The Pigmented Shadows of Chronos

"Nature's brush" reverberates colourfully throughout Sabine Große's works. A myriad of earth tones and brightly coloured pigments penetrate through multiple layers and bring to mind the world of painting, yet no painter's brush has applied them. Instead, objects are traced by the light of the sun. In order to fix these impressions on paper, Große uses a special non-silver printing process to prepare light-sensitive pigmented layers on heavy stock, placing objects on them before exposing the paper to sunlight. This process is repeated a number of times, until the variously exposed shadows penetrate one another like ghost images and fuse into a colourful and phantom-like amalgam.

The dialogue between light, shadow and colour has been the overriding theme of Sabine Große's work. In 1995, she created her first photograms using colour negative paper, on which she systematically arranged objets trouvés by colour and exposed them with either a torch or a flash bulb. She also experimented with enamel and wax directly on the surface of the medium. Initially, Große used negative paper to turn each colour into its complement, but later also developed an interest in positive colour reversal processes, recording the shadows of coloured objects in both small and large format on positive Ilfochrome material.

colour archaeology

In 1998, Große began to explore the historical process of gum printing, and immediately realised the possibilities of exposing, layering and superimposing successive shadows in different colours. This allowed her to combine light with various body colours, and thus escape the confines of photographic colour space dictated by industrial tricolour chemistry. This process, known since the late 19th century, avoids the limited chromaticity of compound photographic colours, integrating discrete colours into the lightsensitive process. Floris M. Neusüss, author of the only existing anthology on the photogram, has rightly commented that Sabine Große "has introduced colour nuances never before seen in a photogram."
"Kindheitsträume" (Childhood Dreams) and "Zaubermantel" (Magic Coat) are some of the titles of Große's first shadow pictures based on the gum printing process. The titles refer to the autobiographical nature of these works, in which Große exposes her own body and that of her mother on individually coated sheets of paper. With each successive layer, these differently coloured body shadows were superimposed upon the shadows of objects from her childhood, found again after several decades. The human form appears as a distilled shadow, steeped in the memories of childhood. Also in her 2001 cycle "Begegnungen" (Encounters), Große creates highly individual portraits of old people at a gathering place. Their full-length body shadows coalesce with the shadows of their favourite objects.


In the spirit of the German painter Christian Schad, one might refer to Sabine Große's works as "compositions", the same term Schad used to describe his own shadow records of objets trouvés. Created during Schad's Dada period in Switzerland, they only later became known to art history as "Schadographien", or shadowgraphs. Sabine Große's works, too, fall into the category of "immaterial collages" based on found objects. In contrast to Schad, however, the composite image is not generated by means of a single exposure. Instead, an entirely new visual concept emerges as an unpredictable result of the temporal process of layering. One could say that in her shadow pictures the artist operates with a kind of inverse colour archaeology, but unlike an archaeologist removing layer by layer and penetrating deeper into history, she applies layer by layer, allowing different object constellations and temporal strata to penetrate one another.

Sabine Große at work

The gum printing process also entails a step out of the darkness of the laboratory into the light of day. The heavy paper must be prepared in semidarkness, and primarily reacts to the UV component of light after having been manually coated. Therefore, Große nearly always exposes the gummed papers with the help of sunlight under an open sky. The artist first seized on the idea of heliographic image exposure in connection with an exhibition in Kassel in 2003. Outside the entrance to the exhibition, she asked visitors and curious passersby to borrow their shadows for a few minutes. Each shadow was fixed on a single monochromatic layer, so that in the course of the exhibition the exposed shadows accumulated into a
phantom ensemble. The very lifeblood of works like "Besucher" (Visitors) lies partly in this ghost-like penetration, partly in the intensity of the colours, many of which are extremely vivid.

Through her work, Sabine Große has revitalised the fine art of gum printing. This process, first employed by John Pouncy in 1858, was especially popular among Pictorialists around the turn of the 20th century. Its name derives from gum arabic, used as a binding agent for colour pigments. A special chromium salt renders the gum sensitive to light by hardening it in places where the layer is exposed to high-energy UV light. The sheets are developed by simply washing out the unhardened, unexposed areas with water. Hardened areas attach to the medium in their respective colour pigment, while less exposed areas allow a gradated view of the underlying layer. The sheet may then be coated with new pigments and exposed once again. In this way,the process parallels the layering technique of painting. The matte, at times velvety surface and soft sfumato shades further reinforce the painterly effect. This process of coating and exposing may be repeated as many as six times. Like a painter, Große is constantly confronted with the question of when to stop. One additional layer can destroy an otherwise successful picture.


The Pictorialists employed this procedure mainly in combination with photographs taken by a camera, and even today their pictures are rather frowned upon by the art world as an attempt to lend a painterly expression to photographic images. In his reassessment of Pictorialism, German art historian Wolfgang Ullrich argues to the contrary that the intentionally blurred quality of these works represents one of the great discoveries of the 19th century. [3]

A crucial aspect of Sabine Große's works is her deliberate decision not to use a camera, and thereby literally come into direct contact with the pigmented layer. Robert de la Sizeranne's (1866-1932) statement that "blur is to focus precisely as hope is to satiation"[4]assumes new meaning through Große's works: their overlapping blurs and shadow gradients emerge as saturated overlays and densification of colour.

This is particularly apparent in Große's cycle "Im Walde" (In the Woods), which deals with the colour of soil in forests, fields and on beaches. While a "natural colour gum print"[5] invariably meant a tricolour print to the Pictorialists, Sabine Große introduces true natural pigments and their seemingly infinite possibilities into her works. Since 1998, she has collected samples of soil, branches and leaves in selected places. The samples are ground into a fine powder in her workshop, and the resulting pigments used to coat stiff sheets of paper, which subsequently are exposed at the same spot from which the samples were taken.

These earthen pigments call to mind Mario Reis' Nature Watercolor [6], in which the artist documents the process of river sedimentation. For over 30 years, Reis has sought out North American waterways, allowing canvases to accumulate sediments for several days and fixing the deposits on square grids. Even though Sabine Große's exposure process takes place within only a few minutes, the contraction of time manifests itself quite differently in her work. Frequently she revisits the same locations year after year, collecting soil and surface samples and adding further layers that she exposes once again. Thus, Chronos chronicles its own condensed earthen shadow. Works like "Am Rondell" (At the Roundabout), "Wiese" (Meadow) and"Im Walde" (In the Woods) echo the seasonal cycle. Ultimately, the artist redefines concepts such as plane and surface by allowing the material and physical nature of earth and soil to fuse with the two-dimensional plane of the picture. Tim Otto Roth

English translation: Thilo Reinhard


[1] Neusüss, Floris M.: Kunst und Fotografie, Marburg 2003, p. 144.
[2] Wescher, Herta: Die Geschichte der Collage – vom Kubismus bis zur Gegenwart, Köln 1974, p. 148.
Da Große keine flachen, sondern räumliche Gegenstände komponiert, ist der Begriff der Assemblage eigentlich treffender. So unterscheidet Aron Scharf hinsichtlich Schattenaufnahmen zwischen "auto-recorded collage" und "auto-recorded assemblage". See Scharf, Aaron: Art and Photography, Harmondsworth 1974, p. 232.
[3] Ullrich, Wolfgang: Unschärfe, Antimodernismus und Avantgarde, in: Geimer, Peter: Ordnungen der Sichtbarkeit, Frankfurt 2002, pp. 381-412.
[4] Robert, de la Sizeranne: La Photographie est-elle un art?, in: Revue de deux mondes (November 1897) Nr. 144, pp. 564 - 595, here p. 571.
[5] Behrens, Friedrich: Der Gummidruck – Praktische Anleitung vermittelst Aquarellfarben photographische Bilder herzustellen, Berlin 1898, p. 78.
[6] Vgl. Mario Reis, Retrospektive 50-20-25 (exhibition catalogue), Mainz 2004.

print edition

POSITION IV: Schatten.Schichten
20 pp, four colour offset print, A5
with a text by Tim Otto Roth
summer 2011

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