May 1: What might photographers have to learn from painters and sculptors about the humble photogram?
Some certainly have something to teach us; Theodore Roszak, born on this date in 1907 (†1981) in Posen (Poznan) in what is now Poland, and who emigrated to the United States in 1909, was a machinist-turned-sculptor and painter, while Roger Catherineau (1925–1962) was a French painter who also trained in photography. German Hanno Otten (*1954) does not restrict his studies of colour to one medium and makes photograms in exploration of his extended theme.
The ambitious constructions that Theodore Roszak started to make in the 1930s and 40s derive from his fascination with modern materials; the newly available plastics lucite and plexiglas, and metal, that he could work to smooth, aerodynamic perfection with his lathe for his reliefs and free-standing rocket-like tear-drop forms. They represent the optimism of the Art Deco and Streamline era in which science and technology were regarded as the allies of a progressive Bauhaus humanism.
Beth Urdang (*1948) records that Roszak’s photograms quite evidently relate to his constructions and were made simultaneously with them, and yet were not exhibited with them at his exhibition in 1940 of sculptures at the Julien Levy Gallery, or at his Whitney Museum retrospective in 1956, even though he embraced Bauhaus ideas which promoted the medium and had spent 1928 in Europe learning about Constructivism.
In 1930 he procured books on avant-garde photography while in Munich: the important Photo-Eye: 76 Photos of the Period (1929), edited by Franz Roh and Jan Tschichold, and Malerei Photographie Film (1925), by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy whom Roszak met in the late 1930s when teaching at the WPA sponsored Design Laboratory school of industrial arts in New York which Moholy-Nagy visited as a consultant. Roszak sent examples of his photograms to Moholy-Nagy at the latter’s request.
Photograms by the two, which often make use of the shadows of machine parts, are similar, and though he connected with the Hungarian’s ideas—in the early 1930s Roszak experimented with the effects of coloured light on plaster “light modulators”—by 1945 Roszak felt he must decline an invitation to join the faculty of Moholy-Nagy’s Institute of Design in Chicago fearing, Urdang suggests, that he had for too long sacrificed his virtuoso craftsmanship in producing utopian hard-edged Bauhaus design, and had moved toward a dark, mythological and biomorphic American Surrealist style (below) expressive of his feelings about WW2.
Before he ceased the production of the photograms entirely in 1941, he was still sculpturally arranging objects in a shallow relief, an activity reflected in the darkroom, where he produced photograms that look like they are made like the constructions and with similar geometric elements. Because he moves them between separate exposures, they attain an exquisite, controlled bas-relief depth that is rarely seen in the medium.
By exploiting the soft-focus generated by the point-source enlarger light on objects that contact the paper but rise above it, the forms seem to float and gain motion, an effect that, as much as his streamline spirit might desire it, he could not achieve with plaster or perspex.
His prints range in size from 4×5 inches to 8×10 (standard photographic sizes), but his forms, when lit from one side and then the other (below) with a larger light source, atomise as the texture of the paper is reproduced by raking light, and their volume becomes ether, in an effect that escapes the confines of their small format.
A few years before his death in 1981, Roszak’s drawings of the late 70s start to echo the ethereal quality of his photograms and he envisaged a series that would combine the constructions and the biomorphic sculptures. The new drawings were exhibited at the Whitney Museum in 1984, and only weeks later Van Deren Coke (1921–2004) gave the photograms their first exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, alongside the touring Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America: 1927-1944 which included examples of Roszak’s constructions. This exposure gave his modernist photograms substantial recognition though one may say, looking at them, that some had already realised an effective amalgam of geometry and expression, in the late thirties!
As an artist born in 1925 in Tours, France, Roger Catherineau is of a generation after Roszak. From an education in painting and drawing, he created photographs and photograms concurrent with the development of expressionism in abstraction.
Largely forgotten after his premature death at 37 in 1962, until his rediscovery in the early 1990s by historian of photography Christian Bouqueret (1950-2013), he had nevertheless been associated with German photographer and teacher Otto Steinert (1915–1978), founder of the Fotoform movement of postwar German abstract photographers. Steinert included him in the 1954-55 exhibition and book Subjektive Fotografie 2.
The jazzy improvisation of Art Informel, the European movement concurrent and equivalent to the American Abstract Expressionism, is apparent in the construction of the 1957 image above. It is constructed like the paintings of the style; layered like them and with cavalier splashes of chemistry, but more intuitive and daring because the result is only apparent to the maker in their final product, once developed.
Like many photographers in the 1940s, Catherineau enjoyed the use of graphic arts film for its high contrast (above), and the blacks in the 1957 photogram above—the splatters and rope-like forms— are printed from an exposed and developed photograph on film over the white silhouetted flowers, which have been moved slightly during their exposure.
The earlier Éclat (1954), on the other hand, is a straight print, most likely from the splintered edge of thick glass (éclat can mean ‘splinter’), that quite likely has been placed in the negative holder and enlarged onto the paper—a very shallow focus results that adds, with the negative tones, to the eruptive abstract effect.
Repetition of the same elements can be seen in the following two images that demonstrate his improvisation…
…before Catherineau settles on a much more complex and multilayered rendition in which a textured background is added and further strands of cotton and matches are overlaid for the final exposure.
Catherineau also collaged and otherwise reworked his black-and-white photograms, and also added colour, in this case in a further enhanced variation from the 1957 series, dated a year later.
New Yorker critic Vince Aletti reviewing a 2008 show of Catherineau photograms at Gitterman Gallery wrote;
“The pictures, nearly all from the nineteen-fifties, also share a tightly wound kinetic energy with the Abstract Expressionism of that period, and that energy hasn’t dissipated. Manic exuberance gives way to a looser, more lyrical spirit here and there, but the tone is dark and brooding, even in the work flecked with accents of bright color.”
For a generation still further on, and in the 1990s, colour for its own sake becomes central in the work of Hanno Otten (*1954).
“Colour is the visual key to understanding our social reality. That is precisely what I find interesting about the question of colour – that artistic, social, scientific and also cultural aspects and components come together.”
Created since the mid-1990s Hanno Otten’s photograms are printed through filters placed directly on colour paper or in the enlarger head and they anticipate the vividness of contemporary digital colour. Their nascence however, is in black and white, in an experimental series that demonstrates the way the workings of the painter differ from those of most photographers.
While most of us throw away our graduated exposure strip tests, Otten’s become his primary material; their systematic discovery of the relation of tone against tone the object of a curiosity and discipline that we might associate with Josef Albers.
His title for them—real nothing—uncapitalised and in English, is intended to be taken literally. That is, they signify nothing other than what you see; patches of tone, overlapping, sometimes fading away or almost completely blotting out the underlying exposures, while their ‘realness’ as emulsion on torn or roughly cut paper is made evident where developer has been roughly brushed on. real nothing Nr. 107, 2012 further resolves the approach in leaving the image-making brushings and dribbles of chemistry quite apparent beneath a simple double exposure of different-sized square cards placed on the surface.
His formal logic is translated into colour in the Lichbild and Colorblock series of colour photograms in which rectangles, strips and sometimes concentric discs of saturated colour call the bluff of the Colour Field era as neighbouring hues feed-back against one another with a retinal reverberation not possible in paint.
Each of these artists, in making that ‘simplest’ of photographic imagery, demonstrate that experimentation in and variations on the photogram reveal how much it has to offer those prepared to bring to it new ideas, and who through trial and error might patiently study, test and add to its array of effects.