The history of the photogram goes back to the earliest experiments with photography, such as the evocative images of plants made by polymath Henry Fox Talbot 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. For his photograms or lumen prints Talbot selected leaves and flowers and placed these on top of his paper, exposing these compositions to sunlight over a prolonged period of time. The resulting picture was subsequently fixed with a potassium bromide solution, producing detailed luminescent images of the plants on a dark background. He also described the use of a solution containing silver chloride and gallic acid (harvested from oak trees) that he used to enhance his images. 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 work crossing over between art and science. The Hungarian/American artist, photographer and designer László Moholy-Nagy used flowers and plants for his early photograms. Subsequently he started making photograms 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 sourcing 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 worship of nature. Contrarily, both Moholy-Nagy’s and Ray’s work is firmly embedded in modernism, focusing on new materials and new meanings.