Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography at the V&A

Posted on December 3, 2010


The five artists, exhibiting in Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography at the V&A museum, have not chosen straightforward careers for themselves. Their work is caught in a limbo between photography and painting; art and craft; acceptance and disregard. The lowly lit exhibition space swathed in black is reminiscent of a dark room and indicative of their purgatory from the mainstream.

There is much variety within this little exhibition; the binding aspect of these artists’ work appears to be the minority status of their medium. This serves to provide an interesting cross-section of what it is possible to do without a camera. The various techniques employed by the artists will mystify the greater part of visitors and this shrouds the works in the enigmatic power of the unfamiliar.

The work of Floris Neusüss and Adam Fuss tends towards a material form, taking inspiration from art, photographic and cultural histories; many of Neusüss images are figurative – impish silhouettes of svelte females, while Fuss projects concrete forms with spiritual or personal meanings. Pierre Cordier and Garry Fabian Miller’s works are more evocative of intricate scientific photography. Cordier specifies that his images are “fake photographs of an imaginary, improbable and inaccessible world”, however they have the abstract flavour of photos taken under a microscope. Fabian Miller has produced empirical studies that explore the connection between nature and light, such as a series of petals that gradually progress from ephemeral traces into vivid form. Susan Derges blurs the boundaries between the scientific document and the artistic with her seemingly abstract underwater images.

At the centre of the exhibition is an informative film playing on loop. Each artist was given a few minutes to talk about his or her work. In varying ways each stress that their images do not represent the real; that they are not documents. This assertion is a symptom of the controversial position of these artists’ work within the much-debated field of photography as art. I am not denying that photography is largely accepted as an artistic medium, however, what these artists are doing is different and issues arise with the inevitable task of categorisation; Cordier strives to be acknowledged as a painter, being repeatedly denied this title and refusing “photographer” he jokingly settles for “faux-tographer”.

These artists have taken the mechanical out of photography, hereby negating one of the original arguments against photography as art, and by incorporating painterly elements into the development process it could be argued that they have successfully fused the two mediums. This would horrify particular bygone photographers and painters alike. However, in many cases, the artist is still withdrawn from the image-making process; some of these works are truly made by nature’s hand, and so the argument of photography as document still applies.

What these five artists are doing is not new; Pierre Cordier was a contemporary of Brassaï, but the fact remains that there are few, nay no, well known Camera-less Photographers. A surprising fact given that some of these artists have successfully engaged with contemporary artistic discourses and given the incredibly broad definition of art today, which can range from oil painting to a man cooking Indian food, it seems that the only thing thus far missing is a receptive audience…

The Exhibition runs at the Victoria and Albert Museum until the 20th February 2011.