April 02, 2019 to April 27, 2019
992 Valencia Street
San Francisco - 94110 CA
San Francisco's Right Window Gallery will host the first West
Coast exhibit of Alan W. Bernheimer's Reflectographs, rare and unique photographic images
created without a camera. The exhibit runs from April 2 to 30, with a gallery reception on
Sunday, April 14 from 1 to 4 pm, at 992 Valencia Street.
Starting in the 1960s, Bernheimer (1913-2006) produced an innovative body of photographic
work that he called Reflectographs, made by reflecting light directly onto photosensitive paper,
with the polished reflector acting as an imperfect lens, focusing and distorting the light to
produce intricately textured shapes and patterns ranging from abstract to suggestive.
Bernheimer considered Reflectographs a type of photogram, a cameraless form that dates back
to the dawn of photography in the 19th century. Photography pioneer Henry Fox Talbot called
them "photogenic drawings." Man Ray called his own work in this mode "rayographs."
Photograms were traditionally made by placing objects directly on photo paper before
exposure to light, creating shadows. The dark shadows are "negatives" of the objects, and
Reflectographs are negatives in the same sense, since the brightest parts of the light pattern
produce the darkest tones in the final image, with gradations all the way to white, where no
Bernheimer's innovation was to use reflected light patterns, rather than shadows of objects, to
create the images. Initially he used household objects such as shiny metal or glass platters for
reflectors. The texture or fine structure in some Reflectographs is a result of diffraction and
interference caused by numerous microscopic scratches in the reflecting surface. Over time
Bernheimer's work became increasingly sophisticated, evolving from stark figures on a white
ground to more elaborate and suggestive images extending past the edge of the frame, with
reflectors as diverse as hubcaps and mylar.
In his 2016 book, Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph, art historian Geoffrey
Batchen says of the form that "Such photographs therefore reduce photography to its most
essential feature: the reaction of a given surface to the absence and presence of light...
Unmediated by perspectival optics, photography is here presented as something to be looked
at, not through, and to be made, not taken."
Bernheimer was professor of microbiology at the NYU School of Medicine, where his research
focused on the structure and mechanisms of bacterial toxins. During the Second World War he
developed a vaccine against gas gangrene. His Reflectographs were exhibited in galleries in New
York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Massachusetts, and featured in Leonardo, 35mm
Photography, and the Encyclopedia of Photography.*
*"Reflectographs: Nonfigurative Artworks Made Using Photographic Materials," Leonardo, vol. 11, pp. 177-79
Photo © Alan Bernheimer