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There has been a spate of recent exhibitions identifying and reflecting upon a turn in photographic practice: a turn toward the materiality of the photograph and the full embrace of its unique processes of “capture.” These exhibitions, and the catalogue texts that supplement them, often seize on the notion of photography’s essence as indexical. Photography’s material structure and process of image making are said to be determined by their causal relationship to the world. Their indexical trace of this world, rather than the iconic depiction of it, determines photography’s unique contribution to representation. And those practices that reflect on this condition are said to raise the standing and the stakes of photography and representation alike.
Geoffrey Batchen’s catalogue Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph (published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name at Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth, New Zealand) similarly celebrates practices said to embrace photography’s indexicality. As the title suggests, its more specific focus is the vernacular, scientific, and avant-garde art practices (historical and contemporary) that utilize photographic process without the use of a camera.
The catalogue’s introductory essay lays out Batchen’s investment in these practices. From the very outset Batchen is quick to distance photography from the documentary and realist associations that have dominated its reception. For Batchen, photography’s fundamental operation is “the reaction of a given surface to the absence or presence of light” where no semblance with subject is guaranteed (5). But where photography is able to be distanced from realism, cameraless photography, freed from the “mediating” device of the apparatus, is even more closely allied with the real. Where cameraless photographs are especially valuable is insofar as they are self-reflexive. Apparatus-less photographs, Batchen insists, point to themselves, offering a “searing index of [their] own operation” (5).
Here Batchen’s project is allied to the project of James Elkins in What Photography Is (New York: Routledge, 2011). In his discussion of the cameraless photograph’s value at large, Batchen similarly stresses the importance of photographic images that are “to be looked at rather than through” (5). In Batchen’s words, cameraless photographs “emanate their subjects” rather than recording them, and this is their point of interest for anyone interested in photography and its histories. Such photographs, says Batchen, are “made, not taken.” In the sense of illuminating their subject and the essence of photography, they “emit their own light” (5).
What Batchen proposes here is an as-of-yet-unwritten counter-history of photography; one in which cameraless photos, which were once viewed as supplemental to photographic practice, now emerge as essential and central to it. Cameraless photographic practices, Batchen insists, have been the victims of a camera-centered prejudice, much neglected in historical narratives of photography. Citing Szarkowski’s claims that “the camera is central to our understanding of photography” and that cameraless photos are “outside the context of photography’s fundamental agenda,” Batchen seizes on the opportunity to reappraise those practices that individuals such as Szarkowski would and have ignored (5). Batchen’s intended project is a more comprehensive history of photography, presumably one that places this “outside of” photography firmly within it.
In some ways the book demonstrates the precariousness of this pursuit. To make a claim for the marginality and concurrent centrality of cameraless photography is no easy task. The project must be broad in historical scope—“origins . . . repeated to infinity, with no definitive beginning (and as of yet no end either)” (8)—and it must cross geographical boundaries and disciplines with dexterity (placing amateurs, crafters, scientists, and spiritualists alongside those from the established photographic canon, and internationalizing all). And while the assertion of photography’s material and causal essence as a basis for this revision is not without precedent, the book’s collection of, and engagement with, the diversity and almost limitless potential of practices garnered by this approach certainly is.
The book provides more than 170 examples of cameraless practice (144 full-page color plates and another 33 images accompanying the catalogue essay). These examples are introduced and framed by Batchen’s 25,000-word essay, which places the work in the aforementioned logic of historical revision and the ongoing insistence of cameraless photography’s “autocritique.” “Throughout photography’s history,” claims Batchen, “the cameraless photograph has always been a subversive element, an autocritique of everything that photography is supposed to represent” (47). In this regard, he discusses practices ranging from the early experiments of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in the 1820s through to work by Thomas Ruff and other practitioners as recent as 2014. The book profiles local (that is, New Zealand and Australian) practitioners as well as those from Europe and the United States. It also includes a small sample of works from South America and Asia (whose inclusion I will discuss below).
The criteria of “cameralessness” also legitimates the inclusion of a diverse number of processes: photogenic drawings, calotypes, tintypes, cyanotypes as well as ink-jet photoprints and copies, thermal prints, etc. But even within these nameable and definable processes are the most eccentric uses: experimentation with chemicals and sources of light producing any number of variations to unique effect. From William Henry Fox Talbot’s chemical experiments to the self-referential text-based “talbotype” of Thomas Augustine Malone, from Australian Madge Donohoe’s phantasmagorical “skotographs” to the lyrical painterly photograms of Marta Hoepffner, from Shimpei Takeda’s images made from radioactive soil to Liz Deschenes’s photographic installations, the examples are varied and purposeful exploitations of photography’s principles. Each practice demonstrates its own motivation, content, and agenda that is felt in the miscellany of imagery. And each practice is showcased beautifully by the large-scale plates with which the book displays them.
The practices surveyed here are dealt with largely in historical sequence. Batchen’s essay is divided into proto-photo pioneers and early practitioners (“The Pioneers”), those at the beginning of photorecording for science and spiritual interests (“The Wonders of Science”), avant-gardes during, between, and postwar (“The Avant-Garde,” “Between the Wars,” and “Postwar”), and contemporary practice (“Toward the Present”). The full-page plates follow this structure. Moving from those who constitute the canon of photographic practice (such as Niépce, Talbot, and Daguerre in the early days to Man Ray and Moholy Nagy in the modern period) to those who have come to photography as amateurs or in pursuit of broader discoveries than photography as autocritique, the book attends to both obscure practitioners as well as those already known to be key photographic players.
Its strength is in its diversity and breadth. But like any book that emphasizes a diversity of practice, it should not be assumed to be exhaustive or necessarily equitable and/or free of value judgements in its presentation. The book, in terms of images and text, devotes far more space to practitioners who fall within the art-historical canon than to practitioners who (still) sit at the margins because of their vernacular or interdisciplinary practice. It should also be noted that of the 170-plus examples of cameraless photography, only around 20 are from women, a rather damning imbalance in a field that is rich with female practice, and especially hard to accept in a book whose scope is so broad. In addition, despite Batchen’s attempt to grant the occasional “Asian example” (27), the six practitioners he does include from China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan are a thin representation of what is a much larger field. Was the project explicitly pitched as an exclusively art-historical one, the skewing toward (male, white) canonical artists would be more understandable. But given the book’s stated interest in the “art, science and magic” of cameraless photography beyond the canon, these kinds of imbalance are harder to justify.
This aside, the publication is a thoroughly researched and carefully presented contribution to photographic history. And in establishing the multitude of ways photography’s indexical processes might be acknowledged and adopted, it is sure to be a valued addition to the photography practitioner’s and photography scholar’s library.
Director of Photography, University of Technology Sydney