The history of the photogram goes back to the earliest experiments with photography, illustrated by the images made by polymath Henry Fox Talbot on salted paper in the 1830’s. Talbot, who had a profound interest in the natural sciences, developed a technique for making paper photosensitive by soaking sheets of writing paper in a sodium chloride solution and coating these with silver nitrate. Talbot selected leaves and flowers and carefully laid these out, exposing the composition to sunlight over a prolonged period of time. The resulting picture was subsequently fixed with a strong salt solution, producing detailed luminescent images of the plants on a dark background. He used the term ‘photogenic drawings’ to describe these representations and highlighted the scientific usefulness of his technique.
Botanist Anna Atkins was befriended with Talbot and his contemporary John Herschel and learned from them how to make photogenic drawings and cyanotypes. A cyanotype refers to a photosensitive coating producing a cyan-blue tint. The two chemicals involved in this process are ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferrocyanide. Atkins collected algae and produced a comprehensive series of cyanotypes. She made multiple prints of each cyanotype/photogram and published the complete series in a book: Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1st book illustrated with photographic images). Atkins saw her work as a contribution to science. Besides receiving acknowledgment from the scientific community, her photograms are also considered artworks due to the otherworldly quality of the cyan-blue and Atkins’ accomplished compositions.
It was not before the emergence of modernism at the start of the twentieth century that this type of camera-less photography was adopted by artists and used to produce images that had no particular scientific function. Hungarian artist, photographer and designer László Moholy-Nagy did employ the photogram technique to make images in which he combined machine parts with his own hands and face, while conducting multiple exposure, thus sculpting with light, shape and material. His contemporary Man Ray employed the same technique but was more focused on everyday objects that were readily available in his studio: tobacco, sugar, buttons, push-pins and other quotidian objects found their way into his work. Man Ray also experimented with motion picture film and incorporated filmstrips made in a similar fashion in his film Le Retour à la Raison (1923).
Talbot’s and Atkins’ photograms, although not produced with an artistic intention can be seen as fitting to the romantic age and its glorification of nature. Contrarily, both Moholy-Nagy’s and Ray’s work is firmly embedded in modernism, focusing on new materials and new meanings, in search of a world beyond the natural.