"Crossing the ocean of worldliness" :
The Solar Photograms of Martha Madigan

by A. D. Coleman

"The photograph as such and the object in itself share a common being, after the fashion of a fingerprint." -- André Bazin[1]
            When I walk along the tree-lined streets of my neighborhood in autumn, I sometimes find that fallen leaves have left traces of themselves on the concrete sidewalks. Some combination of the chemistry of the leaves' own decay, the action of sunlight, the components of the season's air and rain, and perhaps even something in the composition of the sidewalk material has transferred their individual outlines to the cement, so that, after the leaves themselves have scattered, a pattern derived from their presence remains, like so many miniature shrouds of Turin encoding the physical emanations consequent to these little deaths. Depending on the subsequent weather, these indexical residues remain visible for days, even weeks, exact to scale on a one-to-one ratio and precisely descriptive of the shapes of their sources. Unlike shadows, these silhouettes are fixed and static. Not just transient optical phenomena but physical vestiges of the leaves' existence, they constitute hard evidence of a certain kind. Yet, unlike one form of fossil, they exhibit no sculptural depth to verify the ancient three-dimensionality of the forms they once surrounded, since vanished as if by a natural version of the lost-wax process. Nor, unlike another fossil type, do they contain embedded within them any permanent, petrified transformation of that once-living matter. Rather, they appear as semi-permanent images of leaves, spontaneously and randomly produced by the action of chemistry and light. In short, they are photograms.

            What exactly does that mean? The photogram, an image made without the use of a camera or lens, at its most basic level involves positioning objects or other physical material between light-sensitive surfaces and a light source, then making an exposure. The process was utilized and first annotated in the spring of 1834 by one of photography's inventors, William Henry Fox Talbot. Later in the nineteenth century, Anna Atkins and others utilized it to register botanical specimens and similar material in cyanotype.[2] Subsequently, in the early years of the twentieth century, Christian Schad, Man Ray, and László Moholy-Nagy rediscovered it and introduced it into the toolkit of experimental photography. They used silver-gelatin materials and did their work in the darkroom, placing small, mostly inanimate objects directly on sheets of photographic paper or film.

            Photographers since then have amplified the possibilities of this method in many ways. From the 1960s on, we've had a steadily expanding investigation and variegation of this process, so that the current cohort of those working with it includes such diverse practitioners as Jonathan Kline, Kunié Sugiura, Christopher Giglio, Susan Derges, Floris Neususs, Gottfried Jäger, and Adam Fuss, to name just a few.[3] In addition to a wide range of significant figures who've tried their hand at it (Robert Rauschenberg among them), we have a number of picture-makers who've explored it at length and in depth. Of those, one of the most assiduous and inventive -- yet perhaps the least well-known -- is Martha Madigan.

            Madigan has worked almost exclusively with the photogram for the past three decades,[4] patiently building up an extensive, interconnected body of work that has evolved into one of the most coherent and durable considerations of the photogram in the medium's history. The present series, her most recent, titled "Vernal Equinox," has been produced via her version of a nineteenth-century process originally called "sun-printing" or "heliography," a term originated by one of the medium's pioneers, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833). Madigan herself uses the term solar photograms to describe these works.

            A brief description of process: To begin with, Madigan has her human subjects -- adults and children, primarily her own immediate family, occasionally the infant children of neighbors, once or twice herself, all usually unclothed -- lie down outdoors on top of or under either single sheets or grids composed of multiple 16x20-inch or 20x24-inch sheets of a type of light-sensitive material first devised in the nineteenth century. Called printing-out paper or P.O.P, it has an emulsion designed to respond to light much more slowly than that used for typical darkroom-based photographic printing. This paper is then exposed to sunlight for some minutes, during which time the areas of the paper around the figures become visibly darkened by the sun, thus allowing the artist to gauge the progression of the image and halt the exposure when she's satisfied.

             Subsequently, the same sheets of paper, with the silhouettes of those figures now embedded in their emulsion, are re-exposed to sunlight, this time with leaves, flowers and other objects (mostly vegetal) positioned over the surface. This results in imagery in which life-size human and plant forms coexist inextricably. But the leaves, vines, and grasses are not merely scattered randomly around and across the human figures; instead, they are precisely placed, often carefully arranged within the outlines of the figures so that, in the finished image, they appears as if inlaid.

            The now twice-exposed paper is then toned with gold chloride to "fix" or make the imagery permanent; this solution also has the effect on these one-of-a-kind images of shifting their color palette from the printing-out paper's normal reddish-purple hues, producing instead a rich, complex sepia patina.[5] The resulting densely layered monoprints,[6] which range between 24x20 and 96x20 in size, have something of the quality of Kirlian photographs, those curious images in which the auras of living things are made visible.

            Of all the myriad forms of photography, the photogram comes closest to the way many people originally understood photography upon its introduction to western culture in 1839: as an imaging system through which living things and inanimate objects generated their own self-portraits, with no interference resulting from human agency. We've since come to recognize that as untrue; all photographs, including photograms, manifest human intention, the mark of the mind. Yet the photogram eliminates from photographic rendering all the actions of the lens, an instrument that embodies and technologizes fixed-point perspective -- which André Bazin described as "the original sin of Western painting."[7] At the very least, then, no camera, no lens, and no physical distance stand between the subject matter of a photogram and the surface on which it's registered.

            Absent all the interpretive decisions involved in lens-based description, the maker's range of operations become far more restricted, the correlation between the subject and its depiction more direct. To an even greater extent than the daguerreotype, the photogram appears to accomplish what Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, inventor of that eponymous process, claimed to have devised -- "not merely an instrument which serves to draw Nature . . . [but] a chemical and physical process which gives her the power to reproduce herself,"[8] while also serving the primary goal of William Henry Fox Talbot, inventor of the positive-negative process: " . . . to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper!"[9] 

            Madigan came to photography out of a background in painting; and, though she's worked exclusively with photographic processes for almost three decades, asserts, "I don't think I'm a photographer that much."[10] She recalls that she began working with the photogram process in 1972, during her undergraduate studies in art at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. According to Sara Beckner, "Madigan began making photograms . . . by bringing materials she collected outdoors into the darkroom. In time, however, it became more practical to move her work from the confines of the darkroom to the source of her subject matter. 'For about eight or nine years I just directly photogrammed out in nature,' she says, 'and there was absolutely no planning except for an awareness of the relationship of light to the place where I was imaging. But you can't go wrong in nature if you have an understanding of light.'"[11] 

            Her first resolved works in this form, two one-of-a-kind bookworks of bound cyanotype photograms from 1977, produced during her graduate studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, hint at where the work would go. One is an untitled set of landscapes;[12] the other, Rite of Passage, represents the human figure through the symbol of an apron.

            She undertook her next major effort with the photogram on the east coast, after she and her family moved to Philadelphia in 1979[13] and discovered the city's "beautiful, dramatic, amazing bridges." In the years 1981-82 she undertook an ambitious attempt to render the entirety of both sides of the Falls Bridge, built in Fairmont(sp?) Park to span the Schuylkill River in 1895. (This emerged organically from work she'd done earlier in Chicago and Detroit, photogramming along the cyclone fences separating suburban residential areas from freeways.) The Falls Bridge venture involved mounting huge sheets of hand-sensitized cyanotype paper 52 inches high by 120 inches long on armatures that could be fastened to the bridge for up to twelve hours in the spring and summer months, so as to register the filigree of the bridge's cast-iron railings melded with the foliage of trees on both banks. She found the arduous physical work manageable, but ran into an unexpected problem: the chemical exposure required to process cyanotype prints that size proved hazardous to her health.[14] So, although she completed some 45 photograms (which, with found objects and recorded sound from the location, she made into an installation[15]), she had to cut the project well short of her goal of achieving a comprehensive documentation of both sides of the bridge. Madigan still speaks of that with regret; clearly, she believes in finishing what she starts.

            That led her to leave cyanotype behind for printing-out paper (which, because it's commercially available, involves no chemical preparation and greatly simplifies production of the prints), and also to establish more logistically feasible working situations and subject matter. "Instead of photogramming directly out of nature . . . I wanted to see what would happen if I constructed images myself, in a completely imaginary way," Madigan says. Since then, with the exception of a few grants and commissions that have involved other methods and other people,[16] she's worked exclusively with printing-out paper for the original photograms and with what one might call her "home team" -- her husband Jeffrey Fuller, their three children Daniel, Claire, and Grace, and a few other friends and family members -- as her human subjects.

            1983-84 saw the commencement of several photogram series Madigan refers to as "Leaf Drawings," whimsical, imaginative pieces wherein she created human and animal forms from arrangements of leaves and grasses, organizing them into narrative scenarios, in a few cases incorporating text. (One set of these -- "A*Leaf*Abet," an ABC book and bestiary based on a Shaker poem -- Madigan worked on for ten years and still hopes to finish eventually and publish.) Those projects, in turn, led her to the ongoing work-in-progress in which the present exhibit stands as the most recent chapter, a lengthy suite that bears the working title "Human Nature."

            "One of the things that I'm working toward is photogramming every age of the human species, from newborn to age 100," Madigan explains. "I love things that are impossible -- that people tell you you can't do. It took me nine years to get the babies, but I got them." Presently she's trying to figure out how to fill one gap in the early stages, from six months to three years old, and contemplating how she can achieve her representation of the other ages still missing from the sequence. By her own estimate, she's "more than midway -- I'm two-thirds" through this magnum opus. As this latest installment suggests, the cumulative work, when she completes it, will be monumental in scope and scale, and will represent a new stage in the development of the photogram as an expressive vehicle.

            The rewards these current works deliver, in and of themselves, are considerable. Their titles refer us to Greek and Roman mythology; the deities they evoke rule over birth, death, youth, fertility, the seasons, healing -- the elemental forces that govern our existence. They are at once peaceful and vibrant -- radiant, ecstatic, Edenic visions exemplifying a sumptuous, at times delirious pantheism. Many of them pulsate with energy, and suggest the fecund abundance of nature and what Dylan Thomas called "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower" as present in all living things.

            One commentator has pointed to a relationship with the baroque in this work's "accentuat[ing of] the broken, the disorderly, and the bizarre" and its "multiple, complex layering";[17] it also contains strong elements of the grotesque, in the traditional meaning of the term -- Madigan's biomorphic merging of human and plant forms fit exactly with the Roman grotto fantasies from which that term derives. Looking at them, I find myself thinking of Charles Kingsley's classic children's story, Water Babies, and Pavel Tchelitchew's chef-d'oeuvre, "Hide and Seek" -- and, curiously, the heroine of Leonard Cohen's bittersweet song "Suzanne," who "takes your hand/ And she leads you to the river . . . / [S]he shows you where to look/ Among the garbage and the flowers/ There are heroes in the seaweed/ There are children in the morning/ They are leaning out for love/ And they will lean that way forever/ While Suzanne holds the mirror . . . "[18] Yet, for all their frequent tranquility, they can also evoke, as Charles Hagen proposed, "the shadows of victims etched on the sidewalks of Hiroshima by the heat and glare of the atomic bomb, or the charred figures caught attempting to flee the destruction of Pompeii."[19] Sometimes the people who inhabit them appear to dance or even fly, but in other cases they have a funereal aspect, as in "Entombed (p.42)," or give the impression of trappedness, as if struggling to fight their way out of some confining enclosure. It's not coincidental that Umbria, goddess of shadows and secrecy, appears here as well, along with Prosperpina, the queen of the dead, and Nephtys, the night. Madigan's work gives voice to the full spectrum of possible response to the world as we find it, from joy to awe to dread.

            As that suggests, these images allow, in fact encourage, a wide variety of responses. Indeed, Hagen also pointed out, "What distinguishes [them] . . . is their openness to a seemingly endless process of interpretation despite their limited range of elements. Using relatively simple means Madigan creates images that demand to be read, while at the same time denying the exclusivity of any one reading."[20] Perhaps that's because, in addition to her philosophical ruminations, the sources of these images, and their range of references, are wide -- so much so that Madigan hesitates to specify any in particular. "I feel a connection with almost every artist who's ever lived," she asserts. "You couldn't name a photographer that I haven't been connected to, influenced by, interested in, in some way or another." Her list of artists whose work has nourished her "seems almost indiscriminate," she suggests, running as it does the gamut from Lewis Hine -- "who looks to be a completely different kind of image-maker," she laughs -- on to Moholy-Nagy and Alfred Stieglitz, and also including such sculptors as Bernini and Canova, along with painters as different as Georgia O'Keeffe, Mark Rothko, Vermeer, and Arcimboldo. Yet the work resembles none of those predecessors; it remains unmistakeably hers.[21] And, regardless of which direction one's interpretation goes in, I think most viewers would agree with Madigan, who says of them, "Even when I look at a photogram five years after I made it, it looks alive . . . there's something about the energy of the actual person in real time, and the sun, that you can't get any other way."

            Shortly before she and Jeffrey Fuller ("my then-boyfriend, now-husband") left Chicago, Madigan began a photographic project that incorporates many of her concerns -- photographic, personal, and philosophical -- and that, though not part of her work with the photogram, runs parallel to it and demands consideration in relation to it. Named "Daily Portrait," it's an ongoing documentation of her family that now stretches over a twenty-three year period and has recently crossed into a new century and a new millenium. "'Daily Portrait' began in 1978 with photographs that formed a dialogue between Jeffrey Fuller, myself, and a beech tree on the shore of Lake Michigan," Madigan writes. With the birth of their three children, Daniel, Claire, and Grace, the project "shifted: it is now . . . an experience of their singular lives as well as a record of their developing relationships. . . . 'Daily Portrait' makes a cyclic journey tangible through the photographs as evidence. . . . [It ] is an attempt to touch the Absolute through constant change."[22] She has shown this work from time to time,[23] installing the images in chronological grids and spirals on the wall, accompanying them with floor pieces involving spirals of the children's worn-out and outgrown shoes, all of which she's saved. This open-ended, longitudinal project continues even now, presently concentrating on the two girls, with Daniel included whenever he's home from college; Madigan doesn't foresee it concluding before the girls leave home.

            Those core issues -- the brevity of life,[24] the spiral of time, the constancy of change, the cyclic aspects of history and human experience, and the enduring, unbreakable connection between humans and the natural world -- weave constantly through Madigan's commentary on her own work and working method, and make themselves apparent in the work itself. So does its spiritual underpinning. Madigan finds the link between her work and the sun as a generative source especially resonant, because she feels a deep connection to eastern religion -- in which the sun figures prominently -- as a result of reading The Upanishads in an undergraduate course on comparative religion. These ancient Vedic writings, the core of Hindu theology, connect the individual soul or atman to the universal soul or Brahma. Madigan's unanticipated encounter with these texts at the age of eighteen left her "completely blown away" and seeded her fascination with eastern thought. Subsequently, in Philadelphia, she encountered Swami Muktananda, a meditation master; the meditation process she has learned from him and his successor has had "a huge impact on my life and on my children's lives," Madigan testifies, adding, "I think it's definitely in the work."

            Martha Madigan's comparatively low profile in the world of photography and photo-based art to date results from her prioritizing of other concerns: the complexity of the making of the work itself (she's proven steadily prolific in that regard); her long-term professional commitment at Temple University's Tyler School of Art, where she's taught since 1979 and served as department chair since 1989; and her deep, unswerving engagement with marriage and family. All of that leaves little time for attention to career, even for someone with a temperament suited to such pursuits, which Madigan appears to lack. "May my work be the boat that carries me safely down the relentless river of time into and across the ocean of worldliness," she writes in her most recent artist's statement, prepared to accompany this exhibit. She embarked on that voyage many years ago, and is now well on her way. The world will have to catch up with her, it seems. Perhaps it is ready to do so at last.

-- A. D. Coleman
Staten Island, New York
April 2001
1 "The Ontology of the Photographic Image," reprinted in Trachtenberg, Alan, ed., Classic Essays on Photography (New Haven: Leete's Island Books, 1980), p. 242. This essay originally dates from 1945.
2 Cyanotype, a variant of the blueprint process used by architects, uses iron salts in place of silver salts to produce prints with a wide variety of shades of blue.
3 For more on these artists, see my introduction to the catalogue for this is [not] a photograph (New York: Pamela Auchincloss/Arts Management, 2001), unpaginated.
4 The two exceptions are the "Elements" commission from 1996, mentioned briefly in note 15, and her "Daily Portraits" series of images of her family, discussed later in this essay.
5.Madigan produces all her images by employing purely photographic means, though some involve the use of a camera while others do not. In a number of her works -- as in another chapter of this project -- she goes a step further, laying yet another layer of leaves and flowers down onto the composite photogram, but in this case photographing the combination in color and making limited-edition, exact-to-scale Type "R" prints using a Cruse graphic-arts camera, thus blending the lenless imagery with the lens-derived. The color palette of these images tends toward the autumnal. Properly installed, as I saw them at this gallery's fall 1994 showing of the project, and glowing like stained-glass panels, these photographs turn the space they occupy into a chapel.
6.The term "print" is a misnomer in relation to most photographic work on light-sensitive materials; I use it here merely for convenience's sake. For further amplification, see my essay "Photography as Material Culture: A Primer for Collectors. Part IV: The Print -- Limiting the Unlimited," in Camera Arts, Vol. 4, no. 6 (December 2000-January 2001), pp. 58-60.
7 Bazin, op. cit., p. 240.
8 Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, " Daguerreotype," reprinted in Trachtenberg, Alan, ed., Classic Essays on Photography (New Haven: Leete's Island Books, 1980), p. 13. This essay dates from 1839.
9 William Henry Fox Talbot, "A Brief Historical Sketch of the Invention of the Art," reprinted in Trachtenberg, Alan, ed., Classic Essays on Photography (New Haven: Leete's Island Books, 1980), p. 29. Emphasis in the original. This essay dates from 1844.
10 Here and elsewhere in this essay, unless otherwise indicated, all quotes and paraphrases come from a telephone interview with the artist conducted on the evening of April 9, 2001.
11. Sara Beckner, "Martha Madigan: Drawing With Light," The Light Impressions Review, No. 18 (Summer 1986), p. 8.
12 Some of these include hand-drawn lines representing grasses, the only intrusion of the manual mark into her work.
13 She began teaching at the Tyler School of Art that year.
14 The process involves the use of potassium ferricyanide, a toxic substance.
15 At Notre Dame College in Baltimore, among other venues.
16 She's accepted commissions for several public projects, including "Reach," a piece that involved the homeless of Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square, and "Elements," an elaborate, technically innovative three-dimensional construction on the theme of sports designed for the West Atrium of Philadelphia's First Union Center (formerly CoreStates Center), which she produced in 1996. Both took her well away from her usual working methods. By contrast, a more recent commission, for the Temple University Children's Hospital, relies on the imagery she normally produces, a process with which she appears to feel more comfortable.
17 Curtis L. Carter, "Martha Madigan: Photographer of the Human Spirit," in the catalogue Human Nature: Solar Photograms by Martha Madigan (Milwaukee: Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University, 1996), unpaginated.
18 Leonard Cohen, "Suzanne,"1968.
19 Hagen, ibid.
20 Charles Hagen, "Spirits Embodied," in the catalogue Martha Madigan: Seeds of Light (New York: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 1997), unpaginated.
21 One or two of them bear a slight resemblance to some recent photograms of infants by Adam Fuss, though (given the dates at which Madigan began her own explorations in comparison to those of Fuss) the influence, if any, more likely flows from her direction.
22 Martha Madigan, "Martha Madigan -- Daily Portrait," artist's statement, 1990? In conversation, she indicates that she produced a segment of this work using the SX-70 Polaroid, but once she discovered the inherent instability of the Polaroid materials she elected to work with 35-mm. color film instead.
23 Forinstance, at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island in 1990.
24 Reportedly, she has accumulated an extensive archive of snapshot photographs of snowmen -- those curious, iconic, ephemeral simulacra that live short lives only to wind up inexorably dissolved by the sun.
  ©  Copyright 2001 by A. D. Coleman. All rights reserved. By permission of the author and Image/World Syndication Services, P.O.B. 040078, Staten Island, New York 10304-0002 USA; T/F (718) 447-3091, imageworld@nearbycafe.com.