Curtis Moffat: Working Methods

Photograms

Anna Atkins, 'Poppy', about 1852. Museum no. PH.381-1981, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Anna Atkins, 'Poppy', about 1852. Museum no. PH.381-1981, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Photograms are made in the darkroom by placing objects directly on photographic paper and switching a light on and off to make the exposure. No camera or film is involved. The process balances planning with an element of chance: the light may behave in different ways depending on the length of exposure and the direction and intensity of the beam in relation to the paper. The varying shape, opacity and stillness or otherwise of the objects allows more or less light to pass around and through them, creating fluctuations of tone and the sense of overlapping forms. Each photogram is unique.

The photogram was initially utilised by the earliest experimenters with photography in the 1830s and 1840s. William Henry Fox Talbot (1800 - 1877), one of the inventors of photography, called his photograms of lace and botanical specimens 'photogenic drawings', since it seemed as if light itself had 'drawn' the images of the objects placed on the sensitised paper.

Anna Atkins (1799-1871), who is recognised as the first female photographer, used the process to produce the first photographically illustrated book, the three volume British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, released in instalments from 1843. Atkins used the cyanotype process, which yields an intense blue colour and had been invented in 1842 by Fox Talbot's associate Sir John Herschel.

Despite the early engagement with the process by these and other photographers, the photogram was soon eclipsed by photographs made with a camera and negatives, which were capable of depicting much more than just silhouettes of objects small enough to fit on a sheet of photographic paper. By the early 20th century, the photogram had been forgotten long enough that several avant-garde artists could independently claim to have 'invented' it.

Curtis Moffat, 'Abstract Composition', about 1925. Museum. no. E.2561-2007, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Estate of Curtis Moffat

Curtis Moffat, 'Abstract Composition', about 1925. Museum. no. E.2561-2007, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Estate of Curtis Moffat

The first of the new wave - each of whom gave a different name and conceptual spin to the same process - was the German painter Christian Schad (1894-1982). Schad's 'Schadographs' were made around 1918 in the spirit of the Dada movement's attempt to break down artistic and linguistic convention.

Man Rays' (1890-1976) self-styled 'Rayographs' followed from the early 1920s. For Man Ray, the process could be conceived as an automatic and subconscious performance of the type promoted by the Surrealists. Curtis Moffat learned the technique from Man Ray during his time in Paris in the early 1920s.

At the same time László Moholy-Nagy's (1895-1946) 'Contructivist' 'photograms', by analogy with the rapid direct communication of the telegram, were a way to define the new experiences of time, space and light in the modern age. In 1932, he wrote: 'The photogram…which embodies the unique nature of the photographic process, is the real key to photography. It allows us to capture the patterned interplay of light on a sheet of sensitised paper without recourse to any photographic apparatus.'

Moffat also utilised experimental techniques that are variations on the photogram for at least two of his camera-less pictures. To make a striking image of a dragonfly, he most likely placed the specimen in the photographic enlarger head (in place of a negative) and projected the image as an enlargement onto photographic paper. Another work seems to have been made by painting a design onto the photographic paper with chemical developer.

Portraits

Curtis Moffat, 'Unidentified couple', about 1925. Museum no. E.1585-2007, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Estate of Curtis Moffat

Curtis Moffat, 'Unidentified couple', about 1925. Museum no. E.1585-2007, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Estate of Curtis Moffat

In his London portrait studio, Moffat created images of elegant simplicity, using striking poses and strong directional lighting. He employed a broad repertoire of poses, props, clothing and accessories to evoke the character of the sitter and to create a mood of elegance, opulence and allure.

He mounted his enlarged portraits on layers of textured and brightly coloured papers, offset from the centre of the frame, to create a dynamic and desirable finished object for the sitter to hang in their home. Cecil Beaton later emulated Moffat's close-up composition, innovative mounting style, and use of glittering fabrics and costumes to add glamour to sets.

Curtis Moffat, 'Snapshot', about 1925-1930. Museum no. E.850-2007, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Estate of Curtis Moffat

Curtis Moffat, 'Snapshot', about 1925-1930. Museum no. E.850-2007, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Estate of Curtis Moffat

Moffat often used one sheet of negative and contact printing paper for two separate exposures, probably to economise on materials. This practical method offers an insight into Moffat's working methods and shows us how he refined an image by trying out different poses. Red pencil markings on some of the contact sheets show how he intended to crop or enlarge portions of the image.

Snapshots

Moffat's photographic activity reached beyond the confines of the studio, and the large number of contact prints (made by placing the negative directly on a piece of photographic paper to obtain a small, quick reference image) preserved in the Moffat archive reveal a keen eye for the informal still life compositions that could be found in daily life. Moffat might have later used the contact prints to work up ideas for advertising, commercial or personal work.


Colour photography

Curtis Moffat, 'Portrait in mirror', about 1930. Museum no. E. 2261-2007, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Estate of Curtis Moffat

Curtis Moffat, 'Portrait in mirror', about 1930. Museum no. E. 2261-2007, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Estate of Curtis Moffat

Moffat was a pioneer of the complex tri-carbro colour print process. The process required three separately exposed black and white glass plate negatives, with each exposure made through a different filter of red, green and blue. The negatives were printed onto thin sheets of gelatine stained in these colours. Each sheet was then mounted by overlaying one on top of the other in register.

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