I think it’s a really vital moment for photography right now. Over the past few years, a number of artists have re-opened the discussion on the nature of photography, investigating the materials and processes of the medium itself. Of course, this recent examination is part of a long lineage of experimentation in photography, seen in the work of artistic giants such as László Moholy-Nagy (included in MoMA’s current Bauhaus exhibition) as well as in more recent experimentation by artists such as James Welling. Walead Beshty is active in many of these discussions, as both a writer on the subject and an artist addressing the basic processes of photography.
One of the first things students learn in photography class is how to make a photogram—that is, a picture made without the use of the camera. It is photography stripped down to its most basic elements: exposing light-sensitive paper to light. Man Ray famously called his elegant and poetic pictures Rayographs, and artists have been experimenting in the darkroom to make camera-less images ever since.
I like to think of Walead’s monumental color photograms as blind drawings. To make them, the artist rolled portions of unexposed color photographic paper and exposed them to different colors of light. The photograms are made in total darkness, and the composition is the direct result of predetermined rules set by the artist. These parameters determine the way the work looks, from the size of the sheet of paper (about as long as the artist’s body when he extends his arms above his head) to the pictures’ colors (made by exposing the paper to the spectrum of additive colors: cyan, magenta, and yellow). In some ways, these photographs are the end result of a performance by the artist, literally the physical manifestation of a set of chance operations. In this interview, Walead discusses his work on view in New Photography 2009 and how he is just another instrument in the process of creating his photographs.