Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s 1826 or ’27 view from his window in France is the earliest known photograph taken with a camera, but it wasn’t even his first photograph. Collaborating with his brother Claude, he started experimenting with photography in 1816, exposing images on paper soaked in silver chloride. Yet this earlier work, and much of the 19th century’s cameraless photography, remains a footnote to the history of the medium.
Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph, recently published by Prestel/Delmonico Books, coincides with an exhibition of the same name at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, New Zealand. The exhibition in particular highlights the midcentury work of New Zealander Len Lye, but the book is a broader, global look at cameraless photography, with around 160 photographs and a thorough essay by curator Geoffrey Batchen.
“Histories of photography have traditionally favored camera-made pictures, almost always beginning with accounts of the camera obscura and with efforts to capture automatically the images seen in it,” writes Batchen. “Cameraless photographs are treated as second-class citizens in such histories, with Nicéphore Niépce’s view from his studio window regularly touted as the earliest extant photograph, despite the fact that there exist earlier photographic prints made by this same inventor.”
The extensive essay can be a little academic for lay readers — Batchen is a professor of art history at Victoria University of Wellington — but it’s an excellent overview of how the camera was secondary to the discovery of photo-sensitive materials in the early development of photography, and how cameraless photography continued to evolve into a medium of the 20th-century avant-garde and endures in contemporary art. Batchen emphasizes that in “rejecting the camera, such photographs also reject humanist perspective, rationalized space, three-dimensional illusion, documentary truth, temporal fixity.”
Stepping back to the 19th century, cameraless photography was often a scientific tool rather than a deliberate disruption of perspective, with practitioners seeking to visualize some truths about the world. Anna Atkins created the first photography book with cyanotypes that showed the shape of algae, something difficult to relay in drawings or specimens. William Henry Fox Talbot took contact prints of lace, but was especially drawn to natural specimens with his “photogenic drawings,” both of which were included in his 1845 publication The Pencil of Nature. August Strindberg less successfully exposed plates to the night sky in an attempt to alchemically reveal the stars (he mostly got dust). And it was in 1895 that physicist Wilhelm Röntgen happened to see the bones in his hands while working near a cathode-ray tube, making him the first to detect X-rays, and he soon made a contact print of his wife Bertha’s hand showing her bones exposed beneath her wedding ring. She called it “a vague premonition of death.”
Not everything was quite so scientifically sound; Louis Darget, a former French soldier, stuck unexposed plates on people’s foreheads in an attempt to photograph “V-rays, human radioactivity,” an experiment that preceded Dr. Jule Eisenbud’s equally questionable attempt to photograph thoughts in the 1960s with a Polaroid camera.
Batchen points out that what helped cameraless photography thrive in postwar art was the ability to layer images into two-dimensional assemblages, something practiced by artists like Man Ray and Christian Schad. László Moholy-Nagy especially excelled at it with his dynamic photograms, some of which are on view in his current retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum.
“Many artists responded by seeking to abandon or overthrow prevailing conventions of reality, conventions associated with bourgeois society and therefore with the established social and political system,” Batchen states. “In other words, seeing itself became a political issue.”
And this augmenting of seeing keeps cameraless photography interesting, with plenty of curiosities packed in Emanations. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s 2008 “Lightning Fields” capture electric discharge right on the plates, while Michael Flomen started making in 1999 impressions of the paths of fireflies as they moved on color reversal film, and in 1993 Joan Fontcuberta covered his whole car windshield with film and blasted it with light to capture the dead insects and dirt. The main connection between these historic and contemporary projects is the lack of the camera as a framing device, as well as treating the photograph as a tactile medium, a light-sensitive blank slate on which to capture some ghostly, fleeting impression of the world.
Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph is out now from Prestel/Delmonico Books. The Emanations exhibition continues at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery (42 Queen Street, New Plymouth, New Zealand) through August 14.