Rebecca Miller

Associate professor and photography program coordinator of the department of art & art history

The Greek words photos and graphein were combined to form the term “photography,” which means “drawing with light.” Inventors in a variety of disciplines created this medium that has the ability to document the world in the most minute details; artists have used this great gift to communicate their thoughts, desires, fears, dreams, societal concerns, and interpretations of aesthetics. Photography is a constantly changing interdisciplinary medium that has seen many transitions since it was first introduced to the public in 1839. Hours of laborious work in the darkroom have been reduced to minutes in the digital age; however, the success of a photographic image still comes down to three things: the ability to control and capture light, the understanding and skill to purposefully use technology, and the concept behind the photographer’s work.

The capability of creating photographic compositions without the use of a camera is referred to as a photogram. William Henry Fox Talbot (British 1800-1877) used this process, which he called photogenic drawings, to produce some of the first photographic images. He would soak paper in salt and then coat it with silver nitrate, lay an object on top of the paper and expose it to light. The results were detailed silhouettes of the objects.

Today’s photograms are done in much the same way. No camera is involved with the process; it is all about manipulating light around or through the object(s).Photograms can be created with any item, be it a fishing pole, wine bottle, flower, human or animal. Depending on the length of exposure, along with density and shape of the object, the results will be detailed silhouettes in white or subtle grey tones that can give a three-dimensional illusion to the image.

Photograms are done by laying an object on photographic paper and exposing it to light, from one second up to several minutes. The paper is then submerged into a chemical called developer and the image appears. Next, the paper is moved to a chemical called stop bath, which halts the developing process so the tonal values do not turn dark from prolonged development. The print is then moved to the last chemical, fix (Hypo). Unexposed silver halide crystals are removed from the paper in the fix, thus stabilizing the print so it is safe to view outside the darkroom.

I teach the photogram process to my introductory photography students with the goals of learning how to safely handle chemistry and experiment with compositional variations within the image. Upper division students also create photograms when learning how to make mural sized prints. The objectives of these lessons are to learn photographic skills and techniques, experiment with a wide variety of compositions, to trust artistic sensibilities and to cultivate conceptual thinking.