Photo Essays

Photography Without Negatives

Anonymous, Boxers (c.1880), tintype
Anonymous, Boxers (c.1880), tintype (all images courtesy the Michael Hoppen Gallery unless otherwise noted)

Photography, which has been in existence for roughly 175 years, is now an everyman’s medium. The 1888 Kodak #1 camera first made the art form broadly accessible; the iPhone has now turned everyone technically proficient. But before Kodak, and long before Apple, photography was a laborious endeavor. Negativeless, a recent show at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London, presented early, pre-negative photography alongside the work of contemporary artists who, harkening back to the medium’s beginnings, also work sans negatives.

Richard Learoyd, "Large Flamingo" (2014), unique camera obscura Ilfochrome photograph (© Richard Learoyd) (click to enlarge)
Richard Learoyd, “Large Flamingo” (2014), unique camera obscura Ilfochrome photograph (© Richard Learoyd) (click to enlarge)

Richard Learoyd uses a room-sized camera obscura. His subject remains in the room next door, and a lens transports the image from one room to the next and onto light-sensitive paper. Learoyd’s practice incorporates 20th-century photographic paper technology, which allows him to capture images in splendid hues. The end results are hyperreal, almost uncanny. At first glance, his color photographs might be mistaken for photorealist paintings.

Sean Culver explores the process of daguerreotype. Invented by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in 1839 and often cited as the first true photographic technology, the daguerreotype uses a camera to subject a silver-coated, iodized copper plate to light, creating a photographic image. Culver often shoots abstract scenes; he has a contemporary approach to subject and composition, unlike the practitioners of early photographic methods, who were often concerned with portraiture, documentation, and scientific knowledge. His piece “Presence Series: Gift” evokes both the camera’s ability to capture the uncanny and the rigid compositional boundaries of a photo’s borders.

The other contemporary artists in the show take different approaches. Adam Fuss works with the daguerreotype as well as the photogram, a camera-less technique in which objects are placed between a light source and light-sensitive paper or other material; depending on the object’s transparency, the resulting image may highlight just an outline or fully capture the object’s insides. Tif Hunter, meanwhile, makes tintypes, a cousin of the daguerreotype created by using a camera to expose an enamel or lacquer-coated iron sheet.

The practice of digital photography may represent a lessening of craft, the birth of new skills, or both simultaneously. Contemporary negativeless photographic practice suggests that debate is too simplistic — the history of the medium needn’t disappear in the wake of new technology, nor does the use of old technology necessitate an abandonment of contemporary subjects.

Anonymous portrait of a woman and child outside house (c. 1885), ambrotype
Anonymous portrait of a woman and child outside house (c. 1885), ambrotype
Anonymous portrait of a woman (c. 1830), daguerreotype
Anonymous portrait of a woman (c. 1830), daguerreotype
Anonymous portrait of a woman? (c. 1835), daguerreotype
Anonymous portrait of a woman? (c. 1835), daguerreotype
Unknown photographer, Owl and its Prey, Still Life (1850), stereoscopic daguerreotype
Unknown photographer, Owl and its Prey, Still Life (1850), stereoscopic daguerreotype
Richard Learoyd, "Jasmijn" (2011), camera obscura Ilfochrome photograph, 58 x 48 in (image, sheet & mount), shown at Paris Photo (© Richard Learoyd, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)
Richard Learoyd, “Jasmijn” (2011), camera obscura Ilfochrome photograph, 58 x 48 in (image, sheet & mount), shown at Paris Photo (© Richard Learoyd, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)
Richard Learoyd, "Nancy flowered dress" (2011), camera obscura Ilfochrome photograph 58 x 48 in (image, sheet & mount), shown at Paris Photo (© Richard Learoyd, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)
Richard Learoyd, “Nancy flowered dress” (2011), camera obscura Ilfochrome photograph, 58 x 48 in (image, sheet & mount), shown at Paris Photo (© Richard Learoyd, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)
Sean Culver, "Presence Series: Gift" (2006), gilded mercurial daguerreotype (© Sean Culver)
Sean Culver, “Presence Series: Gift” (2006), gilded mercurial daguerreotype (© Sean Culver)
Tif Hunter, "Rochambeau" (2014), tintype object (© Tif Hunter)
Tif Hunter, “Rochambeau” (2014), tintype object (© Tif Hunter)

Negativeless was at the Michael Hoppen Gallery (3 Jubilee Place, London) from September 19 through October 24.

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