Although commonly dubbed as the photogram today, there’s a pleasant science-fiction flavor to Man Ray‘s original coinage, the Rayograph. It’s basically a photograph, although one created without the use of a camera. A Rayograph is created by placing objects directly onto a chemically “sensitized” surface and then exposing them to light.
Man Ray—whose snarky experiments included that “cuddly” iron Gift—was a member of the Surrealist movement. His first photograms were an extension of the group’s dedication to chance and the irrational fringes of human experience. His Untitled may not look like much today, but Ray was interested in the piece for its “automatic,” dreamlike quality.
The process was just as important as the product: you can imagine Man Ray dancing around the darkroom, sowing random ideas like so many “wild oats.” It’s like that Pixies song:
1922 was a good year for photography—the photogram was actually “invented” twice, once by Ray and then a few months later by László Moholy-Nagy. As a Constructivist, Moholy-Nagy treated his work like a series of science experiments:
Although his photogram method was identical to Ray’s, the motivation differed—Moholy-Nagy was interested in the physics of art rather than its psychology.
Are photograms still popular? I’m inclined to say “no,” but I can’t say for sure. Marcia Wood, for example, hosted a “Cameraless Photographs” exhibition in 2004, featuring these work by Hanno Otten. Look out for photograms this month at various events for Atlanta Celebrates Photography.
And if you have darkroom access, you can try making a photogram yourself.
And in Print:
H.H. Arnason, History of Modern Art, ISBN 013184069X