Fotograf Magazine

Geoffrey Batchen: Emanations/ The Art of the Cameraless Photograph

Geoffrey Batchen’s latest book looks at the history of cameraless photography. It is clear that he considers this a completely separate form of photography – one that deserves special attention despite often being placed in the background in traditional histories of the medium. Why does it deserve special attention? In the introduction to his book, Batchen writes: ‘Almost elemental in its simplicity, this kind of photograph is produced through a direct contact between the world and a piece of light-sensitive paper. Such photographs therefore reduce photography to its most essential feature: the reaction of a given surface to the absence and presence of light.’ This is one of the reasons why cameraless photographs ‘invite a consideration of the nature of photographic representation in general’.

The material Batchen has collected is imposing due to its volume as well as its diversity. As is to be expected, the author devotes much attention to Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy, the key personalities thanks to whom cameraless photography became an integral and abundantly reflected part of the history of the interwar avant-garde. However, Batchen does not consider ‘rayographs’ and photograms to be the discovery of the avant-gardists, but rather something that had been a part of photography since its early beginnings. The story Batchen tells therefore starts with the works (or, more precisely, the results of experiments) of pioneers in the field – firstly, William Henry Fox Talbot’s laces and ferns and, rather unexpectedly, the early attempts of the Niépce brothers to develop a technique that used the action of light to make copies. (Batchen also mentions that these efforts were motivated by the grant offered by the French government in 1816 to anyone who perfected the replicative qualities of lithography.) The author then continues to present, amongst many other things, examples from early botanical photography (far more than just the works of Anna Atkins), the experiments carried out by Léon Foucault and Armand Hippolyte Fizeau in the field of photometry, the combination printing of Johann Carl Enslen, Röntgen’s x-ray imagery, and the spiritualist photography of Louis Darget.

The narrative continues after the Second World War. Moholy-Nagy continued to promote cameraless photography even after he immigrated to the United States, as did his fellow avant-gardist and émigré György Kepes. During the latter’s tenure at MIT, he organised an exhibition entitled The New Landscape in 1951, which offered displays of decontextualized scientific photographs – including images from a Wilson fog chamber, x-rays, and microphotographs of cells – together with samples of his own photograms. This combination is by no means surprising – borrowing from the world of science is a constitutive part of the various avant-garde art movements. What is surprising, however, is that Kepes’s exhibition is the only time that the chapters focused on post-war development in the field make wider mention of non-artistic photographs (although they have not been reproduced in the book itself). This is in sharp contrast with the sections of the book devoted to the 19th century, when, as can be seen in the selected examples we mentioned above, the use of photographs and photochemical processes in scientific research is placed in the forefront and art more or less takes a back seat.

Cameraless experiments continue to be carried out today, sometimes turning into an alchemic process far removed from photography and associated with such actions as pouring developing agents on paper. Quite frequently, these efforts reflect more of a desire to establish a connection with fixed avant-garde artistic practices rather than an effort to see them in a new way, meaning what has been thus far been a non-artistic way. In addition, as Batchen writes in his conclusion, the current popularity of analogue photo experimentation also conceals the fact that: ‘To make such photographs returns photography to a unique, hand-made craft and away from global capitalism and its vast economies of mass exploitation.’ However, this form of conservative nostalgia, evocative of arts and crafts rhetoric, is entirely non-avant-gardist.

What is the situation with cameraless photography as a type of its own? In Batchen’s case, it is specifically the cameraless aspect that forms the main coherence of his area of interest. He claims that it breaks photography down to its essential features. The end result of this approach is a unique, diverse summation, including things that are otherwise examined separately. It is, however, a summation that poses rather than answers questions. There is definitely no shared essence of photography contained within it. (What do Niépce’s copies of Dutch prints have in common with inter-war photograms?) The fact that the same process may be used for various purposes, both artistic and non-artistic; that there can be a relationship between these purposes, and, in some cases, they can be separated only with difficulty, is as clear as the light of day. At this point what remains to be proved is how these relationships were (un)substantiated in specific cases.

‘The daguerreotype, initially celebrated for its unprecedented ability to capture minute details, is here reduced to a graph, to a picture of nothing—of nothing, that is, but its own capacity to represent anything.’ Thus reads Batchen’s suggestive description of daguerreotypes, a technique that has survived since one of the experiments carried out by the team of Foucault and Fiezeau. The outstanding question is: To whom should this description be credited? To the experimenters from the 1840s? Would a hypothetical avant-gardist who saw this particular daguerreotype see it with the same eyes? Or to both parties, with the understanding that the artist and the scientist will both perceive it the same way to a certain degree? Not until there is a thorough effort to answer questions such as these will it be possible to initiate a true intellectual adventure.


Josef Ledvina



BATCHEN, Geoffrey. Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph. London; New York: DelMonico Books, 2016. ISBN 9783791355047.