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The Cliché-verre Today – An Artist 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. 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.

In my role as a teacher it has remained my usual practice to widely explore the possibilities of a medium for purposes of teaching 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.

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 (four) 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.1 
 
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."

In the late 1970s while on a research trip to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. to study the key photographs of Alfred Stieglitz, 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.2                                                       

Adapted from a lecture presentation given at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden - Kupferstich–Kabinett Museum, Dresden, Germany during July 2007.
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1Howard Bossen, Henry Holmes Smith: Man of Light, Ann Arbor/Michigan 1983.
2Elizabeth 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: Detroit 1980.
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