The essence of photography lies in its seemingly magical ability to fix shadows on light-sensitive surfaces. Normally, this requires a camera. Shadow Catchers, however, presents the work of five international contemporary artists – Floris Neusüss, Pierre Cordier, Susan Derges, Garry Fabian Miller and Adam Fuss – who work without a camera. Instead, they create images on photographic paper by casting shadows and manipulating light, or by chemically treating the surface of the paper.
Images made with a camera imply a documentary role. In contrast, camera-less photographs show what has never really existed. They are also always ‘an original’ because they are not made from a negative. Encountered as fragments, traces, signs, memories or dreams, they leave room for the imagination, transforming the world of objects into a world of visions.
Floris Neusüss has dedicated his whole career to extending the practice, study and teaching of the photogram. Alongside his work as an artist, he is known as an influential writer and teacher on camera-less photography.
Neusüss brought renewed ambition to the photogram process, in both scale and visual treatment, with the Körperfotogramms (or whole-body photograms) that he first exhibited in the 1960s. Since that time, he has consistently explored the photogram’s numerous technical, conceptual and visual possibilities.
His works often deal in opposites: black and white, shadow and light, movement and stillness, presence and absence, and in the translation of three dimensions into two. By removing objects from their physical context, Neusüss encourages the viewer to contemplate the essence of form. He creates a feeling of surreal detachment, a sense of disengagement from time and the physical world. Collectively, his images explore themes of mythology, history, nature and the subconscious.
Pierre Cordier discovered the ‘chemigram’ process in 1956. Over many years, he has explored the potential of the chemigram like an experimental scientist.
Working more like a painter or printmaker than a photographer, Cordier replaces the canvas or printing plate with photographic paper. He applies photographic developer to the paper to create dark areas and fixer for lighter tones. Further changes to shape and pattern are made by ‘localising’ products such as varnish, wax, glue, oil, egg and syrup. These protect the surface of the photographic emulsion or can be incised to create a drawing, graphic motif or written text. Entrancing chemical and physical reactions can then be made by repeatedly dipping the paper in photographic developer and fixer.
This method allows him to create images impossible to realise by any other means. The process has become the artwork and his style is his technique.
In 1984 Garry Fabian Miller discovered a method of using a photographic enlarger that allowed a direct translation between plants and the photographic print. Later, in 1992, he turned to making abstract images in the darkroom, using only glass vessels filled with liquids, or cut-paper forms to cast shadows and filter light.
Many of his works explore the cycle of time over a day, month or year, through controlled experiments with varying durations of light exposure. His works are enriched by being seen in sequences that explore and develop a single motif and colour range. Often, the images are conceived as remembered landscapes and natural light phenomena.
At the heart of Fabian Miller’s vision is a belief in the contemplative existence of the artist, whose practice and life outside metropolitan culture are intertwined. The works he creates are simple, yet multi-layered – tranquil yet energised.
Susan Derges studied painting at Chelsea School of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art, London. She then lived in Japan for six years, before returning to the UK in 1986. Her images reveal the hidden forces of nature, from the patterns of sound waves to the flow of rivers.
During the 1990s, Derges became well known for her photograms of water. To make these works, she used the landscape at night as her darkroom, submerging large sheets of photographic paper in rivers and using the moon and flashlight to create the exposure.
Within seeming chaos, Derges conveys a sense of wonder at the underlying orderliness. She examines the threshold between two interconnected worlds: an internal, imaginative or contemplative space and the external, dynamic, magical world of nature. Her works can be seen as alchemical, transformative acts that test the threshold between matter and spirit.
Adam Fuss grew up moving between rural Sussex in the South of England and Australia before settling to work in New York in 1982. He made his first photogram in 1986.
His work concerns the discovery of the unseen: it deals with time and energy rather than material form. As well as mastering numerous historic and modern photographic techniques, Fuss has developed an array of symbolic or emblematic motifs.
Drawing upon his childhood memories and personal experiences, his works are conceived as visual elegies centred around the universal themes of life and death. Through outward sensory vision, they explore metaphysical ideas of non-sensory insight.
On the uni trip to London I decided to go see this exhibition at the V and A because I was interested to see the different techniques the photographers used to achieve their images. I did enjoy some of the work, such as Susan Derges images of the flow of a river. But what distanced me, as a photographer, from the exhibition was how somebody else had come up with meanings for the images and displayed this with the picture. No longer, it seems, is photography about taking a good image, there has to be some complex meaning behind it. I really dislike being told what an image is about, especially if it involves religion death or something hardly beliveable. Adam Fuss’ image of a baby called ‘Invocation’ really highlights what I mean, as he chose the title to mean an earnest appeal or prayer. I did not know the meaning of the word until I looked it up after the exhibition, I didn’t think the image was religious or showing anything else except a baby on a plate of glass. But the long winded description beside the image changed my view of it, and this made me dislike the image. This happened to a lot of the images in the exhibition, if there had only been the title of the images with them I would have enjoyed it a lot more.