NEW YORK — What is a photograph?
From photography's very beginning, there has always been more than one answer to that question. On the medium's official launch in 1839, a photograph was both a precise, one-of-a-kind image permanently fixed on a mirror-like metal plate (the Daguerreotype) and a replicable print on paper, made from a paper negative (the calotype, or photogenic drawing).
Ever since, what photographs look and feel like has continued to evolve with changing technology and aesthetic intent. A camera or even a lens has never been requisite to the process (think of photograms, made by placing objects directly onto prepared paper), but a few ingredients have been constant: light, at least, and a photo-sensitive surface.
Now, with the advent of digital media, even those basics have dropped away as no longer necessary. What is a photograph? The answer becomes even more elusive, rendering the question either moot or newly pressing, depending on who's asking.
It serves as the title and open-ended prompt of an exhibition recently opened at the International Center of Photography in New York. The show (through May 4) features work by 21 artists who explore the materiality of the medium now that digital processes have increasingly dematerialized it. Photographs, for the first time, need no longer be objects.
"There was suddenly this pressure, a kind of historical pressure on photography that was exerted by this changing technology," ICP curator Carol Squiers says. "No one knew what it meant or how far it would go or what would happen."
As digital media have taken over, traditional processes have lost favor as inefficient and obsolete. Darkrooms have been dismantled, film and photographic papers become more limited in availability and variety. Such scarcity poses a challenge to artists, Squiers says.
"It's like telling a painter that red and blue are no longer going to be available from next year on. If you were a painter, you'd wonder, what am I going to do?"
The show makes clear that the closing of one door forces others open. Artists here approach photography as a syncretic medium, malleable and expansive. Mariah Robertson's "154" spans a continuous, 100-foot-long roll of color photographic paper with improvised drips and streaks amid recognizable forms, the whole reading like a looping stream of visual consciousness. Owen Kydd shoots "durational photographs," videos of still scenes sporadically enlivened by moving reflections and changing light.
Others incorporate paint and cement, invent images and interrupt them. Liz Deschenes' work nods elegantly to the 19th century pre-cinematic optical device, the zoetrope. Travess Smalley's applies the digital finesse of Photoshop and the scanner to low-tech cut-paper collages.
The inclusion of manipulated Polaroids by Lucas Samaras and violated prints by Sigmar Polke from the '70s, photograms by Floris Neusüss and Adam Fuss from the '80s and painted photographs by Gerhard Richter from the '90s helps establish a lineage that stretches into the present. The contemporary work in the show signals not a rupture in photographic history but a continuation of that original impulse to engage with the material nature of the medium.
Matthew Brandt, 31, one of four L.A. artists in the show, is represented by "Grays Lake ID 7," a stormy marriage of photographed landscape and torrential color. After developing, the chromogenic (or C-) print was soaked in water collected from the pictured lake, until the emulsion layers degraded and separated, erupting into vivid, unpredictable patterns of volcanic red and spatters of cyan. The making of the picture is abetted by its unmaking.
In earlier work, Brandt's darkroom chemistry has involved bodily fluids (of portrait subjects), Jell-O, mouthwash and breakfast cereal — unusual but not entirely out of line.
"It's very much aligned with the traditions of photography," he says. "Early photographers were the ultimate tinkerers. They threw everything in there to see what would work. I like thinking about that stage in photography, that you don't know what is what, and playing with that a bit. Using Fruit Loops to make a print is like using egg yolks to make albumen prints."
Alison Rossiter too courts a connection to the materials and practitioners of the past. Her humble, intimate prints speak simultaneously of then and now. They are sheets of expired photographic paper that the New York-based Rossiter, 60, has developed, coaxing lush tones and surprising textures from the old, unlikely materials.
She stumbled on the method by chance in 2007 when collecting expired sheet film for making photograms. Some of the papers she has rustled up date back as far as 1900. As the title for each print, she states the type of paper used, the expiration date on the package and the date she processed it.
"Time is making these images," she says. The papers should have been discarded long ago, and it is "the failure of the materials that is producing these strange, latent images. They were sitting in the packages, waiting. Like pearls in the oyster."
Rossiter calls the series "Lament." "It's a tribute to the entire discovery of light-sensitive materials. It's an homage. The papers themselves are beautiful, and this is a type of beauty that does not exist in inkjet printing. They are made of silver. They tarnish, but they will last. I am sending these papers into the future."
Squiers recalls working from a huge list of artists in putting together the show. The territory is broad, and ICP isn't the first to explore it. In recent years, numerous galleries and institutions have zeroed in on this pendulum swing toward the tactile, the photographic essential and the material resourcefulness that has always characterized practitioners in the field. The theme is far from exhausted.
Curator Lisa Hostetler at the George Eastman House in Rochester is in the early stages of a project slated for 2016 or 2017 that addresses the intimate connection between photography and memory and how that relationship has changed with the transition to digital photography.
"Today, outside of the art world, few people make prints of photographs," she says. "They exist in the ether. That's fine, but that means no one is going to find that photograph of your grandmother in the attic.
"Also, photographers edit in the moment now, seeing the image immediately on the back of the camera. There used to be a much longer time between being in the experience and reflecting on it. It's as though now you shape your memory instantly, without that time for reflection."
The Getty Museum's Virginia Heckert is gathering seven "Darkroom Alchemists" for a show in 2015. Some use cameras and some don't, but all of them explore photography's materiality using light-sensitive papers and films and going through the performative, chance-spiked motions of chemical development.
"What's really grabbing my attention," she says, "is the work of people who are searching for something essential about the medium, the idea of the latent image, not knowing what you're going to get until you develop. I'm also interested in the immediacy of the process. That accidents enter in is exactly what makes the work nonmechanical."
In answer to the question that she poses in "What Is a Photograph?" Squiers herself concludes, "At this point, we don't quite know."
What's needed, Rossiter says, is a new vocabulary. "The advent of digital photography calls for new terms and we just don't have them yet. ... The title of the show is provocative. It's a kick in the pants to think about these things."