New Plymouth

Len Lye, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1947, gelatin silver print, 16 7/8 × 14 1/8". From “Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph.”

Len Lye, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1947, gelatin silver print, 16 7/8 × 14 1/8". From “Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph.”

“Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph”

Len Lye, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1947, gelatin silver print, 16 7/8 × 14 1/8". From “Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph.”

“Emanations” was, according to the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, the world’s first comprehensive survey of cameraless photography. That it was happening here and now was the result of several factors coming together at just the right time: the opening of the Len Lye Centre at the Govett-Brewster; the return of New Zealander Simon Rees from Europe to take up its directorship in 2014; the fact that one of the world’s most prominent theorists of photography, Geoffrey Batchen, is now based at Wellington’s Victoria University; and an increasing curatorial fascination at the center with two groups of photograms made by Lye, dating from ca. 1930 and 1947, respectively.

Rees commissioned Batchen to curate a history of cameraless photography, using the Lye photograms as his starting point. The resulting exhibition stretched from the nineteenth-century experiments of Anna Atkins and William Henry Fox Talbot, past moderns like Lye, Man Ray, and László Moholy-Nagy, all the way through to contemporary artists including Walead Beshty, Thomas Ruff, and Christian Marclay. It was expansive, and—if it really was the first such overview anywhere—certainly supported Batchen’s assertion that cameraless techniques have been unduly sidelined by conventional histories of photography. But while it’s possible to establish a material thread through almost two hundred years of experimentation, it’s far more difficult to establish convincing conceptual connections. As a result, the exhibition was best viewed as a series of technical vignettes, some of which were extremely rewarding on their own terms, such as the small collection of cliché verre works by Barbizon School artists, and Andrew Beck’s excellent Double Screen, 2016, a site-specific project in which acrylic panels, photographic paper, and painted black triangles climbed the Lye Centre’s vertiginous interior walls. But other contemporary works, such as a solitary image by Beshty (Two Sided Picture [RY], January 11, 2007, Valencia, California, Fujicolor Crystal Archive, 2007) suffered from having been removed from their wider aesthetic contexts.

Lye’s photograms were at the core of the exhibition: first, a series of comparatively modest works from around 1930, some of which had been included in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London, and second, a larger series of “shadowgrams” made in New York in 1947. While it was easy to be distracted by the personages captured in silhouette in some of the works—W. H. Auden, Georgia O’Keeffe, Joan Miró—Lye’s unsettlingly visceral treatment of his various subjects was more significant: a pair of bizarre images of newborn children, for example, their prone bodies like raw chickens. And in his portraits of Tony Moreno and Le Corbusier, Lye had overlaid light-obscuring stencils that, though resembling strips of film, were also reminiscent of Polynesian patterns, possibly connecting back to his time in the Pacific and his seminal film work Tusalava, 1929.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised by Lye’s mastery of cameraless techniques: He is, after all, best known for animations in which he worked directly on celluloid. But what was surprising is just how much his work trumped everything else in the exhibition. While “Emanations” was solidly general, in the case of Lye it inserted a decidedly disruptive specificity into the history of photography, particularly through his attempts to bring together the primal, the “primitive,” and the technological: an important strand in the story of Surrealism that inches him ever closer to the heart of global modernism.

Anthony Byrt