Fine Art, Portrait

How photography is just like photosynthesis

British photographer and scientist Alice Cazenave creates a new photographic process by exposing images directly onto the surface of leaves

The photography of Alice Cazenave, as much a scientist as an artist, is intriguing, her methods of construction ambiguous. In her work Breathe a ghostly portrait emerges from the fragile architecture of a geranium leaf. It’s one of the first images created through a new photographic process Cazenave calls Pelargonium printing.

Although pushing photography in exciting new directions, Cazenave’s new process engages with some of the medium’s longstanding concerns: light, time and memory.

The concept of a photograph as an “exact trace of light, shadow, time and space” is paramount to the artist. She cites Susan Sontag’s On Photography, regarding the process of looking at a photograph: “‘The photograph of the missing being will touch me like the delayed rays of a star’ – I think it’s a beautiful way to explain photography,” she says.

Having recently lost someone close to her, the artist places great value on: “The notion that light can freeze time for the keeping, as a physical keepsake.”

Cazenave’s interest in photography was piqued at an early age when a school teacher introduced her to the photogram and chemigram. Cazenave went on to study Cellular and Molecular Medicine at the University of Bristol followed by an MA in Art and Science at Central Saint Martins.

“It was during my graduate studies that my interest in cell biology fused with my interest in photographic process which had been laying dormant for 10 years,” she says.

Yet it was a family tradition of cabinet making that instilled an appreciation for the patience required to work with organic materials. “The Pelargonium prints serve as a coupling of interests – my father’s knowledge of trees and my apprenticeship in photography”, she says.

“The Pelargonium process essentially uses the leaf as photographic paper”, Cazenave says. To create the images, a negative is placed on top of the leaf and left overnight to expose. Light flows through the transparent areas in the negative, affecting the leaf surface and producing starch. Dark areas of the negative protect the leaf from exposure to light, and so remain unaffected.

Post-exposure, chlorophyll is removed from the leaf by a number of washes. This allows the latent photograph to been seen clearly after development with a chemical which identifies starch produced in the leaf. “With the leaf process, the pigment is created by photosynthesis; the photograph is an insight into the otherwise invisible workings of the leaves’ biochemistry.”

By adopting a camera-less technique Cazenave’s practice harks back to the very beginnings of the medium calling to mind the botanical experiments of William Henry Fox Talbot in the 19th century. “I am interested in direct visual representations of a light-driven process. What I like about camera-less photography is that you can make a photograph of something that can’t be photographed. Instead of an external referent seen through a lens, life itself becomes the image – it surpasses the merely retinal.”

Wishing to focus attention on the human being’s dislocation from nature, Cazenave has chosen to experiment with portraiture. “I find our celebrated reliance on technology suffocating. Whilst technological advancements have been liberating in many ways, in photography I feel the magic of things has been lost.”

With each leaf taking a week to create, process is central to Cazenave’s practice. During her graduate show at Central Saint Martins, she constructed a green house where she invited visitors to experience the method of production. “The creation of the greenhouse-darkroom serves to communicate the intimacy of the workspace and the bond an artist creates with his or her work through long hours of dedication to a project.”

Cazenave hopes to radically expand the project in the future: “The dream is to be able to use region-specific leaves to tell a story through the leaf portraits, of members of the community. I don’t want the technique to become a gimmick, the role of photography as story-telling must be embedded in the practice.”

See more of Alice’s work here.