At the beginning of every teaching year I ask the question what is photography? To answer this question I go back to the origins of modern photography and the work of William Henry Fox Talbot. Talbot had grown frustrated with his lack of skill in drawing and painting and wrote in his journal in 1833, “How charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper!”
Six years later in 1839, and only two weeks after Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre’s daguerreotype process was announced in France, Talbot shared his invention of the Photogenic Drawing. His invention was that of sensitizing paper with salt and silver nitrate which when combined become light sensitive. He place plant specimens on top of the paper and flattened the object and paper with a sheet of glass. Where the paper received light it darkened and revealed the precise outline of the object. At the earliest stages, photography was a camerless art that created duplicates of nature.
Today we call these photogenic drawings Photograms. I like to introduce photograms as the first step towards learning photography because it forces students to learn about composition and value scales. Using nothing but a sheet of photographic light sensitive paper and a light source that can be blocked by a piece of cardboard to control the amount of time of exposure, I can demonstrate a tone scale that is possible even without having an object on top of the paper.
To make these photograms I went out into my front yard and collected mountain ash leaves that had fallen to the ground.
These test strips become the foundation of photographic imagemaking. With a value scale I can create the illusion of depth. In the image above I placed three leaves on top of one another. After an initial exposure to create a solid black silhouette of the leaves I removed one leaf at a time and then made additional shorter exposures. By leaving the bottom leaf in the stack on the whole time it becomes white and creates the illusion of being in front of the other two leaves.
I think this is a wonderful exercising for learning design and how to see the world as a graphic image. Subsequent experiments include trying to imply a sense of motion and storytelling by choosing placement of objects based upon their visual weight that is influenced by size, value, and position on the paper.
I think I could spend an entire year just making photograms. I think it is a worthy goal and perhaps next summer I shall start a long term project when there are many plants growing in the garden.