Father of the Chemigram

An Interview with Pierre Cordier

By Douglas Collins Back to


Pierre Cordier (born 1933) is a Belgian artist. A former lecturer at the École Nationale des Arts Visuels in Brussels, he is known in the art world through his practice of the chemigram technique. He lives and works in Brussels. After exhibiting at MoMA in New York (1967), the Musée d’Art Moderne in Brussels (1988), the Centre Pompidou in Paris (2008), and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London (2010), he is currently having a show of his early photographs of the French poet and singer, Georges Brassens, at the Cité de la Musique in Paris. New York cameraless photographer Douglas Collins recently interviewed Pierre Cordier for photo technique.

D. C. You’re known as the inventor or the father of the chemigram. Could you explain for us what a chemigram is?

P. C. To explain what a chemigram is, the best way is to define it: the chemigram combines the physics of painting (varnish, wax, oil) with the chemistry of photography (photo emulsion, developer, fixer); without a camera, without an enlarger, and in daylight. I’ve refined this definition over a long time, and while it seems complicated, it really isn’t.

Making a chemigram is no more difficult than making an apple turnover.

Pierre Cordier, Douglas Collins, chemigram, photo technique, photo mag
Self-Portrait, Saarbrücken,1958. Collection of the artist.

To decide whether I’m its inventor, you have to recall that in 1839, the Anno Lucis, no fewer than 24 investigators claimed the title of inventor of the photographic process. Years later historians decided it was Nicéphore Niépce who deserved the title. So while it’s true that the German, Edmund Kesting, and the Frenchman, Maurice Tabard, made some images in the 30s and 40s by painting fixer and developer onto photo paper, they didn’t make use of resists. You could say that the inventor is not the first to achieve a result, but the one who develops the technique. The term “inventor” matters little for me—it’s the results obtained that count.

D. C. Why this word “chemigram?”

P. C. To me it seemed useful to give a name to these images that were so different. In 1958, the year I registered the name “chimigramme” in French (and in 1979, the word “chemigram” in English), the word “chemistry” didn’t have the pejorative connotations it has for some today. Since my procedure featured photographic chemistry, I coined the word “chemigram”. Looking back I might have done better to use the word “physico chemigram,” since the way I work grants great importance to the physical phenomena arising from the resists. But that term is too cumbersome.

I have to insist that we’re talking about chemigram with an “i.” If I weren’t so pugnacious in late 80s, there would be two ways of spelling it today, one with an “i” and one with an “o.” Norman Sarachek, a well known American practitioner, sportingly dropped the “o” in favor of the “i.” But it’s clear that I have never intended to patent the technique itself.

Pierre Cordier, Douglas Collins, chemigram, photo technique, photo mag
Chemigram 19/2/71 II, detail D4. Collection of the artist.

D. C. Give us an insight into what this combination of “the physics of painting and the chemistry of photography” that you speak of actually means.

P. C. My work is about transdisciplinarity, an intersection of painting, photography and graphic design. It’s been that way since my first attempts back in 1956, when I made a dedication (graphics) on photographic paper (photography) using nail polish (painting) to a young German girl named Erika — and the first chemigram was born. Little by little I learned to manage my materials, photographic as well as pictorial, and I developed a procedure: for example, take a piece of photo paper, in daylight, coat it with a resist like varnish, make various incisions, then soak it alternatively, whichever way you want, in developer and fixer. This causes the physical transformation of the resist, and the chemigram emerges with a myriad of different details. To explore a chemigram, you often need eagle eyes, a magnifying glass or a microscope. Sometimes, a seemingly insignificant detail reveals a whole world. Like the messages hidden by spies in the dot of an “i.”

D. C. What is the place of chemigrams in the visual arts generally, and in particular within photography?

P. C. I’m neither a painter nor a photographer, but a little of each. Too often there’s a temptation to link chemigrams to either painting or photography, or sometimes to what’s called lensless photography. But the chemigram is not “photography,”which means writing with light, because the chemigram is done in daylight. Moreover, this is the difference between chemigrams and photograms; even if both are made without camera or enlarger, the photogram is a technique where you write with light, while in chemigrams you write with chemicals. So chemigrams don’t fit into any preordained category, but share multiple connections with both photography and painting. Also, the role of resists is crucial; most have a function in the manufacture of paint (varnish, wax, oil) but undergo physical transformations, not chemical, such as cracking, eroding, unsticking, dissolving.

D. C. What influences led you to the creation of the chemigram?

P. C. In art I’m an autodidact, but many artists have influenced me along the way. In my formative years, my favorite painters were Paul Klee and Max Ernst. Georges Brassens also had a pivotal role in my choice of becoming an artist; Brassens is to the francophone world what Bob Dylan is to Americans. In his song “Le mauvais sujet repenti,” a young woman becomes a prostitute and a man teaches her to “really move that place where your back looks like the moon” because “without technique a gift is nothing but a cheap trick.” I would invert this to say: “Without a gift, the chemigram technique is nothing but a cheap trick.” It’s the basis, the backbone, and like the jazz artists who’ve always inspired me, Duke and Monk, you’ve got to play riffs along it to make it really work.

Getting back to the art world, I had the opportunity to do a semester’s training with Otto Steinert in Germany, and at its completion I was invited to show at the Subjektive Fotografie 3 in Cologne in 1958. I also met Gottfried Jäger, who enlisted me as a founder of the avant garde group Generative Fotografie. In 1961 I met the painter Saul Steinberg. By the 1970s I met Aaron Siskind, who introduced me into artistic circles in America and became my spiritual father. I should also mention Manfred Mohr, a pioneer in computer art, with whom I collaborated in 1972—and there are many others who throughout my life have given me artistic sustenance and stimulation.

Pierre Cordier, Douglas Collins, chemigram, photo technique, photo mag
Chemigram 14/6/91 from ‘La Suma’ of Jorge Luis Borges. Collection of the artist.

D. C. You’ve created many homages in your chemigrams, to Muybridge, Marey, Borges, etc. Why?

P. C. The homages were an opportunity to demonstrate my admiration for these great figures, and also to thank them. The idea came to me when I was giving my classes on the history of photography. In 1972 I was among the first to make a tribute to a photographer, my homage to Muybridge. Then I did one to Marey. At the time photographers were not very popular people and I saw this as a way to spread the word. Other homages were more personal, such as the ones I did for Borges.

D. C. You’ve advocated various ways of creating the chemigram. Could you tell us more?

Pierre Cordier, Douglas Collins, chemigram, photo technique, photo mag

Chemigram 29/11/57 I. Paris, Centre Pompidou

P. C. Chemigrams essentially are restrained by the careful choice of resist, and these are limitless. Anything that can stick even a few seconds to the paper can make a chemigram. Each resist has its own character—you can recognize it like a face. I have used in my writings the expression “portrait of matter” for a reason. A chemigramist knows he will get fuzzy forms with soft resists (honey, syrup) and sharp forms with hard resists like varnishes or adhesives. And yet, among resists, varnish is king, because it is the most controllable. You can make chemigrams just by using developer and fixer, but that moves it closer to watercolors. I’ll give you a metaphor. From a technical point of view, if you compare painting to walking, photography to the automobile and the computer to the airplane, then the chemigram is like the bicycle — simple, quick and cheap. Whoever limits himself to drawing on photo paper with developer and fixer reminds me of a bicyclist walking alongside his bike.

D. C. For many years you taught the history of photography in Brussels. You also conducted workshops in France, Belgium, the United States, even in Japan. Has this led to a school of practitioners, or are chemigrams still seen as an anomaly, something strange?

P. C. To my knowledge there is no organized school of practitioners, but there are a great number of chemigramists practicing around the world. Today, it has become one of the established procedures of alternative photography. Through my workshops and my teaching I’ve continuously tried to spread it as widely as possible, and sharing my methods has always been one of my basic values. I feel the chemigram has a long life ahead of it.

About the Author

Douglas Collins
Douglas Collins is a printmaker and cameraless photographer. He teaches chemigrams at the Manhattan Graphics Center in New York City. Special thanks to Shirley Chantraine, assistant to Pierre Cordier. http://www.pierrecordier.com.