What's up with those "abstract photographs?"
Updated: Aug 26, 2019
And are they even considered photographs, still?
Welcome to the world of alternative photo processes - another favorite of mine! The abstract images I use in the art-to-wear designs are chemigrams. This technique was invented by fellow Belgian(!) artist Pierre Cordier in the 1950s. It allows the artist to create an image by applying chemicals on light-sensitive paper. The extension -gram indicates that no camera was involved.
You might be familiar with the term photogram? Wikipedia defines a photogram as a photographic image made without a camera by placing objects directly onto the surface of a light-sensitive material such as photographic paper and then exposing it to light. Man Ray used this technique extensively, he called them Rayographs.
To the right is a photogram I made with my son to introduce him to the concept. We placed keys, paperclips, lego toys and more on cyanotype paper (paper that is light-sensitized with cyanotype chemicals) and exposed it to the sun (timed). After rinsing the chemicals from the paper, this was the final result.
A chemigram uses chemicals, not objects, to manipulate an image on light-sensitive paper. The paper I used for the images below was regular darkroom photo paper. Some velvety textured, some smooth. Warm-tone or cool-tone paper lead to different color results. The process typically takes place both inside and outside of the darkroom.
The bare essence of the chemigram process comes down to exposing light-sensitive photo paper to light. As soon as the light hits the paper, it starts reacting. The artist than applies 2 base chemicals to the paper: an activator and a stabilizer. The activator pushes the light reaction even further, the stabilizer soothes it back down. Both chemicals bring out different colors.
Needless to say this process is incredibly fast as the reactive paper does not wait for you to make up your mind! The application of the chemicals (painting, spraying, dripping, ...) is very intuitive and pretty much a gut reaction to the surprises that unfold before your eyes.
A brief time-out is possible by carefully immersing the paper into a water bath and gently letting the applied chemicals float off the paper before you try again. I love doing this step no matter what because it leaves a beautiful, water-induced, wavelike imprint behind ... (see detail on the left).
As soon as the light-sensitivity of the paper is exhausted—or sooner if you happen to like what you see—dump the paper in the fixer bath. Done. You can judge it later. Because the process is so fast and unpredictable it is not uncommon for 50% or more of your work to be discarded. It's ok, that's how we play 😇
But, that's just the very basics and there is so much more to experiment with here!
The chemigram process gets to be really interesting when combined with traditional darkroom techniques. Take a closer look at the chemigram above. This is the image I used for the abstract chemigram scarf.
Apart from the waves as a result of the water-technique, do you notice the black/grey "eye-like" shape in the upper half? This shape was created through a traditional darkroom exposure. I didn't use a negative but rather some India ink dripped on a transparency which I exposed onto the photo paper through the enlarger. I allowed the image to develop slightly, just enough to let the shape come through. Then, without fixing the image, the half-developed paper is taken outside in the light and the push and pull of the activator and stabilizer game begins.
I find that allowing a preliminary darkroom exposure before the battle of the chemicals helps to anchor down the overall composition of the chemigram.
Truth is, once I start playing and exploring the potential of a medium (any medium 😜), I find it hard to stop ... what else could I do with this process?
I replaced the ink drawing with the remnants of a broken car window I picked up at a parking lot earlier that day. I placed the broken glass (in a ziplock bag) in the enlarger and exposed it on a different type of photo paper. See image below.
Those blocks you see, that "stone path," those are the results of the exposed broken car glass. The double-layer/depth effect I can't quite explain ... once in a while we must surrender to the mystery of art, and it feeeels good.
Below is the image I used for the abstract summer dress. Full disclosure, I did digitally enhance some of the colors from the original chemigram to liven up the dress design. The original (unaltered) chemigram image can be found on my chemigram page.
But wait, there is more still!
Instead of exposing the photo paper in the darkroom, I applied different kinds of resists on untouched photo paper. The series below primarily used a combination of Elmer's glue applied with a drinking straw, and sprayed cooking oil as the main resist substances. After drying completely, I dunked the paper in the fixer. Now none of the paper will be reactive to light, except those areas protected by the resists.
Time is of the essence again: take the fixed paper into the light, gently rub off the resists but do it as quickly as possible, then start the activator and stabilizer process. Now the chemicals' effect is only visible in the areas previously protected. Cool, right? Did I mention I LOVE this stuff ...?
Once you step into the light the process is so fast! Therefore I prefer to work small so I can cover all areas of my piece. Afterwards, I scan the approved work into the computer with a high-resolution photo scanner so the enlarged digitized version can be used to create an art-to-wear design, such as the Chemigram Scarf and the Abstract Summer Dress below. Enjoy!
And there you have it!
Hope you enjoyed another glimpse into my creative process? If you'd like to see more, please visit the recently updated chemigram page on my website.
All digitally reproduced chemigrams can be purchased as originals (Edition 1/1 + small artist proof). A selection of seven chemigrams are currently available through 6 University Gallery in Los Gatos, California. Please reach out for availability.