10 September 2012

A Camera-less Photograph

camera-less photo
The resultant photograph of leaves laid directly onto photographic paper

Years ago I did a City & Guilds photography course. I didn't realise it then but I was immensely privileged to be able to use the college's darkrooms to learn the basic principles of photography.

If you think about it a photograph is a record of light, not the objects in front of the viewfinder. It is light reflected off the objects that enters the lens of the camera, either film or digital (or phone!), and changes something within the camera. In an old fashioned film camera the light affects chemicals on the film; in a digital camera the reaction is electrical rather than chemical.

We gardeners understand the magic of light. It makes plants grow, but also manages to kill them by simply not being available or dehydrating them by shining too powerfully for too long. And now of course autumn is ‘in the air’. How do we know that when there is, as yet, no discernible lowering of temperature? It is because the light has changed. The Earth is tilting and we are still animal enough to sense it.

Using light sensitive photographic paper it is possible to witness light in action second by second.

Initial Set Up

And the reaction really is quick. Even as I was taking the paper out into the garden it began to change colour. Chemical changes turned the white paper blue. Quickly I lay on a fern, ivy and geranium leaves, and an helenium flower. The idea was to record their shapes by preventing light hitting the paper, but so sensitive are the chemicals that their shadows would also be recorded.

Close Up Chemical Changes Around A Leaf

Within in a minute or so the blue changed to a pinky brown. When these papers are used properly in a darkroom and exposed to the intense light from an enlarger they produce the black and subtle greys of a typical black and white photograph. But out in the open light from the sun is not strong enough to create these changes.

Half An Hour Later

Remember the sun moves through the sky so the light hitting the paper doesn't come from one direction. If you look closely at the above image you can see newly exposed areas around leaf edges. Because of this a crisp outline of the shapes isn't recorded, but I like that. Somehow it makes the shapes more alive and three dimensional.

Unfortunately I haven't got the chemicals to stop the chemical process continuing. Normally you would put the paper into a bath of fixative and then the photograph would last years and years without changing. But this one will transform over time endlessly until, I suppose, the leaves will disappear. At the moment it is on the wall by my computer. The blue colours have gone completely but the plants are still recognisable.

This photograph is an alive thing. It is not a recording of one moment in time, but a witness of Life itself (if you see what I mean!).