The Photogram|Light, Trace and Shadow. 8/9 April 2006

Symposium report

There was one thing about which all the forty odd participants of the symposium were in agreement: The event was certainly far from tedious. The unexpectedly absorbing discussions centred on the apparent media outlaw photogram which was to comprise the focal point of a conference for the first time.

The art historians present at the conference were initially a little perturbed that the photogram was not discussed in an art but primarily scientific context. For their part, at the beginning of the event there was doubt about e.g. whether one should, in fact, characterise radiographic pictures as photograms. Last but not least, fundamental doubt was expressed about whether one can, or rather should really make a distinction between photogram and photograph.

It may have been a result of the priorities of the various contributors that the question as to the relationship of the photogram and imprint methods tended to be consigned rather to the background. The majority of participants saw a more pressing need for clarification respecting the question as to the relationship between the photogram and the photograph. In this connection, there were two main lines of argumentation: The representatives of the first of these lent their support to a general definition of the concept of photography based on the argument favouring the similarities of a photographic surface. The other line rather followed the action of light, thereby underlining how differently it is physically processed in front of the photographic surface. The differences in these arguments became especially apparent in the two lectures held in the third bloc on Sunday morning. Thus, from a historical perspective, Kelly Wilder advocated a more comprehensive concept of photography since, to date, a homogenous historical-conceptual image of photogram and photography has been lacking. By contrast, the computer scientist and ray-tracing-expert, Philip Slusallek, saw clear procedural-technical differences and, by means of a diagram, demonstrated how differently the light ray path runs in the photogram and camera photography before appearing on the light-sensitive surface.

Behind the two lines of argumentation there were concealed various tacit methodological approaches. Surprisingly enough, in this connection, a picture-immanent approach had as good as no role to play throughout the symposium. Opposed to such an approach, Monika Domman, for example, contested that in her examination of early radiographic pictures she was sure of obtaining greater expressiveness from dense descriptions of the original context than from the isolated observation of pictures. Radiological diagnoses are, after all, a conglomerate of various information and are not exclusively pictorial information, which she underscored by citing the example of the patient record. The majority of the historians of art and science, present at the conference, considered themselves predominately aligned with this historically, mostly production- aesthetical approach. By contrast, the representatives of art and natural sciences encountered the photogram initially at the level of technical definition. Lambert Wiesing also vehemently contended for such a definitional clarification from a philosophical perspective.

The four half an hour panels provided sufficient space to enter into in-depth discussions with the contributors. Hence, much plausible discussion was given over to the question as to whether one can, in fact, talk of a camera-less photography and what the concept of plasticity means with respect to radiographic pictures. In addition, there were other productive digressions which discussed in greater detail, e.g., the relationship between photograph and diagram. The heterogeneous assembly of participants thus repeatedly led to mutually productive irritation: As a result, Philipp Slusallek appeared to be surprised by the term trace, as used at the symposium, the semantics of which were uncommon to him as well as the frequent irritation that emerged among the participants.

At the soirée on Saturday evening the photogram also achieved recognition as an art form. Contrasted by a didactic radiographic film from the year 1937, five films provided rare insight into photogrammatic film production between the years 1923 - 2002. During the concluding discussion with Floris M. Neusüss, among others, the interesting question was raised by Noam Elcott as to whether or not the most recent Renaissance of the photogram was connected to the fact that the artists had recourse to 19th Century approaches.

If there was any minimal consensus which the heterogeneous visitors were able to find within the short time of only two days, then it was most probably in the formulation that photograph and photogram have to do with two different forms of representation. The encounter of these different techniques of representation in one and the same picture was worked out in a particularly graphic manner by Peter Geimer by means of a fly, the shadow of which became noticeable as a photogram on a historical camera photograph. In the final public contribution, Noam Elcott sought to explain what this difference in representation comprises. Following Elcott, camera-less photography and the photogram respectively, involve a special relationship between three dimensional bodies and all types of rays. Unlike photography, that this does not have to do with the surface of the body but far more with its porosity is especially shown in radiographs, but also in other light spectrums. For Elcott, the essential indication of a difference lies in the fact that in the pictures resulting from this porosity it is effectively meaningless to talk of positive and negative.

translation: Justin Morris
editing: Tim Otto Roth/ Miriam Seidler, Köln 2006

In June 2006 a further symposium report by Noam E. Elcott was published in issue #54 of EIKON, international magazine for photography and media art/Vienna.what is a shadowgraph