There’s something innately uncanny, something difficult to put your finger on, about all photograms – those images that appear as if of their own accord summoned by the medium of camera-less photography. Absence of light casts intangible shadows (as the subject obscures its light source) leaving image traces that read as objects, which in themselves possess a sense of animation, the sense of witness that something really is there. This quality is vividly apparent in the compelling presence of images conjured by the now lost medium of Cibachrome paper. Once the industry standard of advertising and commercial photography, its sumptuous saturated colours are held in a kind of luminous suspension and radiance that artist duo Rob and Nick Carter have exploited to their ultimate potential. Their exploration of these qualities – combining the physicality of an object with the immateriality of photography and the poetics of painting, in series such as Light Drawings, Spirals, Multi-coloured Lines and Harmonographs – signal their pioneering ability to work across and between mediums, developing hitherto unexplored visual experience.
So, a decade ago, when Rob floated the idea of setting a series of objects from my storeroom of wire detritus under the light of the enlarger, I was intrigued as to what would result. It felt pertinently appropriate that the ephemeral objects should be the subject of photograms, as it rhymed with my fascination with the way memory and the imagination are induced by the indexical touch of photography - our faith in its being a true trace of a world beyond. The idea was both divergent from, and concurrent with, my practice at the time. I had put aside the camera to make drawings of only the wire objects that reminded me of drawn lines – developing a process that echoed the revelatory process of traditional photography – the gradual drawing out of a shadowy image through the accrual of faint pencil marks.
I had begun collecting wire bits in the later part of the 1990s, motivated more by the compulsion to collect than with any prescriptive intention, on finding some rusty mattress springs outside the cottage on the farm near Gloucester, where I lived and had my studio. Over time the springs came to remind me of the looping lines of a Cy Twombly painting with an incremental realisation of how our personal memory is laced with visual associations. Our ‘visual memory’ as art historian Michael Liversidge coins it, is soaked in associations of images from the pantheon of the history of art. There is a sense that this experience is the subconscious recognition of such images lying latent, secreted in our ‘storehouse of images’ as the fourth century St. Augustine called the dusty corridors of memory. The touch of memory leaves marks of contact on the surface of our awareness, an indelible spoor, a shadow that remains as a stain, like Jacques Derrida’s ‘trace’- a spectral sign indicative only through its status as a ‘mark of absence of presence’.
The results of our first series of photograms captivated me in the uncanny way that they were both familiar and unfamiliar, seen from a position that I would not have done otherwise without collaborative contact. The array of 12 broken and discarded objects were now transformed into shadow imprints in earthy dark rust-red, emerging from the faded sepia vignetted ground, created by removing the enlarger lens. This act of removal emphasised a sense of the flitting presence of brief contact with the light sensitive paper, leaving image remains of this touch as if relics in a cabinets of curiosities like those in the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford. In direct lineage from the first experiments with fixing an image, photograms, Touched refers to the physical aspect so redolent of early photographic experimentation such as Henry Fox Talbot’s Pencil of Nature, 1844. The dozen quotidian wire objects are given recognition solely through the act of collecting, recording and study, exploring ideas of transition, transformation and transfer in this process. Evocation and allusion convert the material object into a relic of nature, connoting a return to the past as a form of mental dérive, cerebral wandering.
A decade on from making the Touched series, Rob and Nick have explored a variety of divergent forms, marked by a combination of research, playfulness and sheer beauty coming to a zenith with the Transforming series. Old Master paintings are reappropriated as contemporary art - brought to life through digital animation such as the Transforming Nude Painting after Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, 2013 and Transforming Still Life Painting after Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, 2009-12. The works performs a doubly magical endeavour of creating both a moving image a still of an art historical subject that parallels the pertinent role the imagination plays in bringing an image to life. These works particularly apt as they follow the logical progression of a trajectory Nicky started on when we were studying on the new art and art history course at Goldsmiths College of Art in the late 1980s. We spent days going round the National Gallery soaking up classical painting, which complemented with no incongruity Nicky’s interest in the Minimalist sculpture of Judd and Morris. Over the intervening period after making the Touched series, I had become fascinated, while drawing, by the relationship between the object and its shadow to the extent that if felt like the object itself was being projected by its own shadow. Then I began painting my own shadow in cleaved lines of radiant pigment to test intuitions I had while exploring the nature of the indexical sign in relation to the photographic documentation of art whilst doing a research degree at Bristol University.
And so, on Rob and Nicky’s suggestion, we returned into the darkroom - this time into their huge, now dismantled room of camera obscura - to work with the last extant stock of Cibachrome paper. Aptly elegiac, the results convey a transitional ethereal state, ectoplasms where colour separates into halos of fringing, luminescent lines emitting light - projecting phosphorescence in the spinning ellipses of the twisted-up Slinky toys. From an impossibly complex and un-entangleable mass to a lightshow of seething lines eluding capture, the original object dissolves into shadow and colour as form. Like those Carter series; Multi Colour Lines, Spectrums…Spirals and Harmonographs, light is material, all blends and shifts in pulsing metamorphosis, ‘drawings in space’ as Nicky puts it.
Standing watching as the images peeled from the Cibachrome machine, I was reminded of something Martin Barnes, speaking from an ‘uncertain present’ said in his essay Traces, which accompanied his V&A Shadowcatchers exhibition in 2010. Photograms are ‘images existing beyond the visible spectrum’ that connect to a kind of magic and spiritualism. Indeed, the thinker Walter Benjamin saw photography per se as the quality of an alternate form of awareness, an awakening, the ‘optical unconsciousness’ that was to be so influential on Surrealism and which Man Ray’s ‘Rayograms’ owe homage.
Yet the Touching Shadows works make contact further back still - with Fox Talbot’s ‘a little bit of magic realised’, not only recording but originating from the spirit and the desire to believe the material world is possessed of an immanent value fixable by the photograph. A property which was to so cast a spell over Roland Barthes in the contemplation of an image of his late mother as a child that he reflects on without resolution in Camera Lucida, published in 1980 shortly before his death. The touch of the photogram, its relationship with the Other, akin to the otherness of madness, the ‘touched’, is also of that of the enlightened - the spiritually touched - the ecstatic visionary in dialogue with their shadow.
This cultural grey area is explored in the current Spellbound exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford that revolves around artefacts such as the Witch in the Bottle, from around 1850, on loan from the Pitt Rivers as an example of “magical thinking…reading humanity into the inanimate” that represents, for the curators Sophie Page and Marina Wallace, the phenomenon of museology itself. Such ‘magical thinking’, interpreting the ‘residual presence of what inhabited the object in the past’, even if as an animistic attribution of human presence, is an expression of the power of the imagination. Beyond its caricature as flight of fancy - instead rather a core urge to relish life; enhancing presence and Being precisely through uncertainty, through the ephemeral, doubtful, shadowy, tangled, lost and found…and lost again. Such an approach accords with the poet Keats’ idea of ‘Negative Capability’, advocated by Philip Pullman commenting on Spellbound in the Guardian this September, as the capacity for ‘being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…’, in the former’s words.
Over the decade between Touched and Touching Shadows, the speed of the photographic permeation of our reality has increased apace, accompanied by our ‘chronic voyeuristic relation’ to it, which was foreshadowed by Susan Sontag in her series of essays, On Photography in 1977. This ‘photographic condition’ of internal reflection has induced its opposite; the vital need for touch that lends the photogram its enduring appeal is, however, not solely the desire for the remains of physical contact to act as evidence of an external reality. More so the touching of minds, of imaginations, so essential to collaborative practice. The one realising the other. The medium of photogram with its uncanny ability to perform as liminal space that allows movement between the ‘pentimenti’ of drawing to the fluid allusiveness of painting and photography’s capacity to fix notions of reality creates a fertile space where such interplay can flourish. Its ‘drawing in the air’, elucidated by the Carters further allows the immateriality of thoughts that connect in twists and turns, intertwining dialogues of touching minds’ passing thoughts like spun wire lines coming into clear focus then fading again as the shadowy traces to be held close in memory.