Fotogram. Essä av Marie Lundquist
Photogram. An essay by Marie Lundquist

The ear is mute, the mouth deaf, but the eye perceives and speaks. In it, the world reflects itself from without; humanity from within.

From Goethe’s ”Theory of Colors” (1810) 

All art longs to be a direct imprint of life itself, without intermedi- aries – positioned breathlessly close to that which is being depicted. No divisions, or barriers, between life and art. One art form that per- haps comes closest to this ideal is the photogram. To photogram is to become one with what is being depicted. Objectively, a photogram is a photographic image made without a camera. The image emerges when an object is placed on the surface of a light-sensitive material, and then exposed to light. This procedure can be traced back to the early history of photography. William Henry Fox Talbot, one of those said to have invented the art of photography, experimented with the technique by producing images of plant details as early as the 1830’s, calling them ”photogenic drawings”. The artists Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy adopted and developed the method in the 1920’s. Nagy claimed that ”the photogram embodied the unique essence of the photographic process” and that it was ”the very key to the art of photography”. 

Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, when photography has evolved into a digital art form demanding advanced technology, with almost unlimited possibilities and control functions, a return to this original method becomes a photographic statement. In Ewa Stackel- berg’s case, it was necessitated by a deeply felt personal experience of loss. In October 1997, her husband died in an airplane accident in Costa Rica. Among the belongings sent home to her after the accident was his camera, which had been smashed to pieces in the crash. From that moment on, trying to master reality by making depictions of it was no longer possible. The world had been shattered into fragments; it was impossible to create any representative images of it. The only solution was to find another language, a photogrammic one, beyond depiction. A language where light itself, without any technical aids, might write its own story, according to the cruel unpredictability of chance. This was the only way the newly emerging world could be portrayed. 

Throughout history, people have used their imagination and per- ceptiveness to transform what is formless into what is familiar. We compare clouds to creatures and objects; we give star constellations names that remind us of their earthly look-alikes: the Plough, the Lion, the Great Bear. We appear to have an instinct driving us to fill in the contours of our existence until they resemble things we’ve seen befo- re. But photograms thwart this. The way they represent reality mocks both the eye and the imagination. Here, the things we see and recog- nize present themselves in more dimensions than we ever thought the human eye could perceive. In Ewa Stackelberg’s photograms, we seem to find ourselves underwater, in constant turbulence, where the rema- ins and traces of a civilization float past, disintegrate, and reassemble in endless color-combinations. Even though we are aware that the photographer has used things as physically tangible as thistles, moss, earth, offal, intestines and tendons in her work, our gaze seems to move past this knowledge, on into the coloristic beauty that appears to be the origin of all things. We find, instead, the representation of a state beyond putrefaction, striving for beauty in its ceaseless trans- formations. The step from there to the alchemist’s struggle to produce an elixir of life from the red pigment cinnabar doesn’t feel too distant. 

The Belgian avant-garde painter Michel Seuphor speaks of his search for a method of painting that ”just like music, doesn’t illustrate, doesn’t tell a story, or present a myth”, a method which is ”fulfilled by evoking the indescribable realms of the soul, where dreams become thoughts, where the stroke of a pen becomes an existence”. Perhaps the photogram is exactly the right kind of method to achieve this, using light as a search-engine to move beyond simple depiction. The process itself is carried out in pitch darkness; not even a red darkroom light is allowed to illuminate the blackness. However, small shielded flashlights may be used to hastily pinpoint objects and bodies. This is a wonderful metaphor for how we feel our way forward through life, occasionally chancing to catch sporadic glimpses of light in the darkness. 

Only now and then does the world show us its figurative aspect here. We meet a man and a woman appearing like an image within an image: the photographer’s parents, emerging in an embrace that might be a rendering of the instant when new life is being created. Freeing oneself from one’s origins may not be so easy. The image lives on, changing, as if it cannot decide which nuance it should take on - created, as it is, from endless layers of experience. Another figure keeps appearing: a flo- ating female form, painted in fiery gold, moving like a planetary body in outer space. Is this a sister of the women whose bodies Yves Klein once used as blue paintbrushes on his canvases? But this woman is not an implement. She herself creates the richly hued world surrounding her. Cobalt, magenta, purple and azure. Who could have imagined that the darkness contained so much color?