Everybody has a camera now, everybody can take high-quality photographs without laying claim to any particular 'skill'. The artist's visual eye can be replicated with photo-editing tools and auto-correction. To take a beautiful photograph is no longer enough. So the question is where does photography go next? How will it adapt to survive?
The brilliance of the V&A's exhibition 'Shadow Catchers' is that it provides an answer to this question without necessarily meaning to. Not everybody can conjure beauty in to being out of a seeming nothing. I was genuinely captivated, awed, astounded (so much so that I require multiple adverbs) by these images and the revelation of the possibilities and processes available to the contemporary photographer.
Floris Neususs appeared to have emerged from the Cottingley fairy generation with his lifesize photograms of women. These Body-grams appear to have captured women in flight; here they are dancing with faint shadows of birds and moths or curled up vulnerably like netted butterflies. Neususs has taken that darkroom experiment, the photogram, and given it a larger-than-life ethereality. 'Be Right Back' has fixed the shadow of a woman beneath a now empty chair; the human trace we leave behind, the haunting beauty of a ghost narrated. In Untitled Kassel some parts of the work remain unfixed so that colour changes over time. Neususs is interested in the transience of his medium, the sense of preserving the absent and nurturing the human sense of emptiness.
Photography has always harboured an interdependence with the natural world and camera-less photography engages with deep underground natural processes. Neususs leaves photo paper in the garden at night to be exposed by lightning; light appears to have scanned the paper leaving shockwaves and scars. Garry Fabian Miller's interest is botanical; photography, like photosynthesis, is about light. Translating plants and leaves to photographic paper these are precise botanical illustrations which track growth and decay. He describes his interest in light and time as the 'accumulation of days'. Susan Derges's element is water; her photograms map the water's surface, the flow of rivers, it's undercurrents and secret shifts. She creates 'sun prints' by placing her photographic paper beneath the water to be exposed by sunlight, revealing 'what underlies the visible', the 'absent moments' which until now we have only been able to imagine.
Which leads on to the power to create and regenerate; the otherworldly. Pierre Cordier's use of the chemigram has enabled the patterning of geometries, labyrinthine formations, the emergence of strange new worlds. He describes his work as 'a mutation, hybrid and marginal- fake photographs of an imaginary, improbable and inaccessible world.' What is captured are shifting forms that offer strange glimpses of space and new dimensions. As Fabian Miller develops he moves towards more abstract images, his photo a day project is a portfolio of burning rings of light, new planets emerging. He says they are 'of something as yet unseen, which may only exist on the paper surface.'
Adam Fuss's work is a combination of birth and death. His cibachrome photogram 'Invocation' is a halo of light in which a baby is baptised, the tail of a snake wriggles across the paper in another. Fuss likes to work with live animals, with symbols and ideas. But at the other end of the spectrum the My Ghost series shows a figure emerging/disappearing in smoke, a christening gown which has become a spectral shroud.
Camera-less Photography is engaged with themes of mortality; with what it can create and imagine but also with those absent, dead things it holds to the light. The Frankenstein's monster of the art world, with a little sensitivity it has the power to be truly beautiful. In those dark rooms at the V&A only the light of these images remains burned on to our retinas with the force of revelation.
I did a few experimental photograms, along with research in to the development of the process by Man Ray for my A-levels, but this exhibition makes me want to get back in to the dark room. Perhaps this is where the darkroom revival begins.