The photography collection at the George Eastman Museum consists of 100s of thousands of photographic objects, many of which you can explore in our online collection. While this is part of what makes the collection one of the best in the world, it also means that finding an object within the collection often requires a directed search. The majority of these objects are stored in boxes, so when curators and researchers search through them, they may stumble onto a few surprise pieces that they weren’t expecting- similar to the way we may stumble upon an unusual and rare book while searching for known authors in the library. This was not like that. It was a happy accident, caused by curator, Lisa Hostetler looking a little closer at what was assumed to be part of the furniture…
In May 2016, while looking through the photography vault in the museum, Lisa noticed for the first time that the large piece of black wood at the end of a large blue metal shelving unit had a label on the top of it. What she noticed in particular was the name written on the label: Floris Neüsuss. Increasingly over the last decade, the work of Neüsuss has become popular due to a resurgence in the interest in photography as object. As digital photography became more prevalent, artists have come to think more critically about what a photograph is as an object, and how we engage with it differently as the medium changes. Lisa’s own exhibition: A Matter of Memory: Photography as Object in the Digital Age explores this concept through the works of diverse artists, Neüsuss included. Lisa was not in the vault looking for a Neüsuss that day- although the artist was on her mind. As she examined the label closer, she realized that these objects might be important.
As the Department of Photography team came together to examine the objects, it wasn’t surprising that no one had noticed these 6-foot photographs before. The two objects had been placed with their fronts facing each other, they were held between the metal shelving unit and a large metal storage container, and they were mostly covered up. It is likely that the last time someone had actually seen these two pieces in person, was when they were moved to this new vault in 1989. Since no one was actively researching or displaying them, and as curators and collection managers came and went, they eventually became just part of the furniture.
When we moved the two large photographs from their inconspicuous location in the vault so we could see them in full, we confirmed that they were two examples of “Nudograms” by Floris Neüsuss. Born in Lennep, Germany in 1937, Neüsuss trained at the Art School in Wuppertal and the National Academy of Photographic Design in Munich before being appointed professor of experimental photography at the University of Kassel in 1971. He retired in 2002. While he has been recognized for decades in Germany as one of the most influential photographic artists, his work had fallen off the radar outside of Europe by the early 2000s. Happily, his work has experienced a resurgence of interest in recent years, and he is now again well known within the contemporary photography community.
In 1954 Neüsuss created his first photogram and established himself as a pioneer in the field of cameraless photographic art as he explored the aesthetic possibilities of casting light across, through, and around objects on light-sensitive materials. In 1960, Neusüss created the first of his signature Körperfotogramms, also known as “Nudograms.” These life-sized photograms are the result of the artist posing nude models between light-sensitive photographic paper and a light source, which he turned on in order to make the exposures. Neusüss experimented heavily with Körperfotogramms throughout the 1960s and 1970s. His methods included using auto-reversal papers, which allowed him to achieve the usual photographic rendering of shadow and light without the need for a negative; directing his models to move during exposure; and applying developer and fixer directly onto the papers by hand in order to produce painterly washes that left some areas deliberately unfixed.
Such innovative ways of working brought him to the attention of Nathan Lyons, who included his work in his landmark exhibition, Vision & Expression, in 1969. The two photograms that we have demonstrate the range of possibilities that Neusüss discovered through this working method. Figur auf Weiss (Figure on White, 1965) shows an individual with legs crossed and hair up rendered in broad areas of dark and light. By contrast, Figur Bewegt auf Weiss (Figure Moves on White, 1965) demonstrates how movement in the photogram can create variations in tonality that activate the surface of the print. These life-size figural works beautifully express his conception of photography as a sensual, performative act and the photograph as the tangible outcome of it.
Stay tuned over the next couple weeks as we share this story of re-discovery, conservation, and display, and see the photograms on view now in A Matter of Memory: Photography as Object in the Digital Age at the Eastman Museum.
*These posts were first published as part of the Photography Department's Photo Finish 5K Campign, and were co-written by Jamie Allen, Lisa Hostetler, Zach Long, Emily Phoenix, and Kate Meyers Emery. Photographs include Lisa Hostetler showing the place where the photograms were being stored (left), and Emily Phoenix and Chris Holmquist remove the photograms from the vault (right), taken by Taina Meller.