No Camera Required

Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph by Geoffrey Batchen. Prestel, 2016. 9783791355047. 200pp.

Large gallery show and museum catalogs are reliable repositories of reproduced art. In Emanations Geoffrey Batchen does more! And he made me sad I couldn’t take a trip to the Govett-Brewster gallery in New Plymouth, New Zealand, back in 2016, to see his work.

He disingenuously bemoans the lack of a general history of cameraless photography in an introductory 47 page essay with 33 “figures.” In addition to these smaller illustrations, there are an additional 144 “plates” where the large format and heavy, glossy paper make for breathtaking reproductions. Anyone wanting to author a general history of cameraless photography now has a fastidiously referenced place to begin.

The breadth of the selected works in the book might upset a reader’s established view of photography. As early as 1839, astronomer and botanist John Herschel painted his pioneering mix of photochemicals on writing paper so he could, in mid-letter, make a print of the plant he was writing about! Many of the artists in the 1920’s and 1930’s used photo paper post cards, conveniently available back then, and an easy size to work with. Others went big: Robert Rauschenberg and Susan Weil draped human models over large sheets of blueprint paper; Zhang Dai’s “Man and Woman on Bikes” was exposed on a 91 inch by 118 inch canvas coated with cyanotype media; and Robert Huarcaya’s “Amazonagramas” works were made using 30 meter (98 feet, 5 inches) rolls of photo paper!

Not all exposures are with visible light. Wilhelm Roentgen made sure to include the feminizing touch of his wife’s wedding ring when he made an X-ray picture of her hand. More recently, and more ominously, Shimpei Takeda used soil samples taken near the failed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor complex to expose his media.

The two most-represented of artists are Man Ray and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy. Six of Man Ray’s “rayographs” and six of Moholy-Nagy’s works are reproduced.

In Emanations passion, vision, and inspiration are on display. There are also incidental traces of the history of photography as art, craft, and technology. It is both an ambitious and rewarding book.

Guest review by Robert (no longer in San Diego).

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