In October 1997, Ewa Stackelberg’s husband died in a plane accident in Costa Rica. Among the belongings sent to her after the tragedy was her husband’s camera, which had been smashed to pieces in the crash—almost like a foreshadowing of the turn that Stackelberg’s life and practice would take in the years to come. In the search for a new artistic language to express her grief, photography—or rather, the production of photograms—eventually became Stackelberg’s chosen medium. Nearly two decades later, the horrific tragedy continues to inform her oeuvre, where metaphors of life and death, in their gloriously distilled forms, have found permanent imprints on light-sensitive paper. Fotogram (2015) is a retrospective of Stackelberg’s work at Fotografiska, taken over a period of fifteen years; each image is an exercise in capturing the amalgamation of “color, patterns and stories.”
In technical terms, the photogram is a photographic image made without a camera, an old method that was, in the nineteenth century, employed by pioneers László Moholy-Nagy and Anna Atkins to create photographic illustrations with the cyanotype process. To create a photogram, objects are placed between light sensitive paper and a light source; when exposed, the areas of the paper that receive light appear dark, and the parts that do not receive any light appear lighter. The silhouette that gradually emerges is a negative shadow image that shows variations in tone, depending upon the degree of opacity and transparency of the objects used. Much like the photographic pioneers, Stackelberg’s process in the darkroom is one of conscious experimentation with the image-production process. A usable print or a favourable outcome is never assured—Stackelberg readily admits that there are more bad prints than good ones—but it is precisely this aesthetic uncertainty that’s so alluring, especially when creating a photogram is akin to engaging in “a dialogue between the unconscious and the artistic material” each time light, chemicals, and objects interact.