A photogram is a photograph made by placing objects on or in front of light-sensitive paper which is then exposed to light. The resulting image appears as light silhouettes of the objects on a dark ground.
The best-known photograms are Man Ray’s “rayograms.”
What distinguishes a photogram from a camera photograph is the fact that a photograph is created with a single-point perspective device – a lens – while the target of the photogram is actually the paper on which the image is made.
In the general experience of the viewer, traditional photography can hardly exist without single-point perspective. Even within detail shots, perspective is implied – even if only from the distance between the camera and the object of the picture. We see photography by assuming the viewpoint of the camera – the focal point of the lens, to be precise – is the focal point of the photographer’s eye; then we put ourselves in that position and see the image from this assumed human viewpoint.
Mathematically linear perspective was first used in Western art by Masaccio and Brunelleschi in the early 15th century, and it has been the standard for realistic painting ever since.
Modernism in visual art can be described as the systematic shunting of principles of academic art: The Impressionists left behind the drawing and high finish of academic painting; the Post Impressionists discarded volume while reintroducing outlines; the Fauves gave up accuracy in color; the abstractionists gave up recognizable subjects; and so on.
Within this Modernist narrative, Man Ray’s photograms discarded single-point perspective from photography – which makes them feel like abstraction with its literal surface freed from the illusion of single-point perspective.
Photograms are the primary work in MECA professor Bryan Graf’s exhibition “Moving Across the Interior.” It’s a restless show featuring many modes of photography, an active studio space in which Graf produces photograms, a museum-like vitrine and photographs that document Graf’s photogram process.
The first photos in the show, for example, comprise a matched pair: “Shot / Reverse Shot #1” is a photogram of screen material (think summer windows) and a Polaroid photograph of Graf’s making the photogram – which includes him and reveals the form in the top right corner is in fact the shadow caused by the artist’s arm.
The “Shot” part of the pair is a smart but rather unremarkable black and white abstraction. It’s a print in the mold of Louise Nevelson’s late “Celebration” series except without the colorful celebration. The “reverse shot” component, on the other hand, is extremely revealing about the intentions, aspirations and ambitions of Graf’s art. The “reverse shot” is a cinema term from the back and forth camera shots of dialogue in film. More specifically, Graf follows Jean-Luc Godard’s famous criticism for rewriting the reverse shot since Godard thought dialogue should be shot over the shoulder of the listener – with the reverse shot turning to show the listener’s reaction.
Oddly, Graf’s work doesn’t reverse itself, but rather reintroduces theatricality and performance to the making of his photograms. In this sense, Graf is more like Hitchcock inserting himself via cameo.
It’s clear that Graf is wrestling with pictorial Modernism. The grid is a model for Modernism and Graf constantly comes back to it with his screens and “broken lattice” series. Besides Man Ray, Graf makes direct references to Jean Arp’s collages “arranged according to the laws of chance” – another high water mark of Modernism.
In the temporary photogram studio Graf has set up in the ICA’s middle gallery, there are black and white photograms in which Graf exposed light while dropping handfuls of plastic sign letters in front of the photographic paper and exposing the paper with a flash of light.
While the reference to Arp’s work and process is clear, this also activates theatricality and perspective. There is a long tradition of single light sources in art – most beautifully in the wake of painters like Vermeer or Rembrandt. While photograms use the logic of a scanning bed, they can be made with a single point light source – which plays into the classic artistic trio: object, viewpoint and light source. While traditional painting long had a handle on internal candles and the external sun, the logic of the spotlight references modern theater.
Graf’s photography can’t sit still. So it’s no surprise he constantly looks to squirmy artists like Duchamp and Gerhard Richter (and if the ideas in their work interest you, then so will Graf’s). Graf feels caught between absorption and theatricality: He admires the cinema’s un-ironic suspension of disbelief but he wants the spotlights of theater. He wants us to admire his craft (his technique and craftsmanship are impressive) and his braininess, but doesn’t want to come across as a pretentious narcissist.
Pandering aside, it matters that artists care what we think: Culture, after all, is a public phenomenon.
Graf’s work is technical and meanders so widely that it takes some time to get a read on it. But when you do, you find the complete package: an artist with brains, ability, theoretical depth, a feel for the audience, respect for history, quirky flair and an energized desire to keep moving no matter what.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org