It's usually advisable not to forget your camera when setting out to take photographs. But a new exhibition of camera-less photography at the V&A proves this is not always the case. It shines a light on five of the best camera-less photographers in the world, including Garry Fabian Miller, whose vibrantly coloured images are collected by Elton John, and Susan Derges, whose magical landscapes are collected by Radiohead's Colin Greenwood and his wife, the novelist and poet Molly McGrann.
Three of the five artists, including Adam Fuss, are British, while Pierre Cordier is from Belgium and Floris Neusüss is from Germany.
They have been practising the art of camera-less photography for over 20 years. Their techniques include using flashes of lightning and moonlight to create the exposure – even syrup, nail vanish and eggs to create chemical reactions on the surface of the photographic paper.
"The methods of camera-less photography are so simple but the results can be so profound," says Martin Barnes, the senior curator of photographs at the V&A. "The first question most people ask is, 'how do you make a photograph without a camera?' The essence of photography lies in its seemingly magical ability to fix shadows on light-sensitive surfaces. These artists create images directly on photographic paper, which uses silver salts that darken in exposure to light. By casting shadows and filtering or blocking light, or by chemically treating its surface, the paper is transformed into an image. But I don't want people to get too hung up on the technical side. A more interesting question is 'Why make a photograph without a camera?' Is there a nostalgia for the alchemical appeal of vanishing, alternative chemistry-based processes in today's digital age?"
Derges, who likes to work outdoors at night, submerges photographic paper beneath the surface of the water, and exposes it to flashlight and moonlight, to show the patterns created by waves, ripples and drops from the River Taw in Devon.
"I'd been working with a camera in the studio, doing a lot of staged photography, when I started to look at things outside," says Derges. "I remember one of the first things that triggered a print was seeing a still pond with a cluster of newly-laid frogspawn. The sun was passing through the spawn and it was printing this image on to the bottom of the pond. And I just thought, 'wow, that's a print, it's a sun print."
Fabian Miller, meanwhile, spent 24 days gathering foliage to create a grid of leaves in Breathing in the Beech Wood. He used the leaves to replace photographic transparencies, shining through them directly on to the paper to capture the image. His glowing blue cluster of what appears to be stars, The Night Cell, was created by shining a beam of light through a blue glass bottle and a card with holes punched through it.
"We are a small group of people against a tidal wave of photography defined by a camera," he says. "Twenty-five years ago I realised the camera was an obstacle in my own work. I didn't want to take photos of the physical world anymore. I wanted to make visible the things I sensed around me. It is possible for photography to exist in the same way as musical composition – not depending on the physical world."
Neusüss, who has been experimenting with photograms since the 1960s, is famous for his pictures of nude female figures. The life model lies on top of a photographic sheet, whilst he switches the lights rapidly on and off. Where she blocked the light, her shadow is recorded on the paper. In another collection of images, Neusüss left photographic paper in his garden at night and let rain and lightning expose it naturally.
Fuss doesn't shy away from the classic symbols of butterflies, birds, smoke, and water in his work, which represents the transience of life. In his water pictures he even goes as far as to climb up a ladder to throw a bucket of water or a single droplet onto the photographic paper below, embracing the elements of chance.
Cordier, who discovered the chemigram (a hybrid of painting and photography) in 1956, uses materials such as syrup, honey, wax and nail varnish, which he paints directly onto the photographic paper, causing a chemical reaction when it is processed. Remarkably, he does this in full daylight, allowing light to change the colours of the paper. In one image of spectral forms he has poured developer and fixer onto a piece of photographic paper that has been oiled.
The first camera-less photographs could be said to date as far back as the 8th century, when the Arab alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan recorded the fact that silver nitrate darkened in the light. In Britain, during the 1790s, Thomas Wedgwood and Humphry Davy created images on paper and leather made sensitive to light with chemical treatments, but failed to fix the results, which faded. After William Henry Fox Talbot solved this problem in the 1830s, camera-less imagery became popular with botanical illustrators in the 1850s. There was then a lull when the camera became dominant – but camera-less photography was picked up by artists like Man Ray in the 1920s.
But why use camera-less photography rather than traditional photography? Barnes says: "By removing the camera, these artists get closer to the source of what they are interested in: light, time, traces, signs and visions – things which have spiritual and metaphysical rather than simply physical qualities. Laying down the camera frees them from documentation to become, like alchemists, more focussed on transformation."
'Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography', V&A, London SW7 ( www.vam.ac.uk), 13 October to 20 February 2011. A hardback book of the same title by Martin Barnes, priced £39.95 (order for £35.95 from the Independent Bookshop, 08430 600 030) is being published by Merrell Publishing.