional uses of historic media.
There is always something a bit perverse about cameraless photography that defies lens-based imaging. The best-known examples reference experimentation and subversion of lens-generated pictures. While photograms, notably those by Henry Fox Talbot and Anna Atkins, are as old as photography itself, this technique had its heyday during the twentieth-century interbellum. Made in a time when Dada was giving way to surrealism, Man Ray’s “rayographs” (which he invented in 1922) seem suitably irreverent, random, and absurd, but also dreamlike, evocative, and indeterminate. László Moholy-Nagy’s “fotogramok” (1922–43) have these same qualities but embody the Bauhaus’s (and New Bauhaus’s) revolutionary search for alternative imaging as well as the pedagogies that fostered experimentation. Adam Fuss revitalized photograms in the 1990s, updating them by taking advantage of the juicy, large-scale prints typical of the time to show larger subjects and give presence to his cameraless experiments. These artists’ technical and attitudinal genes are found throughout Direct Contact. Present but not prevalent, the shadowy photogram forms one might expect from a show of cameraless photography comprise about one-third of the works. A preponderance of the objects results from astonishing experimentation with light, film, sun bleaching, photosensitive chemicals, and supporting materials.
It is not surprising that an exhibition averring that photography made without a camera is a global practice has many more-and-less obvious identity expressions throughout. Among the exhibition’s more intimate works, Brent Meistre’s Casspir Window (2017) invites viewers to witness constellations of cracks and bullet holes from a photogram of the small (actual size) portholes of the Casspir military vehicle that became a symbol of the oppressive South African apartheid state. Reading as an X-ray, the image appears to plumb the thick glass and sets its violent deformities in high contrast.
In Náhookos Biko’ I (Northern Fire, 2022), Dakota Mace offers chemigrams of painted developer and fixer that make each of her photographic objects unique. She heightens the photograph’s physicality by attaching designs of red glass beads atop the achromatic liquid forms. In one object, five vertical strands contrast the photographic organicism. In a second, beads reify and augment an eight-pointed star motif purposefully included in the emulsion. Mace’s greater practice includes both photography and beaded textiles, and in these objects that are part of a series, she seems to direct the viewer’s attention to isolated Diné motifs so they may be seen for themselves as parts of a cosmological visual language and not merely as decoration.
In contrast to pervasive digital imagery that can appear as pure image, tactility reigned in this exhibition. The physical predominated with the image’s absence, and most works were further folded, rolled, unframed, or installed. Stephanie Seufert’s architectonic Towers (Atlas Grey, Dark Aubergine, Just-Yellow) (2016/2021), a group of five pinched prisms (the tallest nearly a meter high) made of Fuji color glossy paper, anchor the show in the gallery’s center. Each of the Towers’ folded facets have been exposed to light to create varied tones. With their sculptural novelty, scale, and geometric abstraction, they’re fitting artifacts of constructivist experimentation.
Many of the show’s large-scale pieces often first read more as paintings than photographs, especially because of their high-key colors and abstract forms. With its intense blues, and thirteen-foot width, Roberto Huarcaya’s Sea and Garbage (Mary Basura I) (2019), from his Océanos series (2019), exemplifies such misconstrual. Further blurring the painting/photography distinction, Nikolai Ishchuk’s architectoric Arcadia (3) (2018) combines gelatin silver prints, oil stick, and a sensual deep-blue cyanotype field. Orange Skylight (6 Month Exposure) by Chris Duncan (2016) likewise posits a field of orange acrylic paint atop the subtle value shifts of sunburned fabric to create ambiguous illusionistic space.
A key point of tension in this exhibition is that photography is usually understood to be objective at the simplest level of recording light conditions; the selections here communicate degrees of abstraction or challenge this assumption altogether. Farrah Karapetian’s Distress: Day I (2017) embodies the pole of representation with its immediately recognizable (if distorted and value inverted) photogram evocative of Robert Mapplethorpe’s tattered, backlit, black-and-white American Flag (1977). The opposing nonobjective pole is exemplified by Ellen Carey’s colorful Caesura (2016), which captures exposures of bent, creased, and crumpled photographic paper to color-filtered light, a conceptual undertaking she calls “photography degree zero”—uncoupling photography from representation. An alternative approach to cameraless photography works outside of this light-recording continuum. Works from Daisuke Yokota’s Color Photographs series such as Untitled (2015) come from chemical manipulations that include pouring boiling water on color film, which result in an otherworldly confluence of high-chroma atmospheres and biomorphs.
There are quite a few works that seem (Clement) Greenbergian in their reflexive references to photographic processes and materials, whether considering the feats of masking, dodging, filtering, and exposing in Mariah Robertson’s brilliantly hued 150 131 (2020) or the wet plate collodion “painting” by Nadezda Nikolova in Elemental Forms: Landscape no. 100 (2019). The show’s curator acknowledges an important impetus for this exhibition, the Eskenazi Museum’s holdings of former Indiana University (IU) professor Henry Holmes Smith’s abstract and experimental photography. Smith worked with Moholy-Nagy at the New Bauhaus and continued his own photogramic experiments at IU using transmissive materials such as glass, crinkled cellophane, and corn syrup. Smith’s Untitled (1975) dye transfer was fittingly situated at the exhibition’s entrance. Such pieces can be appreciated for their formal beauty and process as concept, but the exhibition’s best works pulled together process, conceptual intent, and materiality to say something more about photography itself.
One of the exhibition’s standout works, Matriarchal Line (2018) by Jillian Marie Browning, rewrites cyanotypes to convey issues about identity. Browning, who incorporates photography within much of her practice, heightens the photogram’s physicality in this installation by situating thirty of them on cotton fabric stretched within embroidery hoops. Within each hoop, white lines—organic, sinuous, and clustered—interrupt the cyan fields, the inverse shadows of Afro-textured hair from Browning, and from her sisters and mother. The aggregate curls comprise matriarchal lines but so do their allusions to the helixes arranging genetic code—a contemporary biochemical construct that forms an understanding of identity and familial relationships. From a distance, the hoops read as petri dishes or a microscope’s circular images. The curls become surrogate threads embedded into the cloth but not stitched—they nevertheless reference another matrilineage—the passing down of domestic skills including the textile crafts often associated with femininity. The installation marks a continuity and a difference—the perseverance of marginalized visual and material artforms, and the changing socio-politics at last fostering recognition of African American artists.
Sungazing Scroll (2022) by Kei Ito makes a photographic record of a fundamental human process—breathing—that is an assertion of life in the face of nuclear annihilation. Ito connects his grandfather’s witnessing of the horrors of Hiroshima with the present specter of atomic warfare, and his work is a ritualistic cleansing, per the 108 bell tolls marking the new year in Japanese Buddhism, of humankind’s worst instincts. Ito speaks of this work as a performance in which he exposes a roll of photosensitive paper to a small, sunlit aperture. He repeatedly pulls, 108 times, on the long roll and breathes onto the paper, yielding irregular black dots and dashes situated within halos of orange and yellow. The physical artwork is a remnant of this performative act and the abstraction leaves room for many associations including strands of prayer beads, mushroom clouds, or the horrific (and yes, cameraless photographic) shadows of vaporized people.
Richman organized the exhibition by themes: Age, Scale, Form, Texture, and Value. While the categorizations make sense, for instance having works with tactile crumples, beads, and stitches under the “texture” rubric, the themes seemed more points of departure for contemplating objects across the entire show—as textures, say of photocollages or curled paper, showed up in other groupings.
An exhibition with this scope takes years to plan and execute, so it could not have been curator Richman’s intent, but this show arrived at the advent of another form of cameraless depictions generated by artificial intelligences. Direct Contact took stock, before an imminent imaging revolution, of work made in a particular situation where chemical processes in commercial and vernacular photography are a not-so-distant memory and artists explore them for aesthetic and conceptual possibilities.