Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography. Pierre Cordier

This is a revealing and evocative look at Pierre Cordier's working environments and an insight into his creative ideas.

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Video Transcript

The first thing people ask me at conferences, the first is ‘Yes but Mr Cordier, what about chance?’ 

What they mean, what they think, is ‘This Cordier, he doesn’t do much, he leaves it up to chance.’ 

My stamp is ‘chemigram.’ 

I am Mr Chemigram. 

Oh yes, Pierre Cordier, Mr Chemigram. 

I made my first chemigram during military service in Germany, near to Cologne. I had met a German girl called Erica. I wanted to make her a birthday card. So I took a sheet of photographic paper, I wrote using nail varnish, ‘Happy 21stErica.’ 

Then I thought I would do a black background, then I put it in the developing solution, and then I watched as the nail varnish moved and changed form and then I put it in the fixing solution and there was my first Chemigram. 

So here I can show you a test of what happens when one uses a ‘localizing’ product. In this case, the ‘localizing’ product is a spread for slices of bread, and it is very good. 

And then I put some Liege syrup on the paper, and then I dip it in the developer and fixer. And I obtain a very simple chemigram, just a very simple one. 

Brassaï, the famous photographer, wrote to me, saying ‘how diabolical and very beautiful your process is, make sure you never divulge it.’ But several years later I disobeyed Brassaï. 

I am very happy that other people do chemigrams, absolutely, and that there are many around the world who do them. Some people say ‘Yes, Cordier was one of the first’ but that doesn’t matter to me, what’s important is that people continue to do them. 

I put some distance between myself and the notion of photography, hoping to be welcomed within the world of painting, because in fact I am neither a painter nor a photographer, but a bit of both. But the painting world couldn’t care less about this photographer, Cordier. 

To use a good witticism, which Monsieur Degas said of Nadar, ‘Oh you’re just a faux-artiste, a faux-painter, a faux-tograph!’

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Cordier is seen here in his Brussels studio. Working more like a painter or printmaker than a photographer, he replaces the canvas or printing plate with photographic paper.Using photographic chemicals – as well as varnish, wax, glue, oil, egg and syrup – he creates enigmatic images that are impossible to realize by any other means. In Cordier’s work, the process itself becomes the artwork and his style is his technique.

The exhibition Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography (13 October 2010 – 20 February 2011) featured five international artists who challenge the assumption that a camera is necessary to make a photograph. The V&A commissioned five short films on each of the artists, showing their studios and places that inspire them. This is a revealing and evocative look at their working environments and an insight into their creative ideas.