Christin Müller
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Getting into Photography

A retrospective glance at artistic interventions in analog photography from the nineteenth century onward

Digital photographs are often described as liquid or fluid. Their essential characteristic is the ability to migrate rapidly between various formats, devices, places, and people within seconds. In terms of their materiality, digital images are not fixed.1 Unlike analog photographs, they are not tied to a carrier, but rather correspond to a chain of zeros and ones. Compared to their original analog format, the fluidity of digital photography has led to a simplification and shift in the way in which photographic images are now used. Smartphones with their cameras have led to an infinite and exponential quantification in the production of photographic images. We share, like, and sample countless images with ease. In the flood of images that flow at us on public and private channels, it is becoming increasingly difficult to grasp photography as a medium. Photographs have long ceased to function as mere images or windows to the world. Rather, they have become important instruments of communication and a means of creating events and identities. Despite the elimination of analog photography from everyday life, this form of photography has been experiencing an impressive renaissance in the artistic sphere in recent years. Why is this so? How do photographers and artists deal with the analog characteristics of the medium? Is it inherently anachronistic, or rather a shift in the way in which analog photography is utilized?

Digital media has changed the way in which analog photography is perceived. A look at the history of photography shows that photographers and artists have been utilizing the medium of photography long before the attribution of analog was made. Like no other art form, the mediums of photography and film, which are created by recording sources of light, have been bound to the technical limitations of their respective times. As a result, image creators not only have to fine-tune their images on a technical level but also have the ability to shift the parameters of image creation and intervene performatively in photography and film. Initially, in the mid-nineteenth century, photographic pioneers devoted themselves to developing ways to create natural representation through their photography. In the early stages of photography, not just the creation of detailed correspondence between a photographic representation and its actual subject was a key issue, but also the balanced translation of colors into gray values as well as the increase in the light sensitivity of photographic material. Due to long exposure times, the subjects had to freeze in front of the camera. Changes in brightness and contrast of individual color values did not correspond to natural human perception and could sometimes greatly distort the visual appearance of the person depicted. The materials used to produce pictures (heavy large-format cameras, paper or glass negatives, various chemicals) could also massively affect the final result. 2 Photographers attempted to counteract these errors in images by utilizing a variety of photographic processes. During this era, photography was an experimental field for science and art. While scientists strove for a high degree of precision in images and worked against the medium's inherent dynamics, which were difficult to control, artists made use of these qualities. They decided upon technical parameters according to artistic preference and motif. In her portraits created in the 1860s, Julia Margaret Cameron opted to work with blurring as a design technique, foregoing the possibility of creating more detailed images, even though it had long been technically possible.3 Never was the range of photographic processes greater and the medium of photography more open from a technical standpoint than in this early period.

The development of smaller and easier-to-use cameras and the establishment of standards for technology and print in the early twentieth century marked the starting point of the New Vision movement (Neues Sehen). Before this period, a photographic camera had generally been a large heavy wooden box. Photo negatives were created by applying a light-sensitive layer to paper or glass plates, which necessitated that they were developed immediately after exposure. New technical simplifications gave the creators of images more freedom and latitude in photographic expression. They worked against the static photography of the nineteenth century by using tilted perspectives and dynamic image compositions. A new visual approach toward photography emerged that took into account the accelerated reality of life during industrialization. László Moholy-Nagy, for example, experimented with the medium in a visionary way. Not only did he devote himself artistically to the photogram and the art of camera-less photography. As early as 1928, he spoke of the importance of visual language: "It is not the person ignorant of writing but the one ignorant of photography who will be the illiterate of the future."4 Moholy and his contemporaries used photography to create a new visual language, in the spirit of innovation and the intellectual and social awakening of modernism.

A next shift occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. As conceptual artists broke with conventional art forms and photography entered museums, photographers took another critical look at their medium. The central parameters of photography were scrutinized during this period: the conditions under which a photograph was taken, the perspective of the camera, as well as the reception of a photograph. Unlike in the first half of the twentieth century, artists were now concerned with the creation of meaning and the power of the photograph. Many of the works from this period have eloquent titles, which reveal a lot about the artist’s own interests. Ugo Mulas investigated fundamental conditions of photography in his work Verifiche between 1970 and 1972 in a series of fourteen small image groups (of which he realized only twelve). Each of these verifications was dedicated to a photographer or artist. He parabolically examined individual aspects of photography in the series, i.e. in #4: L'uso della fotografia. Ai fratelli Alinari (The use of photography. Dedicated to the Alinari brothers) or #6: L'ingrandimento dalla mina finestra ricordando la finestra di Gras (The enlargement. The view from the window in memory of the window in grass5). Another example from this era was the artist Timm Rautert. From 1968 to 1974, he created an extensive group of works titled Image Analytical Photography, which is reminiscent of experimental trials. The work 2/10s-9/10s, for example, consists of a series of exposures, which he created by using eight pieces of photographic paper and exposing them for the duration indicated in the title, thus referring in an abstracted form to the influence of light regulation on image composition. Other works from this group describe in a protocol-like manner how the image result came about, for example Contact of a half-exposed negative. Cassette half-opened, closed again after 2 sec. (counted 21, 22), 14.06.71, 2 p.m., daylight, overcast. In other works, Rautert used printed words to name the photograph or a photographed photograph in the image to show that one is looking at a photograph and not into the real world. Another artist, who questioned the constitutive conditions of the medium, in the early 1970s, was John Hilliard. By, say, using a selective focus in his work Untitled (She Observed Her Reflection in the Glass), he drew attention to various levels of image and meaning. His work Cause of Death dealt with how the perception of a photograph could be modified by simply showing different segments of the image.

William J. Mitchell was the first to distinguish between photochemically and digitally produced images and to introduce the concept of analog photography as distinct from the digital, in his book The Reconfigured Eye6, which was published in 1992. At the same time, theorists and artists declared photography dead. Until the early 2000s, there was a widespread assumption that the influence of new media would displace photography in its previously known form.7 The 1996 exhibition Photography after Photography drew on this notion and presented image strategies of the computer age. The end of photography never came, neither in its digital nor analog manifestation; rather, the flood of images prophesized in the 1920s has turned out to be a tsunami of images. Taking into account the sheer velocity and quantity of digital photography, the medium's resurgent analog use in the realm of art feels like slamming on the breaks while going full speed. However, in a time of visual ecstasy of social media, fake news, as well as the reevaluation of the relevance of the photo archive, which is becoming increasingly obsolete after digitization, working with analog photography is a means to reflect on the scope of the concept of the image and our imagery. Unlike their predecessors, who perfected the photographic image, sought new visual languages, and analyzed the functions of the medium, contemporary artists have taken a very direct approach to photography. They engage with the elements of the analog to establish a new approach to this style of photography and experiment with light, chemicals, and material. As a result, the boundaries of the medium have been expanded and have become more flexible or fluid.

With the advent of digitization, the body of photography received renewed attention. Often, when looking at a photograph, the image carrier is overlooked; we only see the motif. The carrier is usually only noticed when it is damaged in some way or specifically emphasized. A starting point for the artistry of photography can be found precisely here: in the work with the image carrier, in its characteristics and properties. The works exhibited in ANALOG TOTAL exemplify how, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, artists deals with photographic material, freeing themselves from technical conventions. In their series Future Memories, Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs physically process their negatives with a laser, cutting them up and reassembling them. Eun Sun Cho, Ria Wank, and René Schäffer provoke pictorial reactions on photographic paper by deliberately exposing it to photo chemicals, unconventional chemicals, or fungi before developing it. Helena Petersen exposes photographic material through the explosion that occurs when firing a shot. Other artists draw on historical processes and experimental techniques from nineteenth-century photography. These techniques were more open to experimental intervention than those that followed—take for instance highly standardized processes such as 35-mm photography with negative film. The flexibility of historical techniques allows for a transformation of photographic parameters and, at the same time, their interrogation. How variably photographic paper reacts to natural and artificial light is investigated by Jana Dillo, Tine Edel, Harald Mairböck, and Günter Derleth with their direct exposures, which reference early forms of photographic recording on paper negatives. Ute Lindner uses the cyanotype process and exposes strips of fabric instead of paper. Claus Stolz's heliographs are created by using one of the oldest techniques to photographically fixate images—first introduced by Niécephore Niépce around 1826. However, in his modified process he allows the light to react with the photographic material until it dissolves. The infinite reaction of photographic material to light, which at some point leads to the disappearance of a motif, is the subject of Silvia Ballhause's work, in which she makes visible the corrosion of the famous Munich daguerreotype triptych as a singular pictorial motif.

The spread of digital photography has not led to a displacement of analog techniques, but rather to their reconsideration and to new ways of engaging with them. Productively working with analog material enables the construction of new perspectives and concurrently highlights the limitations of its digital counterpart. This increases the differences in digital and analog methods of photography and raises the question of how long the term “photography” can be applied to both of these modes. As early as the 1990s, it was said that “new ways of producing images shake the traditional conceptual framework”8 und it was speculated that the term photography would one day not be applicable to digital images because they were not imprints of reality.  However, only now are these two respective modes being used in very specific and differentiating ways. It is precisely this greater differentiation between analog and digital working methods that provides an opportunity to develop new types of images instead of nostalgically mourning the disappearance of certain photographic traditions. The answers to the questions of what makes a picture a picture and what the relationship between photography and the world is are thus far more complex than ever before.


1   Cf. André Gunthert: Das geteilte Bild. Essays zur digitalen Fotografie(Konstanz: Konstanz University Press, 2019).

2   The photo emulsions used at first reacted differently to short-wave and long-wave portions of the light spectrum, which resulted in unnatural transposition of colors; for example, a dark blue sky appeared light gray in the photo, and golden blond hair as a dull black, and so on. In the first paper negatives, the details of the photograph were lost. The glass negatives used subsequently allowed for more sharpness but were more difficult to use. Cf. Jan van Brevern: “Die Wissenschaft vom Verzicht. Farbenlehren der Schwarz-Weiß-Fotografie im 19. Jahrhundert,” in Bildwelten des Wissens, Vol. 8,2: Graustufen, (ed.) Horst Bredekamp, Matthias Bruhn, Gabriele Werner (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2011), 54-64.

3   Cf. Mirjam Brusius: “Unschärfe als frühe Fotokritik: Julia Margaret Camerons Frage nach dem Maß der Fotografie im 19. Jahrhundert,” in Ingeborg Reichle, Steffen Siegel(ed.): Maßlose Bilder: visuelle Ästhetik der Transgression (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag), 341-358.

4   Lászlo Moholy-Nagy: “Fotografie ist Lichtgestaltung,” in: Bauhaus Zeitschrift für Bau und Gestaltung (Dessau: Bauhaus) 1/1928, 2-9, quote from p. 5.

5   With "Window in Grass," Mulas refers to the first photographically fixed image by Nicéphore Nièpce, who in 1826 captured the view from the window of his study.

6   William J. Mitchell: The Reconfigured Eye. Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1992).

7   Cf. Das Ende der Fotografie. Der Gebrauch der Fotografie II, Kunstforum International, No. 172, 2004.

8   Florian Rötzer: “Betrifft: Fotografie,” in Hubertus von Amelunxen (ed.): Fotografie nach der Fotografie (Munich: Verlag der Kunst Dresden,1996) 13-25, here 24.

Place of Publication
Grassi Museum of Applied Arts (Ed.): Analog Total. Photography Today, 2021, pp. 12-21.