At the international photography fair Photo London in 2016, two artists performed an act of resurrection. In the Deadhouse, the spooky tunnels beneath Somerset House, lined with the memorial stones of 17th-century courtiers, London-based artists Walter Hugo and Zoniel Burton set up a giant handbuilt camera. Inside they placed a 7ft x 4ft metal plate, which they coated with photographic chemicals. They then invited Paul Smith and musician Laura Marling to stand immobile in front of the lens, brightly lit, for 30 seconds each. The result was two ghostly, black and white tintype images (Paul Smith, £15,000), the beginning of a series that would capture striking images of iconic Britons and demonstrate the continuing vitality of one of the earliest methods of photography.
Represented by Carrie Scott & Partners, Hugo and Burton (aka Walter & Zoniel) are leading figures among a young generation of artists who, rather than exploring the potential of digital photography, are digging deep into the history of analogue photographic processes. They are not, however, Luddites railing against the new. “It’s not about reproducing an ancient technique,” says Burton. “It’s about utilising something that is interesting and relevant now.” Their project, called The Untouched, celebrates the fact that there is only one image, the plate itself, and while it can be colour-tinted it cannot otherwise be altered. As Zoniel says, “In an age where everything is so throwaway, it’s wonderful to create this gigantic, unique physical image.”
It was shortly after the Millennium that professional photographers largely abandoned film, with its demanding technical requirements. Now it is precisely these archaic manual processes and technologies that are being seized upon by artists and photographers keen to find individual means of expression in an Instagram world. Increasingly on show in art and photography fairs and in galleries around the world are works made using techniques and materials from the pre-digital era – from pinhole, or tintype, cameras to silver-gelatin and other printing methods explored by William Henry Fox Talbot and John Herschel in the 19th century, to the photograms and luminograms explored by Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy in the 1920s. As Michael Benson, co-founder of Photo London and director of global photography prize Prix Pictet, puts it, “The business of repurposing traditional techniques has become part of the mainstream. It is a rich seam of interest, a movement that is gathering momentum.”
At this year’s Photo London, for instance, showing with the Purdy Hicks Gallery were the atmospheric black-and-white images (from £4,500) of seafronts, trees, rock faces, leaves and mountains of Dutch photographer Awoiska van der Molen. Van der Molen travels alone to photograph wild places in countries from Norway to Japan. She uses the slow, handworked silver-gelatin printing process to ensure that each image is unique. In 2014 she won the first Hariban Award to work with the printers at the Benrido Collotype Atelier in Kyoto, using 19th-century techniques to create the texture and grain she was after. While, like many photographers, van der Molen produces books of images, she has spoken about the pleasure she takes in making large, single prints: “I have to make them large enough to recreate that feeling of what I experienced in the environment – a whole atmosphere coming towards me.”
Gemma Barnett, print sales director at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, describes the appeal of such an approach for collectors: “I don’t think the appetite for digital has faded – this is, after all, a technologically driven art form. But as a reaction to the ubiquity and facility of making digital images today, I have seen a surge of interest among both artists and collectors in unique works. Uniqueness and rarity have become important factors in the market.”
The work of Los Angeles-based Matthew Brandt, who shows with the Yossi Milo Gallery in New York, is unquestionably unique. In 2015 he won a place on the shortlist for the Prix Pictet with his Honeybees series (Bees of Bees 5, $24,000), created in response to the collapse of bee colonies in California. Walking along a beach in Santa Monica, he came upon hundreds of bees either dead or dying in the wet sand. Brandt collected the carcases and later shot them in his studio. Using the 19th-century gum bichromate printing process, he then made prints from an emulsion derived from the bodies of the bees themselves.
San Francisco-based John Chiara, who is represented at Paris Photo this month by the Atlanta-based gallery Jackson Fine Art, is another photographer whose innovative use of old technology is attracting attention. His prints are collected by major institutions, and the first monograph on his work was published in October. Chiara designs and builds his own huge cameras – the largest one is taller than a man – that he transports on a flatbed trailer in a kind of heroic emulation of the laborious endeavours of the earliest photographers. In a recent film he said, “My obsession has taken me to this point where I am literally inside the camera.” He chooses unusual viewpoints – not archetypal picturesque vistas but glimpses through trees (Eagle’s Nest, Clover Hill, Mississippi, $18,000), a flagpole, a corner of sky. His cameras work like daguerreotype box cameras, the images recorded onto oversized photosensitive paper through long exposures, with Chiara controlling with his hands, from inside, the way the light falls through the lens. Unexpected flashes of colour add to the lyricism and mystery of these large-scale images ($8,000 to $18,000) where, far more than the landscape itself, it is the drama of light’s encounter with photographic paper that is captured.
Other artists have abandoned the box camera altogether, making photograms by placing objects onto photographic paper and exposing them to light. In 2010/2011 the Victoria and Albert Museum mounted the groundbreaking show Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography, which introduced British audiences to contemporary artists using this technique; names including Floris Neusüss, Susan Derges and Adam Fuss, whose baroque large-scale photograms (from private collections and galleries) of subjects such as babies or rabbits or water bring a painterly sensibility to bear on the medium.
Another artist exploring camera-less photography is Turner Prize-nominated sculptor/installation artist Cornelia Parker. In 2015 the Alan Cristea Gallery showed two series of images she had created that were inspired by Fox Talbot’s experiments with the technique of photogravure (allied to the photogram). For the One Day This Glass Will Break images, Parker placed ordinary objects – a lightbulb (Premeditated Act of Violence, sold), a tower of glasses, an array of goblets, melting ice cubes – directly onto a photosensitive etching plate, exposing them to ultraviolet light so that they cast reflections. Whereas photograms are negatives, or images with light and dark inverted, you can print positive images from a plate. Parker’s beautiful monochrome pictures create a thrilling trompe l’oeil-like uncertainty in the viewer about what is the object and what is shadow and light.
Alongside these works Parker exhibited Thirty Pieces of Silver, 2015 (Exposed), a series of 21 photogravure etchings (£1,200 each; £20,000 for the set) in limited editions, created from a group of glass photographic negatives of antique silverware she had found in a Brick Lane market. The glass negatives are still inside the original glassine bags, which creates an additional layer of atmospheric veiling, as if we are indeed looking through a glass darkly at these old-fashioned silver objects in some distant past. Parker, meanwhile, had discovered that the Bodleian Library in Oxford holds the original glassware that Fox Talbot used to make his images. In 2017 she produced a further set of photogravures, Fox Talbot’s Articles of Glass (£1,500 each; £12,000 for the set of nine).
Another artist working in photogram is Yoichiro Nishimura, who creates otherworldly pictures of flower heads (Dandelion, from Y1.5m, about £10,000) caught in the moment of bloom. This week his black and white photograms (from about £10,000) of a female figure dancing with plants will be exhibited by Japan’s Minnano Gallery at Paris’s Fotofever. Taking the interaction with nature an ethereal step further than Nishimura, however, is Australian/American photographer Moira McDonald. This year, at Photo London, she exhibited with Rubber Factory a mesmerising series of black and white works (Fog Study 17, $800) entitled Pacifica, created by the action of fog on photographic paper. McDonald set out her photographic trays at night to catch water droplets from the fog that rolls in off the Pacific Ocean near San Francisco; she then slid her silver papers into the pools of water that formed. As the drops were absorbed by the paper or evaporated back into the atmosphere, elusive images – like works of abstract expressionism – were conjured into being.
Some processes from the days of analogue photography are, however, now impossible to reproduce. For over 25 years Garry Fabian Miller, one of Britain’s leading art photographers, created intensely coloured abstract images (Here Is Where One Starts From, from £4,750) using Cibachrome, or Ilfochrome, print paper, originally invented to make minimal non-fading prints directly from colour transparencies. In the V&A’s Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography exhibition he was celebrated as one of a select band of photographers pushing the boundaries of traditional analogue photography to make contemporary artworks. But, in 2012, the only factory still making Cibachrome paper announced that it was ceasing production, and Miller has eked out his last supplies. His editioned prints – of which there are still a fair number – cost from £6,500 to £50,000; there are also limited unique prints from £6 to £100,000. A limited edition book, celebrating this body of work, and called Seeing believing (from £650), has just been published by Hackelbury Fine Art & Filtow.
Though Miller takes inspiration from the landscape around his Dartmoor home, his work is created within the confines of the darkroom. Brooklyn-based photographic artist Liz Nielsen works in similar isolation to produce vibrant abstract pieces (Orbiting Landscape, €4,000). She cuts, layers and assembles transparent colour gels into a handmade “negative”, then projects light sources through these onto photographic paper. Her jagged polychrome collection Force Fields 2017, like icebergs under the Northern Lights, was exhibited at Photo London in May, with NextLevel Galerie. In June/July, London-based MMX Gallery showed the work of Michael Jackson, who has developed a subtle way of working with light and silver-gelatin paper to create luminograms (a form of photogram), much as László Moholy-Nagy did in the 1920s. Each work (Flowers, £2,400) is the result of directing the fall of light by hand, using it almost as if it were a pencil or brush. Far from being an exercise in nostalgia, this analogue technique offers Jackson, as it does other artists at the cutting edge of this art movement, a path to the future.