Shadow Catchers at the V&A

The V&A’s Shadow Catchers show aims to dispel the myth that you need a camera to create photographic images, showcasing the work of five contemporary practitioners of camera-less photography

Detail from Delphinium (1998) by Gary Fabian Miller

Shadow Catchers at London’s V&A Museum aims to dispel the myth that you need a camera to create photographic images, showcasing the work of five contemporary practitioners of camera-less photography…

‘Photograms’ – the technical term for the images created in camera-less photography – are made directly onto photographic paper through casting shadows, manipulating light, or chemically treating the surface of the paper.

Admittedly some aspects of the precise science behind the process are difficult to grasp, which is why it’s perhaps a good thing that the images themselves are so evocative. And it helps that each of the five artists featured in the V&A’s current exhibition has a particular focus; each interpreting the photogram in a unique and eclectic way.

Untitled (1962) by Floris Neusüss

Floris Neusüss’s use of nude models, for his full-length female portraits makes for some rather intimate viewing, for example. Seemingly caught in mid-air or coiled against the surface of his canvas, the images produce more than just the conventional silhouette, catching each contour and minute hair of his subjects. The effect is oddly voyeuristic and unsettling.

Be Right Back (1984/97) by Floris Neusüss

Neusüss’s installation, Fotogramminstallation (1984), echoes this disquieting theme. A vacant wooden chair is placed upon a photogram, capturing the shadow of a figure lounging casually upon it. The absence of the occupant haunts the installation; it serves as an account of the transience of time, an idea that also pervades Adam Fuss’s work.

Christening Dress from the series My Ghosts (1997) by Adam Fuss

Smoke from the series My Ghosts (1999) by Adam Fuss

Fuss invokes a world that is rife with spectral figures and metaphors: an X-ray-like image of a christening dress, recalling the absence of its owner; a vaguely human figure amid a funereal column of smoke; a baby in a shallow bath with baptismal connotations.

Animals and nature also provide a rich source for Fuss’s predilection for symbolism, with images of birds, butterflies and snakes providing welcome relief from his more static subjects.

Breathing in the Beech Wood (2004) by Gary Fabian Miller

Nature also informs the early work of Gary Fabian Miller, with his studies of reeds, leaves and petals injecting some (much needed) colour into the exhibition. By allowing light to shine directly through plants onto the paper, Miller replaces the monochromatic effect of the traditional photogram with a vibrant alternative.

A grid of leaves, selected on separate days in spring, provides a beautiful visual timeline of the evolution of the season. In another study, Delphinium (1998, detail shown top), Miller uses a sequence of images obtained from a petal – starting with virginal blushes of pink moving through to a deep regal purple – to demonstrate the varying effects of light in a single day.

Arch (2007/08) by Susan Derges

Arch (2007/08) by Susan Derges

Susan Derges’s studies of natural subjects have a more unearthly, defamiliarising effect. In Arch (2007) she digitally pieces together photograms of plants and scans of ink falling through water, to create four distinct images representing the four seasons. The landscapes are multi-layered, emotive and have a fairytale quality despite their digital innovation.

Dedalogram (1987) by Pierre Cordier

Chemigram 20/03/92 from La Suma of Jorge Luis Borges (1992) by Pierre Cordier

The most dramatic experiments with camera-less photography, however, are present in the works of Pierre Cordier. Pioneering the use of the ‘chemigram’, Cordier used materials such as egg and wax to artificially create patterns and shapes on photographic paper once exposed to light.

Cordier often found inspiration in poetry and maps and the images presented in the show depict a series of surreal, almost futuristic, mazes and labyrinths. Vivid examples include his Dedalogram (1987), based on the pattern of the labyrinth at the abbey of St. Bertin in France and Chemigram 20/3/92 from La Suma of Jorge Luis Borges (1992), which cleverly encodes Borges’s poem within its deeply abstract shapes.

Camera-less photography may sound like a contradiction in terms but the V&A’s exhibition challenges our preconceptions of what photography really is. Although the science behind some of these pieces may remain a mystery, the images on display are highly unusual, beautiful and well worth seeing.

Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography is on at the V&A until February 20. Tickets are £5 (concessions £4). For further information, visit or call + 44 (0)20 7907 7073.

Daguerreotype (2001) by Adam Fuss


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