Experimental Photography – as its name suggests, is defined as using non-traditional techniques upon Photography. This includes anything from digital editing, altering darkroom developments, playing with camera settings or usage or making Art Collages. With technology today, Experimental Photography has truly flourished.

The Birth of Experimental Photography Techniques

When analysing how to do Experimental Photography, we must look back in time at its origins. In history, the avant-gardes have always been exploring and experimenting to create unorthodox art. Experimental Photography was not recognized as an established art form until after World War I, when the art movement Dada was born. Dadaism was found in Zurich, Switzerland in 1915, developed to reject monarchy, militarism and conservatism. Dada artists believed that art should be without restrictions or boundaries, that art can be playful, unusual and free of limits. Many works portrayed irrationality, nonsense or protesting against violence, war and certain political aspects. Anti-art genres such as Futurism, Cubism, Expressionism, Collage and Abstract Art paved the way for the movement to detach from traditional definitions. The movement remains strong today as many artists find dissatisfaction in “accepted” art forms, seeking their own freedom through Experimental Photography. 

Man Ray, Untitled rayograph, 1922, Courtesy of Christie’s, London, UK.

Experimental Photography in History

In Renaissance Art, humans or objects were already depicted through a highly stylized lens and the notion of enhancing the body, nature, or architecture stems back much further. Enhanced color use, choreographed poses are often used to convey artistic messages. The first Photographs that were manipulated dated back in the mid 1800s, when a Photograph of John C. Calhoun was altered by stitching on the head of Abraham Lincoln. Later in the 1840s, during Calvert Richard Jones’ trip to Malta, he Photographed a group of Capuchin friars clustered together. However, dissatisfied with the figure of a man lurking in the background, Jones painted over the negative with Indian ink. When the Photograph was printed out, the man in the back blended it perfectly into the white sky. In the 1910s, studios offered services to edit in people who were absent from group portraits. Photo manipulation and retouching grew bigger throughout the 20th century, especially when technology was introduced. 

In 1916, Vortographs were created by Photo-Secessionist Alvin Langdon Coburn, where no subject matter is recognisable, proving that Photographs can be just as abstract as art. His works also reflected his interest in Cubism. Photograms – Photographs made without the use of a camera, but rather by exposing objects placed on Photographic papers to light was especially popular among the Dadaists. American Dadaist, Man Ray personalized Photograms into his own “Rayographs”, reinforcing the Dada essence of anti-art by emphasising abstraction. He published his series of Rayographs in December 1922, then released a film in 1923  Le Retour à la Raison ('Return to Reason') with adaption of Rayographs techniques.  Adam Fuss, Susan Derges and Christian Marclay are established artists today that still utilise photograms in their works. 

 Hanna Hoch - Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany

In 1918, German Dadaists Hanna Hoch, John Heartfield and George Grosz introduced Photomontages, which is defined as the process of overlapping two or more Photographs into one image.  Later on, the term “Photocollage” was coined in Europe, referring to works that include typography, brushworks or even pasted objects on the Photomontage. Hanna Hoch was the pioneer of Photomontages, combining Photographs and text she collected from newspapers or magazines into eccentric Collages that reflected social issues at the time. Hoch often addressed gender and sexuality, which pushed further the notion of individualism. A corner stone of Experimental Photography techniques, the combination of fine arts and culture through Collage then became more accepted and encouraged. Hanna Hoch left a legacy of Photomontages, of which her style is still visible in a lot of work made today. Photomontage techniques allowed artists to manipulate political and cultural images, making it an appealing medium of communicating their stances on social issues, especially during the two World Wars. Photomontages remain popular today, with the rise of scrapbooks or digital collages made with the help of tools such as Adobe Photoshop.  

During the 1950s and 1960s, Photographers continuously assembled and reassembled different images, creating a popular movement of Photographic exploration. Notable names include Frederick Sommer,  Ray K. Metzker, Robert Heinecken and Walter Chappell. Mid 70s, chemograms – the product of processing and painting on Photographic papers was discovered, and is considered a post-production of analog. Photographers started to stretch the limits of working in the darkroom, such as  Susan Rankaitis who made large-scale Photograms from images found in scientific textbooks. Photographers started to become interested in computer-generated images by the 1990s, creating collages of Photography, sculptures, printmaking and digital images. Modern artists nowadays are given much more freedom than ever, breaking the boundaries of traditional Photography and image-making. Experimental Photography also stretched beyond arts and into commercial and advertising purposes.

Experimental Photography has helped shape history, bringing about countless great expressionists, curating endless creative works that still remain today. Artists in history have always been reinventing and testing new horizons of creativity, pushing the limits for what was considered normal. Experimental Photography has truly influenced the world of Image-making for artists then and now, and it is expected that this narrative will evolve further. Young experimental Photographers are emerging with the help of social media. Beyond Photography’s mission is to realize the full potential of experimental image-making and create a community of like-minded artists, driving a new era of art in the 21st century. 

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