Adam Fuss: In Conversation

Phillips' Yuka Yamaji and Adam Fuss discussed beginnings, making photograms and what’s next for him.

ULTIMATE is a unique platform for promoting and selling photographs as contemporary art, and it offers works available for sale only at Phillips — providing artists, galleries and Phillips a forum for creative collaborations. In this edition of ULTIMATE, we are thrilled to present two unique large-scale photograms by internationally acclaimed artist Adam Fuss. From the series 'My Ghost', 2001, is an exceptional example of his photograms of smoke, all created between 1999 and 2001. While his smoke works were made during a limited period of time, Untitled, 2007, is part of an ongoing exploration of water, which began in the mid-1980s and continues with his most recent photographic work.

Phillips' Yuka Yamaji and Adam Fuss discussed his artistic beginnings, the intimacy of photograms and what's next for his career.

Camera-Less Photography

Yuka Yamaji: We are seeing a renewed interest in nineteenth-century photography and its processes and how they inform contemporary photography. How did you first discover camera-less photography?

Adam Fuss: One of my high school teachers proposed that the quality of one's photographic equipment was irrelevant because it would be possible to make the best images in the world with a pinhole camera. He was responding to my insecurity around my photographic equipment. I took up his idea by experimenting with the pinhole camera about five years later, and these experiments led me into the possibilities of camera-less photography.

YY: How did you create your first photogram?

AF: My first photogram I made by accident.

YY: By accident? Were you trying to make something else?

AF: I was trying to make a pinhole image of...well I don't know what it was...it was either the Lincoln Memorial or the White House or the Washington Monument. I took my pinhole camera to Washington to distort, with the ultra-wide angle perspective, some of the iconic places and I failed to uncover the pinhole for one of the pictures. But there was a hole in my cardboard box camera in a corner so some light played across the surface of a piece of colour film. And the cardboard box was deteriorating and some of the dust, the cardboard dust, had fallen on the film. So the light leaked, exposed that dust and made a photogram of that dust.

YY: Wow. Where is this photogram of dust?

AF: Well, it’s a sheet of 8 x 10 Ektachrome and it's in a box in my studio.

YY: And when you were first discovering cameraless photography were you looking back to nineteenth-century photogenic drawings by Talbot or Anna Atkin's cyanotypes?

AF: Not at all. I had no knowledge of photographic history whatsoever. I had no knowledge of early photographs. My interests and my experiments were not at all informed by photographic history.

YY: Interesting. So at what point did you become familiar with nineteenth-century photography?

AF: I'm going to say a few years later because I started looking more and more at photographic history.

YY: And did that influence you in any way?

AF: I don't think so. I don't think it had any influence. I did play a little bit with salt prints and that was out of learning about Talbot's sensitising technique, but I feel that I tended to avoid images that I'd already seen.

YY: What for you is the key difference between photographs made with and without a camera?

AF: The camera-less image is more intimate...it's made, not taken...the outside world is not involved. I feel a photogram has much more intimacy and feeling than a camera-based photograph.

Smoke

YY: Let's talk about your first work in the sale. You created this photogram of smoke in 2001 as part of your series My Ghost. What led you to the subject of smoke?

AF: It's very hard to say where something begins because there always seems to be a stage before the identified beginning.

YY: I remember you telling me that you were in West Sussex when you had the idea of making a photogram of smoke.

AF: For quite a few years I stayed in a caravan, in a clearing in the woods, and I would cook on an open fire and at some point I had an idea that I could make a photogram of smoke. And the material of smoke seemed to match similar themes to the body of work that I call My Ghost. And so I borrowed some photographic trays and a flash from a friend and I invited someone to come down and hold a piece of paper behind some smoke that I generated by throwing wet leaves onto a fire and I processed it on a moonless night. Afterwards, it seemed entirely obvious that I could work with smoke. So when I got back to New York, I set about trying to make those pictures in a more controlled environment.

YY: And you described the resulting image as a record of the shadows of smoke.

AF: Yes because it's a photogram so it's a record of the shadows of smoke as opposed to a photograph of smoke. But it raises an interesting visual paradox that happens with the photogram. Smoke is acting optically to restrict the light hitting the photographic paper and therefore appears white – it appears white as it is a negative image. And of course we think of smoke as white, and smoke depicted in a lens-based black-and-white image is also white. It's a moment when a photogram and a photograph appear as the same thing. It tricks the brain. Do you get what I'm trying to say?

YY: Yes. A photogram is commonly understood as a photographic image made by placing an object directly on light-sensitive paper, which is then exposed to light, creating a negative image of the object. Areas exposed to light turn black and areas blocked by the object remain white. A photogram enables you to create a white shadow and this reversal quality is what can 'trick the brain' as you said. In the case of smoke, the negative image made on the light-sensitive paper is white, so smoke appears white in a photogram as well as in a black-and-white photograph taken by a camera.

AF: Yeah, that's a technical aside…a footnote on the photogram.

YY: I appreciate the decoding element that comes with photographic experiments. This reminds me of a group of never-before-seen Man Ray Rayographs I worked on years ago. Man Ray was all about 'tricking the brain', combining camera-based and camera-less elements to create a single Rayograph and took great pleasure in the mystery and curiosity surrounding his methods. For me, the works in your My Ghost series and these Man Ray Rayographs share a similar visual poetry – white phantom silhouettes floating in the dark. HasMy Ghost come to an end or is it still ongoing?

AF: I'm saying that it's come to an end. And I hope that it's finished because I'd like it to be finished. And I feel that it needs to be finished. But whether it is finished, only time will tell.My Ghost is about personal exorcism. I hope it's complete. I'm not planning to make any more works in that vein, but maybe I will. I hope my ghost is over. Gone. Like smoke going in the sky, it just dissolves into nothing.

Water

YY: Let's turn to your photogram of water droplets. What led you to explore water as a motif in your photograms?

AF: Again, I'm going to say it's very hard to pin down where something begins. But, I think being around water in my childhood...I think just being an observant human you would have to notice the pattern of water on water.

YY: And your investigation of water continues with your recently exhibited photograms of cascading water, which are nearly three metres high. How has the subject of water changed in your work?

AF: I've made photograms of water a few different times. And each time the result is different. The character of the water, my control of how the water hits the water or the light-sensitive surface is different.

YY: Chance and control…

AF: Yeah, I think I really need both in my work…

YY: What was your first image of water?

AF: I think the very first images I made of water were made by getting my hand wet and sort of flicking water onto the surface of the water. So that was my very first experiment and then out of that came a picture of a single drop. And the first versions of that were quite large circles, quite large waves, circular waves. I mean I'm going to say at least 35 inches diameter.

YY: And did you do those in black and white as well as in colour?

AF: The first big ones were in black and white. Actually, I think the first one was in colour…in late '86 or '87. And then I made a larger one in black and white. I flip-flopped between colour and black and white with the single drop images because I was using both colour and black-and-white paper with equal interest.

YY: When did you then turn to making something larger in scale with multiple droplets as opposed to a single drop?

AF: Well, I continued to be interested in both the single drop and the multiple drops. The work you have in the sale is sort of the largest and most controlled version that I ever made and it's the most dense in terms of the water. You know there's more droplets falling than ever before. I can't say one led to the other because after I finished the work that you have I started experimenting with two drops and three drops.

YY: How would you describe your images of water?

AF: They are all water in motion. It's all frozen with the flash. The flash acts as a kind of shutter to capture the pattern of the motion.

YY: So with both of these photograms in the sale, they are not images that necessarily depict smoke or water but traces of their elusive physical presence…a trace of what's been?

AF: Yeah.

What's Next

YY: Throughout your career, you've worked with a number of photographic processes from daguerreotypes and photograms to platinum and Cibachrome. Have you used modern technology in your image-making?

AF: I used a flatbed scanner before. I used a flatbed scanner to scan butterfly chrysalis and more recently to scan moving snakes.

YY: And do you think you will continue to explore digital and other means in your work?

AF: Yeah, I'm still pursuing that vocabulary.

YY: Will you share what you're currently working on?

AF: Well, it's a sculpture. But the last photographic thing I've completed is cascading water. So after the black-and-white images of cascading water, which were shown at Cheim & Read last year, I've done colour images. The water is cascading, but it's cascading in a very very gentle way.

YY: I can't wait to see them. What's next for you?

AF: I will let you know when I see it clearly.

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