The inspiration and overarching context for this work is William Fox Talbot’s images of lace. He made them as salt prints – basically photograms on treated paper. I’ve seen reproductions of these images at Lacock Abbey and at the Matt Collishaw VR exhibition. I’ll never forget the feeling of picking up a non-existent reproduction of a real image, to examine it more closely. With much of Fox Talbot’s work we can contextualise what he photographed – ladders, haystacks, windows, see the place in Lacock where these props were located, but we never know where the lace came from. Bought by the family governess, borrowed from his wife’s sewing or underwear drawer, a memento of travels? So the idea of working with lace has stayed with me for some time via cyanotypes of underwear, still lifes with lace curtains, photograms of net curtains and now photograms of underwear. I wanted to recreate this work but with lace from the universal modern provider – Ebay – and with the touch of the unknown, the exotic and the slightly outre from second-hand underwear.
“Talbot’s Lace is not merely a copy of unprecedented ease and fidelity. It is also a picture, which transposed the lace from the realm of objects to the realm of pictures, where it has enjoyed a new and unpredictable life.” (Moma.org, 2018) I wanted to transpose the lace from the private realm of underwear to the public realm.
My context and influences for this work initally split into either photogram based work or work exploring net and lace, with some inevitable blurring between the two categories. I have subsequently expanded the number of applicable contexts.
As with any entire genre, there’s a rich list of talented practitioners who have exploited the photogram technique. Looking at my list I see Berenice Abbott, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, ELT Mesens, Gyorg Kepes, Erwin Blumenfeld, Floris Neususs, Adam Fuss, Tom Fels, Susan Derges, Richard Caldicott. Looking for a timeline, I learn that after the base being laid by Niepce, Fox Talbot and then used by Anna Atkins (Norman, 2018), the first actual photograms were made by Christian Schad in 1918, and these were embraced by the Dada movement. After that, the photogram path splits with one path towards Man Ray and his surrealist work, and the other towards Moholy-Nagy with his science and design Bauhaus influenced work. The push-pull paradox of photograms – is it science? is it art? – is already becoming apparent. William Klein took a fresh approach again and rather than making photograms of something instead used the paper as a blank canvas and played with light over it, like Jackson Pollack was playing with paint (Campany, 2018). It’s not a uniquely photographic discipline – many artists including Pablo Picasso and ELT Mesens have made work with photograms.
Floriss Neususs is probably the leading contemporary practitioner of the photogram. According to Neusüss: “Perspective and horizon are absent from photograms, so the space is theoretically unending.” (Chandler, 2012). As well as removing perspective and horizon though we also lose the context within the frame, the first step in our process of locating the image within the various contexts that we know. This may be why we so often describe the objects shown in photograms as floating in space or underwater – because we struggle to contextualise the featureless black background. Adam Fuss and Susan Derges both combine both the scientific and the surreal in their work, thus bringing the two divergent photogram paths back together.
Hans Kupelweiser is “an important Austrian Sculptor, and concerns himself with the interplay between the 2D and 3D.” (Norman, 2018). This resonated with me because I had to consider the essential 3D nature of underwear, how it’s designed in three dimensions and takes on the form of the wearer. In the end, I decided to flatten the underwear under glass but it still shows the extra dimensions via folds and the change in colour from light to dark over different depths of fabric. Picasso collaborated with Andre Villers and used flat lace, but he cut or drew on the image to add depth.
What was less visible in my research is the use of net and lace by female practitioners. When these artists do surface, it’s apparent that their work can have more of a narrative, a direct link to the world that we live in compared to the surrealism or the science of the early photograms. Their work is less about technical showmanship (though the work is undoubtedly technically accomplished) and more about using these tiny holes and diaphanous threads in support of a strong and compelling narrative.
In Helen Sear’s series Inside the View we seem to be looking through a lace-curtained window onto a woman who is in turn looking out at a view. It’s all a construction though – not just the exquisitely handmade photoshopped “lace” but the juxtaposition of the rear view of the woman with an unrelated landscape. There is a very interesting essay by David Campany who considers the ways in which Fox Talbot’s work resonates in Sear’s work, including that “a photograph is all about surface yet it appears to have no surface”. (Campany, 2006)
Liz Claffey’s work is not photograms, but looks uncannily as if it is. In her series Matrilinear she uses lightboxes and black backgrounds to produce translucent images of clothing that has been repaired and passed down/across through generations. I was alerted to her work on Instagram where there is a bra image that looks very much like a photogram and inspired me to look further at her work.
Sigalit Landau’s work Salt Bride documents a black Hassidic wedding dress that she submerged in the Dead Sea for two months. The dress turned from black to white as it became crystallised with sea salt. It was then photographed and prints exhibited at life size. This work seems relevant to me because of the change from black to white – almost like a very long exposure recording a chemical and physical change. The dress floated in the Dead Sea the way that photograms seem to float in an empty void. The colour change from black to white is binary, like the change in photographic paper from white to black when it’s exposed to light. Also like photograms her photographic prints are at life size.
I’m also aware that this work sits firmly within at least two contexts though most viewers will identify more with one than the other.
The first context is the Fox Talbot lace photogram context – making an image of lace using a much older technology. I have explored aspects of this context above.
The second context embraces second hand underwear, eBay, size issues because the items are shown at real size, inevitably much larger than we expect, and feminist issues around size, what we wear, what we are expected to wear, what is sold to us, sexuality and functionality in underwear and so on. It is perhaps understandable that it’s not that straightforward to find practitioners whose work embraces feminism/Fox Talbot/photograms all within a single series. This is the context that I’ve struggled to find supporting references for. This is irritating as I realise that I’ve made another piece of work with a substantial feminist reading without sufficient contextual references to support it. Update – a friend pointed me to Emily Duffy’s BraBall – a giant ball made of donated bras. The artist statement makes some interesting points she talks about the relationship that women have to their bras, and their breasts. I wonder if she encountered people who saw the work as sexual.
It has been like traversing a minefield to tell the BraBall story only in ways that promoted its positive progress, where it would be taken seriously as an art piece, and, most importantly, so it will never be used to exploit women.
A third relevant context is the recording of garments that carry a narrative without photographing the women associated with that garment. Liz Claffey’s work sits within this context, as does Katherine Cambareri’s series “Well what you were wearing?” (Cambareri, 2018) which shows clothes worn by women when they were sexually assaulted (this overlaps with the second feminist context above).
A looser fourth context is the recontextualization of older images. An OCA student commented about this with specific reference to Sherrie Levine’s After Walker Evans series (Metmuseum.org, 2018). I can see the link, but I think it would be a truer recontextualization if I had worked with lace in exactly the same pattern as Fox Talbot had used, or if I had rephotographed his work. Definitely something to think about.
Cambareri, K. (2018). Well, What Were You Wearing?. [online] Katherine Cambareri Photography. Available at: https://www.katcphoto.com/well-what-were-you-wearing.html [Accessed 10 Oct. 2018].
Campany, D. (2006). Helen Sear: Inside the View – David Campany. [online] David Campany. Available at: http://davidcampany.com/helen-sear-inside-the-view/ [Accessed 10 Oct. 2018].
Campany, D. (2018). Into the Light – David Campany. [online] David Campany. Available at: http://davidcampany.com/into-the-light/ [Accessed 10 Oct. 2018].
Chandler, A. (2012). Aesthetica Magazine – Floris Neusüss: Ancient and Modern, London. [online] Aesthetica Magazine. Available at: http://www.aestheticamagazine.com/floris-neususs-ancient-and-modern-londo/ [Accessed 10 Oct. 2018].
Claffey, E. (2018). Elizabeth M. Claffey. [online] Elizabethclaffey.com. Available at: https://www.elizabethclaffey.com/matrilinear-/1 [Accessed 10 Oct. 2018].
Duffy, E. (2019). The BraBall: Artist’s Statement. [online] Braball.com. Available at: http://www.braball.com/statement.htm [Accessed 8 Jan. 2019].
GalleriesNow.net. (2018). Sigalit Landau: Salt Bride at Marlborough Contemporary, London. [online] Available at: https://www.galleriesnow.net/shows/sigalit-landau-salt-bride/ [Accessed 10 Oct. 2018].
Metmuseum.org. (2018). After Walker Evans: 4. [online] Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/267214 [Accessed 10 Oct. 2018].
Moma.org. (2018). William Henry Fox Talbot. Lace. 1845 | MoMA. [online] Available at: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/46340 [Accessed 10 Oct. 2018].
Norman, L. (2018). Photomonitor – Collection – On curating ‘Light Works: The Art of The Photogram’ at Atlas Gallery. [online] Photomonitor.co.uk. Available at: https://www.photomonitor.co.uk/on-curating-light-works/ [Accessed 10 Oct. 2018].
Sear, H. (2018). Inside the View – 2004-2008. [online] Helen Sear. Available at: http://www.helensear.com/portfolio/inside-the-view/ [Accessed 10 Oct. 2018].