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“Drawings of Light” – revision and outlook

These texts were first published in the "Dresdener Kunstblätter", 2/2008, p. 123-132.

Agnes Matthias

"Drawings of Light" - revision and outlook

In summer 2007 the Dresden Kupferstich-Kabinett (Cabinet of Prints and Drawings) exhibition "Drawings of Light. Clichés-verre by Corot, Daubigny and others from German Collections" presented a survey of a graphic printing process invented in the 19th century that can be labeled an interesting twist in art history in regard to technical and aesthetical aspects.[1]

The hybrid character of the cliché-verre - a combination of an etching technique and photography based on the production of a glass plate negative without a camera - prevented that it achieved a high awareness level, as a means of reproduction at the time of its invention around 1840 and as an artistic medium from 1853 on. Due to the difficult classification of this progressive technique that ranged beyond established criteria of rating, it was hardly received by artists, the art market and critique and was already forgotten with the 1870s.

It was only at the beginning of the 20th century that the clichés-verre produced by artists as Camille Corot, Charles-François Daubigny, Jean-François Millet, Théodore Rousseau or Eugène Delacroix were rediscovered. The exhibition of the Kupferstich-Kabinett was focused on these works of art that were made in France.

Corot played a crucial role in the artistic use of the Cliché-verre with 66 works altogether as the biggest group of work in Cliché-verre accomplished. Also important was Daubigny who made 17 clichés-verre. The exhibition paid tribute to them by dedicating an own room to each of the two artists.

Starting point for "Drawings of Light" was the omnibus volume of 25 clichés-verre that the Dresden Kupferstich-Kabinett holds - 16 prints by Corot and nine by Daubigny. The collection was begun in 1909 by Max Lehrs, then director, and closed in 1929 and is one of the oldest holdings of cliché-verre in a German museum.

By means of loan collection from the printing cabinets in Berlin, Munich, Bremen and other museums the history of collecting and receiving this medium was made vivid. The holdings of cliché-verre of these museums were documented in an accompanying catalogue.

The prints presented in the exhibition predominantly showed landscapes, most of them quickly sketched but others that are worked out in detail. In general the handling of this medium due to choice of subjects and the way of drawing seems to be mostly conventional and does not really differ from what these artists had practiced within etching. Different to the line drawn technique, the painted plate technique - here the motive was applied on the plate with a brush by using differently covering layers of oil paint - challenged to experiment with contrasts of light and dark and effects of exposure. But the technical innovation of using light for creating an image could not be appreciated as photography had the reputation of not being a real artistic means within the competition between the different techniques taking place at this time.

Formal and aesthetical formulations of the question that were more orientated according to the materials used and the creative potential were possible only some time later on in the course of the 20th century when the cliché-verre was discovered by different artists and photographers who worked with this technique at least for a short time. The French photographer Brassaï reworked camera made negatives for his series of "Transmutations", made between 1935 and 1935, showing mostly nudes, by removing parts of the image with a sharp instrument or by overdrawing it with ornaments. And Pablo Picasso used the cliché-verre in 1937 as a way to manipulate a photographed reality: He included a drawing of a nude into a negative showing a view into his studio so that this figure made by fine lines appears like a projection.

In these examples Brassaï and Picasso stay attached to a representational mode. A different trend developed within the USA in the 1940s and 1950s where the abstract qualities of the cliché-verre began to dominate. The main protagonists like Henry Holmes Smith and Frederick Sommer were photographers who stood in a tradition of camera-less photography as it was established by Man Ray.[2] But also in the field of printing art the cliché-verre technique was rediscovered in the late 1950s by Vera Berdich and Caroline Durieux.

The materials that were now used were completely different: The glass plate was replaced by cellophane or other synthetic materials, syrup or soot was used for the drawings.

These developments of the 20th century as well as contemporary positions were not considered in the exhibition "Drawings of Light" itself but in the accompanying program by the presentation of the American photographer Fredrik Marsh (see the article below).

Marsh is living in Ohio and is teaching at Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio as a Senior Lecturer in photography and computer art since 1992. Since the year 2000 he is experimenting with the cliché-verre technique for which he uses varying material.

On the occasion of his visit to Dresden in summer 2007 he donated a cliché-verre to Kupferstich-Kabinett (see illustration). The drawing was applied to translucent Mylar by technical drawing ink and stick charcoal and then exposed onto light sensitive paper. The outcome is called "Untitled" and shows an amorphous shape with a fine inner structure created by dots and lines on a black background that lets associate as well the microcosm as the macrocosm.

With Fredrik Marsh's print that was produced in 2000 the Dresden Kupferstich-Kabinett is in possession of an example for the contemporary use of the cliché-verre technique besides its 19th century collection and in addition to the 20th century works it already holds. These are Hermann Naumann's abstract composition "Bäume im Schnee" (Trees in the Snow) from 1960 and three works by Edmund Kesting: "Frauenkirche bei Nacht" (Church of our Lady by Night) from 1942, the negative drawing "Bildnis Professor Rade" (Portrait Professor Rade) and "Selbstbildnis mit Zeichnung auf Negativ" (Self Portrait with Drawing on Negative), both not dated.

If the print by Fredrik Marsh is a kind of "end-point" for the existent holding or a starting point for a collection of contemporary cliché-verre, that remains to be seen. That Marsh himself has called the technique a "rather obscure medium" might be understood as a challenge.



Fredrik Marsh

The Cliché-verre today - An Artistic Perspective


In the overall History of Photography, imagery in the cliché-verre tradition can be traced back to the very beginnings of the medium yet the technique is often overlooked and today remains arguably a rather obscure medium. In the following I will explain my own fascination regarding cliché-verre, reflecting on its roots within US photography, and discuss related works by two significant 20th century American artists. The dominant trends in the United States photography scene during the late 1930s and early 1940s were a combination of significant artists and loosely connected photo associations from the New York Area Photo League, the San Francisco Bay Area f/64 Group, and the influx of European experimental approaches exemplified by László Moholy-Nagy and other Bauhaus ex-patriot artists who joined to form the highly influential "New Bauhaus School" in 1937, later known as the Institute of Design in Chicago.

Formal university and art school programs teaching the history, aesthetics, and fine art practice of photography initially grew slowly in the United States, becoming more widespread after the formation of the Society for Photographic Education in the early 1960s, an organization designed to foster effective curriculum in this newly emerging academic field. It was within this atmosphere, under such trained photo educators during the mid 1970s that I began nearly five years of undergraduate studies in the disciplines of photography and art history of photography at the Department of Photography and Cinema, The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. At the time, this program was one of the largest in the US, with sixteen faculty offering a wide range of course offerings ranging from black and white, large format, non-silver historical processes, color to numerous photo history and criticism classes. My Master of Fine Art degree, also pursued at Ohio State in the crossover disciplines of traditional and photomechanical printmaking, and hand-made books, combined my interests in photography, drawing and traditional lithography techniques. Ohio State has the extensive Floyd and Marion Rinhart Collection of American daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes, as well as examples of late 19th and early 20th Century photos on paper, which were made available to students for study. In addition, "Les Champs délicieux" (The Delightful Fields), a rare and delightful 1922 Man Ray 12-print portfolio of his early camera-less photogram images, or rayographs, as they are often referred, is a part of the collections. Having the opportunity to view and study these original prints firsthand, instilled in me a true joy for the photographic object in its many possible forms and an appreciation for the history of the medium. Reflecting upon this today, it was an exciting and formative period of my studies, with seeds planted then still bearing results.

Today I teach photography and computer art/digital imaging at Otterbein College, a small liberal arts institution in central Ohio. In the role as a teacher, it is usual to widely explore the possibilities of a medium for purposes of teaching to students, often working in alternative and historical processes and methodologies, directions normally or not necessarily pursued in one's personal aesthetic direction. One of the final assignments I give my photo students after some weeks of learning the basics of black and white film-based photography is "Darkroom Manipulation: Photograph as Fiction" - a rather open-ended project they can pursue in a variety of ways over a period of two weeks. I explore with my students a number of alternative approaches of making a picture, such as: creating in-camera multiple exposures on negative film, sandwiching or combining two film negatives in the enlarger and then projecting onto photographic paper, making photograms by placing three-dimensional objects directly onto the sensitized paper, to observing the various solarization and Sabbatier effect techniques through light flashing of prints during chemical development. Around the year 2000, I decided to expand the possible approaches to this assignment and in my studio began to work in the camera-less technique of cliché-verre. While I had never worked specifically in cliché-verre before I was nonetheless quite familiar with the process in my general knowledge as a printmaker and through the innovative work of American photographers Henry Holmes Smith (1909 -1986) and Frederick Sommer (1905-1999) who among others, gradually shifted their style to the more abstract and personal, to thinking of a photograph as a physical object in its own right, rather than solely as a reflection of the outside world. The examples from each that follow have particularly influenced the direction and style of my own cliché-verre photographs.

Fascinated by the expressive possibilities of abstract photography and greatly influenced by Moholy-Nagy, who as well as Man Ray pioneered the creating of photographic prints without the use of a camera in the 1920s, in the late 1940s Henry Holmes Smith developed a technique of "liquid-and-light" drawing by carefully pouring a layer of thick, viscous corn syrup directly onto a sheet of 19th Century glass, forming the characteristic figurative elements of his clichés-verre. The negatives were printed in contact on conventional sensitized photographic paper and developed by traditional methods in Smith's photo laboratory. A limited number of prints were thus made before the syrup was eventually scraped off. These early experimental works are referred to as "refractive" prints due to the change in direction that occurs when a wave of energy such as light passes from one medium to another of a different density, for example, from air to water, or in this case, through clear syrup and old glass, causing the unusual horizontal light value striations - refractions - and specular highlights apparent in his prints of this period. Typical of his visually and emotionally charged anthropomorphic imagery is an additional series of color dye transfer prints Smith produced in the 1970s, translating and transforming in the entirely different visual language of color the earlier core syrup images previously created in black and white. He produced the necessary positive film matrices by photographically copying the original 1940s cliché-verre prints. These matrices were used to apply the various individual colors that make up the final print. Through the multiple step and labor-intensive technique of the dye transfer process, "Giant", 1975 (from 1949 refraction), is an example of Smith's dedicated exploration of cliché-verre medium, representing one of his more unique contributions to the field.[3]

Frederick Sommer's cliché-verre "Paracelsus", "[...] was made from a paint on cellophane negative created in 1959. Slightly pigmented transparent medium was applied to a approximate 3 × 4-inch piece of clear cellophane, in quick moves and then manipulated (prodded and peeled) as it dried and the viscosity changed. To support spontaneity and keep from getting too attached or fussy, paint on cellophane negatives were produced 10-20 at a time."[4]

In the late 1970s while on a research trip to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. I had the opportunity to view an exhibition of Frederick Sommer's extraordinary photographs at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Included in this Sommer retrospective was "Paracelsus." What struck me was the undeniable reference to the human form, iconic, archetypal, and evocative in the eloquent pure silver tones and textures Sommer had managed to render in the print. The realization at that moment that its connection to the real world was a total invention-an object not created by means of a camera and lens, but through the application of sheer paint, plastic and transmitted light-was profound. Sommer's cliché-verre work stands in my opinion as the single most extraordinary contribution to the history of this little-recognized photographic tradition.[5]

Traditional cliché-verre is a method of etching through an opaque ground-coated transparent material or translucent surface, such as glass or film, and printing the resulting synthetic, cameral-less negative (black figure on a white ground) onto a light sensitive photographic paper. Some contemporary artists, similar to Smith and Sommer, have developed techniques for achieving a variety of line, tone, texture and color by experimenting with the application of diluted paints, inks, or other drawing materials on film, frosted Mylar (a white, translucent plastic), acryl or glass, manipulating the materials with a wide assortment of tools for painting, etching, scratching, rubbing and daubing.

Taking some clues from the works of Smith and especially Frederick Sommer, my techniques are rather intuitive yet straightforward and direct. I prepare several approximate 4 × 5-inch sheets of thin, frosted Mylar polyester material. This material is shiny on one side with a slightly textured surface on the other side, enough to hold drawing materials or liquid suspensions in relative place until they dry. On hand are small amounts of granular salt and sugar, stick charcoal, isopropyl rubbing alcohol, water, water-base and solvent-base drawing ink, watercolor or gouache. I treat each sheet separately, working in a quick fashion, laying down a wash of diluted ink on one or small pools of pure water or rubbing alcohol on the next. Occasionally, I place a small drop of one type of liquid into another, such as a dilute ink droplet into a coin-sized pool of water or alcohol, or vice-versa, to see how the two interact or flow into each other.

In producing the negative for "Homage to Frederick Sommer", in addition to the techniques already discussed, I also used a sharp razor to shave off very fine particles of charcoal, carefully dusting the tops of the liquid pools with a very small amount of the dry material.(see illustration) Slowly at first, but randomly, I drop small individual grains of sugar or salt into the shallow pools of liquid, responding to the diluted suspensions and the partial dissolving of these water-soluble and interaction of insoluble ingredients as they co-mingle and evaporate into various degrees of density. The use of an absorbent towel to pull a section in another direction is also a useful technique.

The cliché-verre photograph "Untitled" was created similarly but with a minimum of materials - solvent-based drawing ink, stick charcoal and salt. Through a thin layer of diluted drawing ink, in a series of quick, rapidly successive strokes, I laid the charcoal marks down and followed this with a small amount of salt for added texture. Once satisfied with the results, I used again the hair dryer to quickly set the image in place. Finally, I carefully removed the remaining dried grains of salt, revealing tiny dots transparent against the darker ground.

This Sommer inspired approach, of working on several negatives at once, allows for elements of chance and fortuitous accidents to come into play. These are embraced as part of my process. In laying down the "figure," I, too, must remain aware of the scale of these small, microcosmic-level images in relation to how the final figure/ground translates into a much larger photographic projection print.

Today, with the advent of affordable personal computers, high quality flatbed scanners and pigment inkjet printers common in many studios, contemporary artists are further exploring cliché-verre imagery digitally. My most recent experiments in the cliché-verre process occurred while I was preparing my lecture presentation for the Kupferstich-Kabinett in summer 2007, especially after re-familiarizing myself with the series of dye transfer prints Smith created. Instead of going through the steps necessary to produce copy slides of my cliché-verre prints, it was more practical to simply scan the original negatives directly into the computer, resize and adjust as needed for my upcoming lecture. Appearing on the computer screen after scanning the cliché-verre "negative" as a transparency is the image in positive form. While I prepared most of these images as digital slides for my lecture, to more closely match the finished silver prints produced in the year 2000, it occurred to me as they were already digitized to go forward with further experiments in color. As Henry Holmes Smith had reinterpreted his negatives from black and white to color, this seemed like a logical chance to explore my earlier work in a fresh way. Working in positive and negative versions, I began altering the original tonal relationships of a number of the negatives in Adobe Photoshop, (the program I normally use in my digital photographic work), by separately adjusting the red, green and blue channels in very subtle degrees. At this point my results are only preliminary but promising. Several of these were completed and output as 17 × 22-inch inkjet prints, displayed in conjunction with my lecture.

Like a child playing in mud, my cliché-verre images came about through a sensibility of playfulness and naivety. Most photographic practice is defined in terms of repeatability and predictability, with known and definite outcomes the norm, not the case with this technique. Admittedly, working in cliché-verre, by the very nature of experimenting with various materials, can lead to uninteresting results, at times failure; yet, the allure of producing potentially very unique aesthetic objects remains. When the various picture elements, surfaces and textures work formally as a coherent visual statement, a very special, often rather mysterious, even evocative, image can result-a completely different type of abstract, camera-less photographic image than one is used to experiencing in the real world. This is the appeal, to create a truly unique kind of thing, the excitement of not knowing the final outcome.

[1] Agnes Matthias (ed.), Zeichnungen des Lichts. Clichés-verre von Corot, Daubigny und anderen aus deutschen Sammlungen, exhibition catalogue Kupferstich-Kabinett Dresden, Dresden/Berlin 2007.

[2] See Marilyn Symmes, Cliché-verre in the 20th Century, in: Elizabeth Glassman, Marilyn Symmes, Handdrawn, Light Printed. A Survey of the Medium from 1839 to the Present, exhibition catalogue The Detroit Institute of Arts Detroit, Detroit 1980, S. 108-122.

[3] See Howard Bossen, Henry Holmes Smith: Man of Light, Ann Arbor/Michigan 1983.

[4] Naomi Lyons: Paracelus, in: http://fredericksommer.org/index.php?category_id=11&gallery_id=127 (7 January, 2008).

[5] See Elizabeth Glassman/Marilyn F. Symmes, Hand-drawn, Light-Printed. A Survey of the Medium from 1839 to the Present, exhibition catalogue The Detroit Institute of Arts u.a. Detroit, Detroit 1980.

Fredrik Marsh

Fredrik Marsh Untitled, 2000 Cliché-verre (drawing ink, salt and stick charcoal on Mylar, gelatin silver print), 40,2 × 50,4 cm Kupferstich-Kabinett Dresden, Inv.-Nr. D 2007-33. Photo: Fredrik Marsh

Frederik Marsh

Fredrik Marsh Homage to Frederick Sommer, 2000. Cliché-verre (stick charcoal, salt, sugar and ink on polyester, gelatin silver print), 44,5 × 36,8 cm In the possession of the artist Photo: Fredrik Marsh


Dr. Agnes Matthias

Käthe-Kollwitz-Ufer 28
D-01307 Dresden


Fredrik Marsh

Art Department,
Otterbein College
Westerville, OH 43081