top of page

MA2 term one - Alice Oliver

In an ongoing lyrical exploration into human and non-human nature, I want to expose the intricacies of the intimate cyclical connections between women, celestial bodies, and the land. By making the unseen seen, I want to examine and experiment within the relationship between the ancient landscape that surrounds me and the materiality of photography, exposing these natural cycles and examining the fate of not preserving the base of everything, the soil from which we come.

The cycles of the moon determine our monthly and yearly calendars, with an ancient light that has ruled our lives since the beginning of time. The changes that come with each passing moon have been seen to indicate the times for planting, harvesting, hunting, and gathering, reflecting the close connection between cycles of the moon and plants and non-human life.


The moon has also always been seen as a female energy, connected with fertility and similarities have been found between the menstrual cycle and the lunar cycle. The inner rhythms of the menstruating body have been considered to synchronise with those inner rhythms of the moon. Menstruating bodies mirror the moon's waxing and waning stages of approximately fourteen days, producing a twenty-eight-day cycle equal to the average menstrual cycle. To go through a cycle of new growth is consistent with these ancient cyclical ideas of ovulation, flowering, harvest, degeneration, and replenishment. This period of change or transformation in the menstruating body is in tune with lunar energies, a celestial relationship that dates back to the beginning of evolution when beings were exposed to moon cycles for thousands of years before being exposed to artificial light. In an environment with solely natural light - solar and lunar, menstruating bodies were found to do so on the new moon and ovulated on the full moon, linking with fertility and harvest, all timed to the natural rhythms.

Healing has always been regarded as the natural responsibility of women. With techniques learned and passed down through history, observed from one woman and passed on. But because women were excluded from academic institutions, female healers of the past had little opportunity to contribute to the science of medicine. Instead, they served as herbalists, midwives,  nurses, and empirics, the traditional healers. Untutored in medicine, they used botanical-based therapies and traditional home remedies, amongst many other techniques derived from their ancient native intelligence of the land. Their remedies and medications, which were made up of predominately plant matter, brought a lot of superstition, lack of understanding, and suspected charlatanism. This is how the 'Witch' was born.

Screenshot 2021-11-03 at 15.38.59.png
Screenshot 2021-11-03 at 15.39.04.png



- Melanie King

- Galina Kurlat

- Laia Abril

- Ryan Moule

- Alan Knox

- Sophy Rickett

- Ramona Güntert

- Rachelle Bussieres

- Garry Fabian Miller

- Chris McCaw

- Katie Paterson

- Hannah Fletcher

- Karel Doing

- Anne Eder

- Rita Rodner

- Alice Cazenave

- John Fobes

- Fox-Talbot

- Anna Atkins

- Otto Piene

Untitled design.jpg
Untitled design.jpg
Screenshot 2021-11-24 at 17.12.26.png





An abnormal foetus in the womb, which is about to be naturally aborted. Engraving.


A Diagram from Jane Sharp's 'The Midwives book' or 'The Whole Art of Midwifery Discovered.' - Books directing childbearing women what to do and how to behave themselves 

1671. Conception, Breeding, Bearing and Nursing.

Throughout her writings, Sharp stresses the importance of working with rather than against nature. For example, she observes that in young women menstruation occurs during the new moon, while older women menstruate during the full moon. In her discussion of remedies given to ‘maids whose terms come not down’, she stresses the importance of following nature’s natural pattern: 'A Physician is but a helper to nature, and if he observes not nature’s rules he will sooner kill than cure.'

I'm intrigued by the botanical connotations within this 'anatomical' diagram. 


In Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance, John Riddle showed, through extraordinary scholarly sleuthing, that women from ancient Egyptian times to the fifteenth century had relied on an extensive pharmacopoeia of herbal abortifacients and contraceptives to regulate fertility. In Eve's Herbs, Riddle explores a new question: If women once had access to effective means of birth control, why was this knowledge lost to them in modern times? Beginning with the testimony of a young woman brought before the Inquisition in France in 1320, Riddle asks what women knew about regulating fertility with herbs and shows how the new intellectual, religious, and legal climate of the early modern period tended to cast suspicion on women who employed "secret knowledge" to terminate or prevent pregnancy. Knowledge of the menstrual-regulating qualities of rue, pennyroyal, and other herbs was widespread through succeeding centuries among herbalists, apothecaries, doctors, and laywomen themselves, even as theologians and legal scholars began advancing the idea that the fetus was fully human from the moment of conception. Drawing on previously unavailable material, Riddle reaches a startling conclusion: while it did not persist in a form that was available to most women, ancient knowledge about herbs was not lost in modern times but survived in coded form. Persecuted as "witchcraft" in centuries past and prosecuted as a crime in our own time, the control of fertility by "Eve's herbs" has been practiced by Western women since ancient times.



Does the moon affect women's menstrual cycles? This question has been controversial for a long time. A new study by chronobiologists from Würzburg now suggest that such an influence does exist. It's complicated, though.

In ancient times, the female cycle was probably still synchronied with the lunar cycle. Today, however, modern living habits and artificial light have largely changed this synchronous cycle.

The blog "Ladyplanet. Natürlich Frau sein" is quite certain: "Our cycle is linked to that of the moon. The most obvious connection is the length of the two cycles," it says. The newspaper "Berliner Tagesspiegel" comes to the opposite conclusion: "The length of women's menstrual cycles is an average value, for some it lasts longer, for others it is shorter. Even one and the same woman can have cycles of different lengths. If they really were connected to the lunar cycle, all women would have their fertile days at the same time," the paper's knowledge section reads.

So what is true? A team led by Würzburg chronobiologist Charlotte Förster has now used scientific methods to examine the connection between lunar and women's menstrual cycles. The result: The scientists hypothesize that in ancient times human reproductive behavior and the female menstrual cycle were synchronous with the moon but that our modern lifestyles and artificial light have largely changed this synchrony. Förster holds the Chair of Neurobiology and Genetics at the University of Würzburg (JMU). The results of her study have now been published online in the journal Science Advances.

Correlation between moon phases, pregnancy and birth rate

"We know many animal species in which the reproductive behavior is synchronized with the lunar cycle to increase reproductive success," says Charlotte Förster. Since the menstrual cycle of women is similar in length to the lunar cycle with its approximately 29.5 days, a connection seems likely. This is also supported by a number of other findings: For example, several older studies show that women whose cycles are in sync with that of the moon have the highest probability of becoming pregnant. Two large longitudinal studies demonstrate a significant correlation between birth rate and lunar phase with a slight increase in birth rate at full moon and a corresponding decrease at new moon. Recent evidence also suggests that births are more likely to occur at night during a full moon and during the day when there is a new moon.

To clarify the influence of the moon on human reproduction, Förster and her colleagues from Munich, Buenos Aires and the USA studied the course of the menstrual cycles of 22 women who had kept menstrual diaries – in some cases over a period of 32 years. "To our knowledge, this approach to analysing this type of long-term data has not been used before," Förster says. Instead, previous studies had analyzed large numbers of women in their entirety, combining results from different women, age groups, years, and seasons.

The moon orbits Earth in several cycles

The team correlated the records of each of the 22 women with the lunar cycle. Whereas "lunar cycle" is actually an unacceptable simplification. "Scientifically speaking, the moon exhibits three distinct cycles that periodically change its luminance and the gravity with which it impacts Earth," Förster says. On the one hand, there is the change between full moon and new moon which takes place on average every 29.53 days with slight variations. Secondly, the moon does not go round Earth in a fixed orbit. Instead, its position varies relative to the equator. Sometimes it is more to the north, sometimes more to the south. This cycle lasts 27.32 days. The third cycle is a little longer with an average of 27.55 days. It results from the fact that the moon accompanies Earth on an elliptical orbit and is accordingly sometimes closer, sometimes further away.

All of these cycles affect the intensity of the moonlight and gravity, which can be seen in the tides, for example. In addition, they interact with each other and can lead to special constellations at longer intervals, producing special phenomena, such as a solar eclipse, which is part of a regular cycle where the darkening of the sun repeats about every 18 years.

Moonlight is the strongest clock generator

"All three lunar cycles influence the onset of menstruation in women": This is the conclusion the scientists draw after evaluating the records of the study participants. The nightly moonlight seems to be the strongest clock synchronizer, but the gravitational forces of the moon also contribute to the effect.

Of course: Not all women follow the change of light and dark in the night sky and if they do, usually only for certain periods of time. On average, in women under 35 years of age, menstruation occurs synchronously with the full moon or new moon in just under a quarter of the recorded time. For women over 35, this is the case on average in barely one tenth of the time. The synchronism of lunar and menstrual cycle does not only decrease with increasing age: It also seems to decrease to the extent that women are exposed to artificial light sources at night. Typical "night owls", who go to bed late and leave the lights on longer, show no obvious synchronisation with the moon.

A sense of gravity

According to the scientists, the fact that synchronisation occurs only sporadically and that the courses of women's menstrual cycles varies suggests that the moon's light-dark cycle alone is not a strong synchronizing factor of menstruation. They have the first evidence that gravity also influences the monthly cycles. "In the second halves of 1961, 1979, 1997 and 2015, the menstrual cycles of seven out of nine women were synchronous with the change of full moon and new moon," says Charlotte Förster. This interval of 18 years corresponds exactly to the rhythm in which the three lunar cycles combine to produce very special constellations. This conjunction may have enhanced the moon's strength as a clock generator.

The observation that gravity sets a rhythm for humans could explain why certain cycles, such as menstruation but also sleep onset and sleep duration, are temporarily linked to either the full moon or the new moon: In both phases the influence of the moon's gravity on Earth is similar. Effects of gravity could also explain a study's observation that both sleep onset and sleep duration of college students are in sync with the lunar cycle – even though they live in Seattle, a city that is so bright at night that moonlight is barely perceptible.

For Förster and her colleagues, all these observations suggest that the human organism can respond not only to rapid changes in gravity, as perceived by the equilibrium system, but also to slow, periodically recurring gravitational changes. However, the scientists are aware of the limited significance of their study due to the relatively small number of women studied. Her hopes are therefore pinned on the use of technology that is both simple and modern: a mobile phone app. This will make it possible to study the relationship between menstrual and lunar cycles and the influence of artificial light on a large number of women around the world.


Women temporarily synchronize their menstrual cycles with the luminance and gravimetric cycles of the Moon. C. Helfrich-Förster, S. Monecke, I. Spiousas, T. Hovestadt, O. Mitesser, T. A. Wehr. Sciences Advances, January 27, 2021. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abe1358




Perhaps because the menstrual and lunar cycles are similar in length, many early civilizations believed that the moon determined when women could become pregnant. This could explain why female moon deities—from the Chinese goddess Changed to Mama Quilla of the Incas—figure so prominently in mythologies from around the world. 


In the 1950s, Czech doctor Eugene Jonas stumbled across an ancient Assyrian astrological text stating that women are fertile during certain phases of the moon. He based an entire family planning method on this hypothesis, telling his patients they ovulated when the moon was in the same position as when they were born. 

According to another theory that persists to this day, full moons cause an uptick in births, flooding maternity wards with mothers-to-be in labor. Recent studies have turned up little statistical evidence for moon-induced baby booms, however, and most experts think any lunar effect on procreation is imagined.



Since ancient times, full moons have been associated with odd or insane behavior, including sleepwalking, suicide, illegal activity, fits of violence, and, of course, transforming into werewolves. Indeed, the words “lunacy” and “lunatic” come from the Roman goddess of the moon, Luna, who was said to ride her silver chariot across the dark sky each night. 

For thousands of years, doctors and mental health professionals believed in a strong connection between mania and the moon. Hippocrates, considered the father of modern medicine, wrote in the fifth century B.C. that “one who is seized with terror, fright and madness during the night is being visited by the goddess of the moon.” 

In 18th-century England, people on trial for murder could campaign for a lighter sentence on grounds of lunacy if the crime occurred under a full moon; meanwhile, psychiatric patients at London’s Bethlehem Hospital were shackled and flogged as a preventive measure during certain lunar phases.

Renaissance astronomers, medical doctors, and laypeople saw the moon as a force to be reckoned with, whose power extended not only to the tides, but regulated the flow of all things wet on earth, including bodily fluids. Women, with all their gender-specific liquidities and their menstrual cycle that mirrored that of the moon, were thought to be particularly susceptible to lunar influence.

Screenshot 2021-11-19 at 16.14.07.png


by Sara Read and Catie Gill

In the late 17th century, the female English playwright Aphra Behn wrote a smash hit play about a man obsessed with the moon, who was constantly travelling there in his imagination. Exactly 282 years later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin actually made that dream a reality.

Their astonishing achievement on July 20, 1969 led some to worry that the moon would become an object of purely scientific study – a barren and lifeless body, no longer a source of romantic inspiration. Fortunately, this fear did not come to pass.

For example, in the year that marked the 40th anniversary of the landings ten years ago, the then poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy edited To the Moon: An Anthology of Lunar Poems which gathered together works from ancient to modern, and included her own poem, The Woman in the Moon.

And while no woman has yet stepped on to this celestial body, women have long been associated with the moon – with its tidal pull, and the binary thinking that places it secondary in majesty to the sun. It is no wonder, then, that the moon has stimulated some incredible literature by female writers.

The moon is often envisaged as a female entity, which inspired poems on the theme of her gaze as she looks down on Earth benignly. Way back in antiquity, the Greek poet Sappho did just this in her short song describing how:

When, round and full, her silver face, Swims into sight, and lights all space.

This trope continued for millennia and into the 19th century. Louisa May Alcott (author of Little Women) wrote The Mother Moon in 1856, imagining a benevolent maternal moon looking down on the Earth, occasionally hidden but ultimately undiminished by clouds. Also in the 19th century, American poet Emily Dickinson’s moon similarly shone “Her perfect Face Upon the World below”.

Duffy’s more recent poem contains these familiar elements, being written in the persona of a woman in the moon – one who is incredulous anyone could have believed instead in a man in the moon. The woman in the moon has spent millennia observing Earth and now implores those gazing up at her to reflect on the neglect humans have wrought on planet Earth, repeating the question “What have you done?”

Shining a light

Of course, not all female literary responses to the moon have been quite so lyrical. Aphra Behn’s hilarious farce The Emperor of the Moon, which took the London stage by storm, is one example. Behn was one of the first English women to earn a sustained living through writing, breaking social barriers and becoming a valued literary role model for later generations of women authors.

Based on a French source, but changed in many ways to make it Behn’s own, the play centres on a doctor, Baliardo, who is tricked into believing he is in the company of men from the moon.

He longs to know whether the moon has seas, why it shines so brightly, and whether there is proof to the theory that its atmosphere was so like the Earth’s that it, too, was inhabited.

The obsession makes him so gullible that when his daughter’s mischievous lover pretends to be the “Emperor Iredonzor”, and spouts clever sounding jargon in order to complete the disguise that he is an inhabitant of the moon descended to Earth, the doctor is convinced.

The fake emperor of the moon is then able to convince his future father-in-law that he is conferring a great honour on the family through a conjugal union with his daughter (who is in on the scheme). As the play finishes, the doctor realises that he has conceded to marry his daughter not to a superior creature from another planet, but to the fairly ordinary boy next door.

The farcical plot was spectacular and breathtaking in production and special effects. The original stage directions describe how:

The Globe of the Moon appears, first, like a new Moon; as it moves forward it increases, till it comes to the Full. When it is descended, it opens, and shows the Emperor and the Prince. They come forth with all their Train, the Flutes playing a Symphony before him, which prepares the Song.

We can only imagine the audience’s reaction, but the play was an enormous success, staged 130 times by 1749. If Behn had thoughts of space travel, too, she did not commit them to paper.

But perhaps as NASA ramps up preparations for further lunar exploration, the moon will move out of the purely imaginary. Maybe women will at last be among the exclusive number of humans to have stepped on to the moon and gazed back to Earth for themselves.

The 28 phases of the moon in a lunar month. Engraving by P. Miotte, 1646. Wellcome Collection



For thousands of years, human beings have known about the moon’s tremendous influence on our planet. The moon affects ocean tides, shifting large amounts of water as it moves through its phases and changes its relative position to the earth. Women have intimate awareness of this connection, as the lunar cycle corresponds to our monthly cycles, and ultimately to our relationship with living and dying. Because plant germination and growth are most affected by water and light, the moon’s influence in a garden can be surprisingly powerful. Planting in the flow of these processes can help a gardener to grow the most successful plants possible.


Sewing seeds at the right time of the month can stimulate plants to grow larger and faster. Because the moon’s position impacts gravitational pull on groundwater tables, planting with the moon can ensure that crops receive the ideal amount of water. Also, while the sun is what ultimately allows plants to grow, the power of moonlight should not be discounted, and planting certain seeds when the moon is brightest can be a powerful way to jump-start new seeds. “Gardening with the moon helps us to know when the earth is most fertile and receptive to planting,” Stillman says.


There is a British legend that if Christmas fell on the day of a dark Moon, the following year's harvest would be a bountiful one. Some parts of the British Isles believed that a waxing moon on Christmas meant a good crop the next fall, but a waning moon indicated a bad one would come.


- Moon

- Telescope 

- Microscope

- Petri Dishs

- Lens

- Ultrasound

- Womb

- Seeds

- Victorian Portriat Mounts


Apollo et Daphne

The myth of Apollo and Daphne is a story describing what happens when lust faces rejection. It’s a tale about the power of love, the power of Cupid (or Eros in Greek) who can even blind the most powerful amongst the Greek Gods. In the myth, Apollo falls madly in love with Daphne, a woman sworn to remain a virgin. Apollo hunts Daphne who refuses to accept his advances. Right at the moment, he catches her, she turns herself into a laurel tree. Daphne started transforming into a tree. Her hair became leaves, her arms branches, and her legs roots. Before Apollo could have a look at her face, she was gone. The only thing standing where Daphne stood was a beautiful laurel tree or a Daphne tree in Greek. 


As Apollo lustfully pursues Daphne, she is saved through her metamorphosis and confinement into the laurel tree which can be seen as an act of eternal chastity. Daphne is forced to sacrifice her body and become the laurel tree as her only form of escape from the pressures of Apollo's constant nonconsensual sexual desires.


A scene famously depicted in many paintings including René-Antoine Houasse's and Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne sculpture.


New Materialism

New Materialism & The Sustainable Darkroom with Liz K Miller, Noora Sandgren, Karel Doing, Melanie King hosted by London Alternative Photography Collective

Photography’s New Materiality?


This text was a collaborative essay by Sandra Plummer, Harriet Riches and Duncan Wooldridge originally published in Photoworks issue 18, 2011



From its earliest manifestations in the form of the reflective Daguerreotype or the utilitarian Carte de Visite, the photographic image has been an active rather than passive object.

Manipulated in the hand, or physically exchanged, the image combines a function—an act of representation—with a use and history that constructs how that image communicates. We might say that the image constructs a meaning specifically navigated through use.

Early photographic images were specific in what they chose to depict, along with their modes of communication and distribution. The development of photography in its early years has been widely reported, but the history of the medium too often becomes a history of chemical development and technological determinism. We currently lack a history that aligns the technical advances of photography to specific material properties of the image; understood as decisions and not technologically determined limitations.

The experimental and material photography that resulted from the practices of Pictorialism, Dada and Surrealist montage (where technological considerations did not hold sway) reappear today in the form of new abstractions and photographic objects that have become a staple of recent art practice. As the material sites of intervention, and three-dimensional objects whose physicality operates within the spatial limits of the gallery, these works emphasise the long established, but easily neglected, detail of the image’s objecthood.

But what propels this return to materiality and the emergence of an object-based practice in recent photography? Why now? Is it resonant in and of this moment in the twenty-first century, or can it simply be reduced to the perceived crisis in photographic practice caused by the ‘death’ of analogue?

The early incarnations of photography were defined by the medium’s relationship to its materials of making: the specific properties through which the photograph came into being. From Heliograph to Daguerreotype to Calotype, each seemed to depend on its own chemical and material constitution, distinct characteristics that were subsequently possessed by the viewer in the act of consumption. But in the making public of the medium’s invention that dominates most histories of the medium, two important properties are sometimes forgotten, such are the emphases on a medium ultimately understood as democratic.

First, we should remember that in the Heliograph or the Daguerreotype, as with many early processes, the end result was a unique image. Photography was not multiple, but singular. The photograph maintained rather than displaced any notion of aura inscribed within the image through the expanded moment of exposure in which, as Benjamin suggested in his ‘Short History of Photography’, the sitter was not excised, but grew into the frame. Following Benjamin, it is in the cultural re-deployment of the image under reproductive conditions that Photography, as we know it, began. Undoing Benjamin, could we state that Photography is actually singular, and is made multiple?

Second, we might recall the competitive claims for ownership of various photographic methods by Niépce, Daguerre and Fox Talbot, which reveal the entrepreneurial undercurrent of photography’s early development. Founded not upon the ability of the camera to capture an image (the much earlier camera obscura), but to record it permanently, the dispute was not one of conception, but execution, chemical, and based upon material substrates: founded upon a supposedly “unique” composition, rooted in a material constitution.

We might conclude that the early experimentation with the medium had as its objective two values: first, to fix the latent image—something which Sir John Herschel had identified chemically and which Niépce also achieved before Daguerre—but secondly to possess it, to exploit this formulation for profit through patenting. The making public of photography and circumvention of Fox Talbot’s Calotype patent—to produce a more affordable reproducibility—only came after processes were clearly identified with specific chemical compositions and legally attributed authors. Why else would the invention of the medium continue to be so hazy or contested?

All of this suggests that the early practice of photography was rooted in its objecthood and materiality. We might see a similar concern in the earliest cultural uses of its images at a time in which the initial appreciation of the medium’s technical wonder had not yet begun to fade. Prior to George Eastman’s introduction of the infamous labour-saving claim ‘You Press The Button, We Do The Rest’ in 1888, photography was a painstaking process: the coating and processing of plates and hand-printed negatives was constitutive of a labour that would not be appreciated by the ordinary viewer, as (ideally) technical refinement obscured the hand of the maker and eliminated any chemical irregularity that threatened to draw attention to the print’s surface.

It fell to early Pictorialism and abstraction—and the intention that photography be accepted and appreciated as a practice of art—to reject the automaticity of the photograph and make apparent its manipulation by hand. An early photographic self-portrait by Edward Steichen shows him holding not a camera but a paintbrush, a symbolic gesture that at the time would have been read as an aspiration to the status of the painting, but might now signal instead the impurity of the photographic image as a representation on a material support.

Marcel Duchamp stated famously that ‘(y)ou know exactly how I feel about photography. I would like to see it make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable’. But this challenge to painting’s hegemonic status was not without its wilful contradictions. Duchamp himself also used painting against photography – his delicate working in oil and pastel over the surface of a reproduction of his own Nude Descending a Staircase subtly transformed the image. If photography would supersede the hand that draws, such a gesture—a subtle and yet exaggerated retouching—might already anticipate a return. We could see Duchamp’s wish fulfilled in the static photograph’s fall to cinematic motion; but it could be argued that that which makes photography unbearable has actually arrived from within. Today, with claims for separate analogue and digital ontologies, and with frequently cited crises, anxieties and ‘ends’ provoked by the digital image, the field of photographic discourse frequently resembles a panicked crowd.

Transformations in the digital technologies of the late twentieth century have provoked an anxiety of the photographic image that seems related to the loss of its material presence as it has become reconfigured as data for a potential (rather than fully materialised) image, encountered on screen, if at all. And while the conditions of new media have generated new reflections on how we might experience—and understand—materiality itself, developments in technology recognise our obstinate desire, still, to consume photographs through both vision and touch. However displaced and fetishised by the shiny gloss of the screen, touch-screen technology encourages that haptic gaze.

At the same time, a concern for re-finding or redefining the photograph’s continuing claim to materiality has returned in contemporary practice. A number of recent exhibitions have foregrounded this material turn in a variety of ways—from the testing of the limits of photographic materiality in The Photographic Object at The Photographers’ Gallery and The Object of Photography at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery in Leeds in 2009; the emphasis on camera-less photograms for the tracing of light, water, and the effects of photographic chemistry at the V&A’s Shadow-Catchers (2010-11), to explorations of relationship between the dexterous logic of both photography and weaving in Glenn Adamson’s Shot Through, in Norway in late 2011.

It could be argued that a concern for materiality never really went away. An understanding of photography as a hand-dependent print-making process was central to the persistence of so-called “alternative” methods that continued to be practised throughout the twentieth century as a parallel, if sometimes hidden, tributary of the silver-based mainstream. Crystallised as a resistance movement in the late 1960s in reaction to the commercial dominance of “Kodakification”, “alternative” photography at times threatened to disrupt the twentieth century’s technologically determined aesthetic—sometimes even breaking into the modernist institution (in the replacement of Minor White by Betty Hahn at the helm of Rochester Institute of Technology in 1970, for example).

Hahn, along with other prominent female photographers such as Bea Nettles and Barbara Kasten were intent on exploiting a full range of photographic processes in order to both foreground and question the photograph’s materiality. Experimenting with the abstraction offered by cyanotype, the ephemerality of gum bichromate and the paper fragility of the calotype, and deploying camera-less techniques, sensitised fabrics and hand-sewing, the concern for materiality did not simply revoke outmoded methods, but staged critiques of photographic representation that looked forward to the concerns of postmodernism and retained a resolute commitment to the medium itself.

The contemporary concern for materiality in some of photography’s biggest names—Sally Mann’s use of wet collodion and ambrotype, Chuck Close’s return to the daguerreotype, Adam Fuss’s exploration of the photogram, to name just a few—might offer a similar gesture of resistance toward digital dominance as it threatens to squeeze out difference and create homogeneity where once there was variety and experiment. Sally Mann is particularly vocal in her rejection of digital technology, insisting on the importance of the making of the analogue photograph rather than the taking of the digital image—an act that she likens to the violence of a “drive-by shooting.” In contrast, her adoption of the painstaking labour of the collodion process inscribes a bodily quality in the very structure of the medium, one that is excised in the digital photograph’s disembodied taking. ‘The digital image’, she has suggested in an interview, ‘is like ether, like vapour that never comes to ground. It simply circulates, bodiless. It has no material reality’.

Couched in the language of nostalgia, it would be perhaps too easy to interpret such a reaction as a conservative gesture, the appropriation of the nineteenth century’s once dominant mode of making as a heel-digging rejection of progress, returning us to the moment just prior to Kodak’s introduction of the dry plate—the technological development to which the medium’s ever-increasing commercial viability, portability and reproducibility was indebted. As Susan Stewart argues in her treatment of the topic in On Longing, the nostalgic yearning for the hand-crafted unique object in whose surface the trace of the craftsman’s touch is indelibly etched is symptomatic of industrialisation and mass production, offering a mythical recuperation of a lost touch, re-found in the handling of the object of consumption. Such a seductive encounter seems invited in Mann’s work. Her ambrotypes cultivate the look of the outmoded, the touch of the hand-made, as the ebb and flow of the collodion’s pour quite literally traces the presence of the artist’s hand and the flecks and accidental cracks in their surface draw attention to the object’s unique, fragile materiality.

In drawing attention to the emulsion’s surface, materiality forces the photograph’s recognition as both indexical trace and photographic object, a duality that cannot be denied. There is no simple return to the medium’s early days here: it cannot be simply recovered, there is no going back. It is not the presence of Mann’s subjects that we long for here, nor the trace of her hand, but photography itself. Staging an encounter with a lost material past, Mann’s analogue prints illustrate the nostalgic condition that Lev Manovich has described as the fate of the photographic image in the digital age as we cannot help but seek in its indeterminate connection to the real a return to the era of the pre-digital, of the ‘pre-post-modern’.

Can this concern for photographic materiality—the longing for the stuff and matter of the photograph—ever amount to more than just that, a fruitless longing for a simpler or more authentic photographic era that, in fact, never really existed? Perhaps instead, the material turn in contemporary photography poses different questions about the nature of its own condition.

There is an inherent tension between image and object in the photograph. Photography has been characterised as that which generates visibility – as a process that makes what would otherwise be unseen, visible. Yet as Roland Barthes has indicated ‘Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see’. We do not see a photograph as such, but rather the image it depicts: the photograph’s materiality disappears in this same operation. In this act of depiction the photograph, as object, is lost: the photograph itself becomes invisible. Barthes’s position epitomises the general tendency of photography theorists who insist that the photograph is an invisible medium that records reality transparently without transforming it. Focusing on the details of the photographic image requires a disregard of the medium as such. Although the image is a property of the photograph as an object, the image belongs to the category of depictive qualities rather than pertaining to the form of the photograph.

Conversely, much contemporary photography rejects the referential and depictive mandate of photography, choosing to reference itself and reflect on its condition as a medium. This is not without precedent: John Hilliard’s Camera Recording its own Condition: 7 Apertures, 10 Speeds, 2 Mirrors (1971) produced a depiction of the process of photography. The experimental “structural/materialist” film that emerged in the 1970s also recorded its own making, but it did so by rejecting depiction in the conventional sense and by focusing on practices such as manipulating the surface of the film itself. The current interest in photographic objecthood is similar in its rejection of representation and its engagement with surface. However, what distinguishes contemporary self-referential photography from previous reflexive practices is that its exploration of medium occurs by transcending the characteristics of the photographic.

The work featured in The Photographic Object at the Photographers Gallery demonstrated not only the materialist turn but also that reflections on objecthood were increasingly taking the form of a post-conceptual hybrid investigation of medium. The work of Catherine Yass, Walead Beshty and Wolfgang Tillmans highlights a sculptural approach to the photograph. This occurs through a destructive action—by either subjecting the photograph to burning, scraping and drowning—resulting in a degraded image and curled photographic form (as in the case of Yass), or by the action of folding and creasing photographs as in the case of Beshty and Tillmans. Beshty’s pulped photographs (papier-mâché like moulding forms sandwiched between sheets of glass) take the destructiveness to another level. In contrast, Maurizio Anzeri’s Priscilla/Second Hand Portraits draw attention to the photograph’s surface through intricate hand stitching, an action which demonstrates a desire for craft and making. The nostalgia inherent in Anzeri’s found photographs is further highlighted by his embroidery – an addition which at once obscures and preserves the original portrait. Gerhard Richter’s over-painted photographs also obscure the representational content of the photograph through the application of another medium.


Hybrid photographic works that posit photographic objecthood via the explicit merging of mediums demonstrate photography’s potential to be metamorphosed with or into another medium. This reflexive work asks us to consider not only what is the photograph?, but also when does the photograph stop being a photograph? For Geoffrey Batchen, we have entered a moment that is ‘after but not beyond photography,’ so the implications of the current post-photographic moment are best expressed in ‘work that reflects on the “objectness” of the photograph’. Many of the artists producing hybrid photography explicitly state their interest in objecthood. Tillmans has stated that his Lighter series are:

…photographs which have not been taken with the camera. They are actually objects. They are sheets of photographic paper which are folded and then exposed in the darkroom to light, and the picture that emerges is a representation of the three dimensionality of this sheet of paper. So it’s like an entangled thing of two dimensions and three dimensions, like a photograph that no longer represents the world as it is supposed to be, but that is asserting itself as an independent object.

Aliki Braine’s Black Landscapes series are created by physically cutting holes in medium format negatives with a hole-puncher. Light from the enlarger floods through the holes in the negatives forming black circular voids in the resulting photographs. By disrupting representation and foregrounding the hand crafted aspect of their analogue production Braine aims to show the ‘photograph as an object’. Martina Corry also utilises chemical based processes but does so without using film. Corry’s work draws attention to the most direct of analogue processes (such as the photogram or luminogram) produced via the interaction between light and chemistry in the darkroom. Her current work comprises saturated colour prints that are created through creasing and crumpling the actual photographic paper, sometimes employing fibre optics in the process to highlight ‘the fundamentals of the chemical based photographic process, namely the play of light on the surface of a light sensitive material’. Corry states that she is ‘interested in how photographs are experienced simultaneously as image and object, tangibly real and yet somehow remote. Not merely images, but seen, encountered and negotiated as real objects’. As photograms, these photographs are already unique but the action of folding literally introduces another dimension and further emphasises their capacity to function as objects rather than reproductions.

The materialist turn in contemporary practice is one that seeks to both look back to analogue processes and go beyond those limitations. Rather than being motivated by a nostalgic longing for the analogue, this work confronts the materiality inherent in photography from its earliest manifestations. Such practices highlight photography’s potential to transcend two-dimensionality and to acquire objecthood; something which, paradoxically, it has had all along.

bottom of page