British Artist Jo Bradford is a master of the camera-less photograph process. Her work can be described as being ‘photographs of photography’ or pure photographs since they do not represent an external reality, referring only to themselves.
For over 20 years Jo has spent countless hours in her analogue darkroom in Devon UK, working endlessly with only light, coloured filters, photosensitive paper and time itself to create her finely tuned studies of colour. Her meticulous recording of timings and colour combinations are extensively and intricately catalogued so that she can return to these as a starting point for her continued work known as luminograms, tracing light onto light sensitive paper.
Jo Bradford’s work has been influenced by Josef Albers’ ‘Interaction of Colour’ and she continues to be fascinated by geometric abstraction and minimalism. Other inspirations include the light work of James Turrell, the clean lines of Agnes Martin and the colour field work of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman.
Interview with Gas Gallery director Gina Cross : July 2021
How did you first come to work with the cameraless photography process and what drove you to become obsessed with this process?
In 2000 I started making cameraless photograms as cyanotypes and became increasingly interested in the potential of the photographic medium to do so much more than be a lens based record of the physical world.
By 2003 I had daily access to a colour darkroom whilst studying for my master’s degree in Photography: Critical Practice at Falmouth University and I was able to expand my skillset in the analogue darkroom.
I was unable to find any written reference or historical documentation on how to capture colour and light on photosensitive paper more commonly used for printing from colour negatives. I made it my mission to explore and understand the way that colour could be created using the various filter combinations of cyan, magenta and yellow filters. I spent 12 months working through every possible filter combination from mixtures of two filters or all three filters in combination in strengths from 0-200 for each filter. This long process of research and discovery eventually resulted in my creation of a colour palette featuring an expansive range of hues from the rainbow in every possible saturation from the palest almost pure white version of that colour to the most intense and saturated variation. The intensity and vibrance of the colours comes from the length of time that the paper is exposed to the light fall. So my explorations were very much about time as well as chromaticity.
Two years after I started I had produced a comprehensive body of work containing charts of timescales and filter combinations detailing how to achieve hundreds of hues and colours laid out page by page for each colour. Armed with this I have been able to recreate from these recipes any colour I desire in the spectrum. The colour blue eluded me for the longest time and perhaps this is why I make so much work with blue , even though it is 18 years since I started looking for it.
Later in my explorations with colour I became interested in creating moving masks using motorised devices that I designed and built to aid me in the pitch-black blind space of my darkroom to gradually, almost imperceptibly move a mask across a sheet of light sensitive paper during an exposure lasting anything from split seconds to several hours to create gradients of intensity of colour. After a while I became interested in shifting colours through the use of gradients from one hue to another always seeking to eliminate any obvious place where one colour becomes the next, preferring rather to expand the gradient to such a degree that the change in colour is rendered almost imperceptible. My early handheld attempts to create smooth gradients with moving masks were hampered by the need to draw breath. Worse still even my heart beating would cause inevitable miniscule stutters in the otherwise steady pace that my hand was trying to achieve as I moved the mask manually, meaning that sometimes visible lines appeared in many of my works. Desperately trying to achieve perfectly blended colour gradients, I would have more than 20, and sometimes 50, attempts at this gradient. The photo sensitive paper, once exposed, is placed in a light tight box and taken to my wet darkroom where it is processed through tanks of chemistry and washes before finally I can view the work and see if I have created a smooth gradient or whether I need to try it again. Although this process may seem wasteful, the prints that do not make the grade are used to make other works such as my Altered Planes series which feature 3 dimensional folds on the print surface or even collaged which means that nothing whatsoever goes to waste.
Is the process that you are experimenting with a usual one or are you one of the few working in this way ?
There are photographers who typically have a go at these techniques during their photography degrees if they have access to a colour darkroom but once they graduate they are usually unable to continue, so it is fair to say that there are only a small number of photographers who work with this process on an ongoing basis. And even fewer still who work in their own darkrooms as opposed to going to an also increasingly rare public colour darkroom.
You cite Josef Albers and James Turrell as big influences in your creative work – can you explain more about what you aim to achieve with your work and how it may correlate to their work?
Both Albers and Turrell have explored perception with either colour or light. My work is about the complex nature of human perception of light and colour. And this ties in with Albers and his work about the experience and perception of colour. I'm interested in the way light and colour shapes our understanding of space.
The theme of light has preoccupied my artistic output for over a quarter of a century
I always need to fully consider the density, the materiality of colour within light itself, as well as how my audience experiences the colour and light mixed in my darkroom. I have felt the almost religious experience of being bathed in the light of Turrell’s installations and wanted to capture this feeling on paper to stare at on my own walls for ever more. love the quote by him. “Light is not so much something that reveals itself as it is itself the revelation”.
Please tell us more about the desire to create the Chroma series – what is it that has made this so compelling a project for you and how long has it taken for you to develop it? Also what (if any) technical issues have you faced as a result of this. Some may say that what you do can be easily done digitally – what is your counter argument to that?
My work needs darkness and direct light to create it. My colour gradients react to each other. The changing hues within the piece are created by the changing intensity of the light, all bound up in a timescale of an exposure, by playing with reception of light, movement of the mask and time. To me these mixtures of colour, very gradual shifts from one to the next, allow the visible spectrum to express itself, and it's changing personality from one colour to the next.
My photography begins in the absence of light. I make my work with flashes of coloured light in utter darkness. And during the time of these light exposures which can be fractions of seconds or hours, I'm experiencing the effects of sensory deprivation. Although the end product of my darkroom sessions is about light’s material presence, in my darkroom I'm enveloped in darkness and silence. Only able to see in the edges of my vision the faint luminous glow of tiny spots marking out the key areas of my dark room to help me with my spatial navigation in the in the blind darkness of the darkroom. My normal senses dissolved, sound and smell become heightened.
One of the things I find interesting about the work is that it is made of layers of coloured light. Light and darkness are tied together, in many ways. And here, the darkness is the precondition for creating the work, whereas light is the precondition for viewing it. Anytime a light is turned on it will record on the light sensitive paper, therefore I work in pitch darkness.
The reason for the creation of the work with boundaries, rectangles, and lines within it is to give the picture plane the appearance of having two dimensions, which is obviously not the case. The pearlescent mica particles trapped within the transparent light sensitive emulsion on the paper reflects light back out at the viewer, giving the impression of the work being backlit, and it's this reflectance of light that is part of the viewers perception of the piece. A piece that's made by the reception of light in the first instance.
I often begin my darkroom days with a period of meditation, my meditation takes the form of silent contemplation of the colours forms and intensities of light. Spending time surveying each one in my mind's eye whilst seated in my darkened blind space of my darkroom. I frequently create work based on ideas I have conceived during my night-time self-hypnosis practice. Through the act of self-hypnosis, I consider my own creativity, spend time in contemplation of colour, of harmony of movement, of the passage of time and of perception. The images in my mind's eye can be both absolute and elusive. They can be very much of the moment. And yet appear timeless. Once in the darkroom and making the work the light finally becomes a material presence.
Although my work seems to have no object and seemingly no subject in fact, light is the subject, colour is the subject, perception is the subject. I like to think about light in terms of itself, its transparency its capacity, its volume, its colour. The length of the exposure, the temporal aspect. The colour changing, the materiality of the artwork. It is about the perception of colour, it doesn't require a conventional narrative or symbolism. The Impressionists opened the door to the understanding that our perception of reality is dependent on light. For me, light is the reality in itself, requiring no particular reference in the visible world, rather a visceral response attempt to immerse the viewer in the visual context of light itself.
So combining the optical spectrum of colour in terms of absolute and universal wavelengths of visible light with the theory of light based on observation and perception, together they form something greater. Because here we're talking about the experience, the qualities of light, the perception of colours, and how they're received in a physical from.