Recently I’ve been pondering what to do with an unopened box of Ilford black & white photographic paper, as sadly I no longer have access to a chemical darkroom or enlarger. But then a recent Photojojo article fortuitously reminded me of the joys of making photograms!
Have you heard of photograms? (That’s a very basic example above, and below – two of the very first I ever made.)
above images ⓒ SWS
More importantly, did you know you can easily make funky images at home with a simple do-it-yourself darkroom? If no, read on! (If yes, why not go ahead and read on anyway?!)
First, let’s look at a teeny bit of background theory about photograms – then the really fun “doing” bit! (Hold on to your hat!)
Photograms are photographic prints that don’t require the use of a camera. Instead, they’re made by laying objects directly onto photosensitive paper and then exposing it to light.
While the process had been known since the early history of photography, it re-emerged in various avant-garde contexts during the early 1920s. Man Ray refined and personalised the technique to such an extent that the new prints became known as “rayographs“.
These are unique works because there can only be one of each rayograph, and this sets them apart from the bulk of photography. This is one of Man Ray’s photograms below – in this composition, light has traced the contours of some thumbtacks, a coil of wire, and some interesting circular thingies:
Man Ray “rayograph” (1922)
So how can you make photograms in the comfort of your very own home?
Okay, here’s the fun “doing” bit…
There’s no need for chemicals or an enlarger – you simply make your photograms using black & white photographic paper and the sun. Rather than preserving your exposure with chemicals, you preserve it by scanning it. While the image on your photo paper will eventually fade away, it will be forever preserved in pixels instead!
WHAT YOU NEED
- Objects that you can use to make an image (small enough to fit on your photo paper)
- The sun or a lamp
- Any size black & white photo paper
- A dark room (any room where you can completely block out light)
- A light proof box big enough to fit your photo paper — an old photo paper box works well
- A flatbed scanner
- A sheet of glass that fits over your photo paper (optional)
STEP 1: PLAN YOUR PHOTO
Decide what you want your photo to look like. Think about how photograms work — if your object is opaque, then your image will look like a solid shape. If it’s a little transparent, the image will have texture.
We used leaves, flowers, and our hand, but you can pretty much use anything — paper cut-outs, confetti, plastic toys, ribbon … yep, anything!
You can even make tiny prints out of film negatives. The bigger the negative, the bigger the print. You can also add drawings or text to your photogram by using mylar (a clear plastic sheet) or transparency sheets and markers.
STEP 2: LIGHT PROOF YOUR PAPER
Find the darkest room in your house. Closets or bathrooms without windows work best. You can also block out windows with dark fabric.
Just make sure it’s dark enough that you can’t see your hand in front of your face. You’re working with photo paper, and it’s very sensitive to light.
Gather your photo paper (we used 5″ x 7″ Ilford Multigrade RC in Satin, but any kind should work), your photo subjects, and your light-proof box. Take them into your chamber o’ photo-makery a.k.a. the dark room you just prepared.
Before you turn out the lights, memorize where you’ve placed everything on your work surface. You’ll be using them in the dark.
STEP 3: PREP YOUR PAPER
Now that it’s pitch-black, it’s safe to open up your box of photo paper. Take out one sheet and place it inside your light proof box.
Compose your photo subjects onto the page. This is what’s going to make up your image! Once you’re done, close your lightproof box again.
Before you turn the lights on again, double check that your box of photo paper is closed, as well as your lightproof box with your single sheet of photo paper in it (so you don’t expose all that paper!).
STEP 4: PREP YOUR LIGHT
You can choose between exposing your photo with the sun or with a lamp. Your exposure time will vary depending on which you go with, so keep that in mind.
Take your lightproof box with your one photo sheet in it to where you’ll be exposing your photo. If you’re using the sun, you can take it directly outside or you can set it by a window that gets direct sunlight.
If you’re using a lamp, you’ll be placing it right under that lamp where the light evenly hits the entire sheet.
Open your lightproof box, and double check that your composition is just how you want it.
TIP!: You might want to use a sheet of glass to flatten your objects. This makes the edges of your image sharper. An easy way to get a sheet of glass is by using the glass that comes in a photo frame.
STEP 5: MAKE AN EXPOSURE
With a lamp light, it can take 1-4 hours to get the same results. The longer you have it exposed to light the darker the image will be.
Now it’s just a matter of waiting and letting the light do its magic. To pass the time you could make yourself a cup of tea or watch someDownton Abbey … or both.
How do you choose when to stop your exposure? When you see that the photo paper is much darker than its original color, your image is ready. It might take a couple of test runs to get just what you want, but that’s what’s so fun about making photos in the darkroom.
Here’s an idea of how long Mike exposed these photos for: yellowish plant photo exposed for 1.5 hours under a lamp, the hand exposed for 1.5 hours under a 100W work lamp (the hand was a matboard cutout in case you were wondering!), the orange exposed for 2 hours in sunlight, the purple colored plant exposed for 3 hours in occasional sunlight through a window.
STEP 6: SCAN IT BEFORE IT DISAPPEARS!
Since you aren’t using fixing chemicals, you’ll preserve your photo by scanning it.
Set up your scanner, open up your lightproof box, and place the sheet with your exposure on it on the scanner bed.
Scan it. Open up your image in any photo editing program, and invert it. This’ll make it look like a positive image, since photograms make images that look like negatives. If you like how it looks as a negative, you can leave it that way, too!
There you have it! Your creation, in its full glory. Beautiful, isn’t it?
STEP 7: EDIT AS YOU PLEASE
You might notice dust or other bits that you don’t want on your image. To get rid of them, use a spot removal tool such as the Spot Healing tool in Photoshop.
At this point, it’s a free-for-all. You might want to up the contrast, play with color, or saturation.
You might want to save the original scan, so you can experiment with different renditions (think of it as a film negative you can go back to and make lots of different kinds of prints from!).
Your paper exposure won’t last forever since you’re not using any wet chemicals to preserve the image. It’s up to you whether you want to throw it out, keep using it to layer more exposures (save it in the lightproof box, if so), or hang it on the wall and watch it change over time.
MORE IDEAS TO TRY
- Make one exposure, then layer more objects on top for a second less contrasty image.
- Making a photogram indoors in artificial light gives you more control over your photogram since it’s steady light.
- Use pieces of cardboard as stencils to shape the light as it hits the page.
- Having trouble getting your composition right? Tape your subject(s) onto a piece glass first, then place that on the photographic paper.
The only limitation is your imagination!
So, are you keen to try making your very own photograms at home? Have you perhaps already experimented with them before? Do tell – share your own experience of photograms!