Camera-less Photography: Arresting developments

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Forget the paraphernalia of modern photography, says Charlotte Cripps – a new exhibition at the V&A shows that you don't even need a camera to produce startling, magical images

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 (, 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.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls


The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence