Photography serves as a way of documenting, understanding, and interpreting the world. Generally, this requires a camera, but not always.
In the early development of photography, the camera was secondary to the discovery of photosensitive materials. A scientific approach turned art form, cameraless photography continued to evolve into a medium of the 20th century avant-garde movement. Today, it endures in contemporary art practices.
The premise of ‘Antipodean emanations: cameraless photographs from Australia and New Zealand’ is implicit in its title; showcasing over 80 photograms by over 30 Australian and New Zealand artists who push boundaries through experimentation, revealing the elemental properties of the photographic process. Bypassing the refraction of light through a lens, in preference of chemically manipulating the surface of photographic paper results in visually powerful imagery – often with surreal, abstract effects and allusive content.
Curated by Stella Loftus-Hills, ‘Antipodean emanations’ presents works by 20th century luminaries such as Max Dupain, Olive Cotton and Len Lye, as well as contemporary artists including Danica Chappell, Gavin Hipkins, Anne Noble and Justine Varga. Their works – many exhibited in Australia for the first time – range from the 1930s to present, encompassing processes that pare back the medium of photography from chemical-based techniques to images produced with photocopiers and digital scanners.
Influenced by Man Ray’s photograms, or ‘Rayograms’, New Zealand artist Len Lye (1901-1980) created a series of self-portraits and profile silhouettes of people he knew and admired: Georgia O’Keeffe and Joan Miró, for example. Oblique prints such as Self-portrait (with ‘Night tree’) (1947) conceal their subjects in the tonality of solid, abstract shapes. Here, Lye uses multiple exposures to superimpose two images: the artist’s opaque black profile and that of a tree. The efficacy of Lye’s photograms lies in their process – the individual is required to lay their head on a piece of photographic paper in a darkened room while a light bulb is switched on and off, repeatedly.
Australian artist Katthy Cavaliere (1972-2012) placed a trolley on top of flattened cardboard boxes and filled it with a pile of inflated plastic bags for Study for ‘Untitled home’ 2 (2007), incorporating everyday objects as well as her own presence. Fellow artist Ruth Maddison’s Girt by sea #4 (2003) was created using seaweed from a local beach. The lumen print was subjected to the sun over an extended period of time as the silver gelatin photographic paper gradually changed colour – ghostly remnants of algae are all that remain.
The soft, coral hues of Justine Varga’s Ripe (2016) are a result of the artist tying a piece of unexposed film to a tree branch for over a month. The chromogenic photograph reflects Varga’s interest in time and her need to extend the language of photography to incorporate multiple moments rather than capturing just one. Comparably, Robert Owens used discarded film stubs in Endings (Rothko died today) – Kodachrome 64, No. 21, 26/02/1970 (2009). The work’s saturated, intense colour pays homage to abstract expressionist artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970), as well as a comment on the death of the Kodak era.
In an age of mass-produced imagery, these artists have decided to snub Canon and Nikon DSLR devices for conventional methods in an exploration of photography’s most primal and elemental form. They reinforce the medium as an art practice – on par with painting, sculpture and installation – by focusing on the creative process of image making rather than the final, facsimile product of the lens.
Through new creative means sans-camera, photography reverts to its etymological definition: ‘drawing with light’.
Melissa Pesa is a Sydney-based arts writer.
Monash Gallery of Art (MGA)
Until 27 May, 2018