Cover photograph: Detail of Curtis Moffat, Abstract Compositions, c.1925
Author and Curator: Martin Barnes, Senior Curator of Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Publisher: Thames & Hudson, New York, NY, April 23, 2019; V&A Publishing; © 2018
Hardcover, 192 pages, 141 illustrations
Review by Paul Anderson
Cameraless Photography by Martin Barnes is an historical survey of cameraless photography, and the written introduction provides an excellent overview of this genre. The subsequent 141 illustrations of cameraless photography are drawn from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The book concludes with a four-page glossary and a list of references for further reading. The illustrations are organized in chronological fashion, with the earliest images dating from 1826 (by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce), and the most recent images are from 2015 (by Marco Breuer). This chronological organization nicely shows the evolution of the genre over time.
A wide range of cameraless photography techniques are included, and anyone interested in pursuing cameraless photography would find this book an interesting source of ideas. Virtually all of the examples in the book are of high quality. It is not, however, a how-to book on cameraless photography, so anyone interested in specific process information would need to search elsewhere.
The techniques presented include chemigrams, cliché-verre, cyanotypes, dye destruction printing, heliographs, holograms, luminograms, photocopying, photogenic drawing, photograms, photographic and photoglyphic engraving, photogravure, radiography, and scannergrams. This book is a very interesting read precisely because it includes examples of so many techniques.
The author adopts a loose definition of the term cameraless. To quote the introduction, “In general, any images that employ the use of conventional cameras and lenses have been excluded.” In that sense the author delineates those photographic techniques he declares to be cameraless by defining its inverse, and loosens this further by using the subjective term conventional. This leaves plenty of room for interpretation, providing quite an eclectic collection of images for the reader’s enjoyment.
If one thinks of a the very basic elements that would constitute a ‘conventional’ camera, one would include but three elements: a light-sensitive surface, a shutter, and a lens. And indeed, most of the techniques shown in the book employ a light-sensitive surface on which to record an image. However, most of the techniques illustrated in the book dispense with a lens, and substitute the turning on and off of a light source for the action of a shutter. Because a lens is typically not employed, surfaces of objects cannot be reproduced. Instead, many cameraless images consist of silhouettes of objects, or abstracted patterns created by modulation of light, heat, or chemical reactions.
As can be seen throughout the book, there are certain popular subjects represented in cameraless photography. These include botanical subjects, human or animal forms, textiles, medical images, astronomical references, and abstract patterns.
The author notes that experimental and conceptual art became more accepted after World War II, and he observes that “While camera-made photographs implied a documentary role, cameraless work offered a contrasting photographic language liberated from the restraints of representational realism.”
In conclusion, the very act of collecting this group of cameraless images into one volume was the most interesting aspect of this book. One gets an appreciation of the many different approaches to the genre taken by photographers and artists over almost 190 years. There is great richness and history in this type of photography.
A sampling of images that captivated this reviewer follows below.
Fern – William Henry Fox Talbot, printed 1846 or later – Salted paper print (right side)
Abstract Compositions – Curtis Moffat, c1925 – Photogram
Chemigram + Photogram 20/12/56 ‘La Révolution hongroise’ – Pierre Cordier, 1956 – Chemigram on gelatin silver paper (left side)
Ephemera #113 – Barbara and Zafer Baran, 2002 – Pigment print, scannergram
Untitled (Tip) – Marco Breuer, 1999 – Gelatin silver paper, burned (right side)