Exploratorium Magazine Online
picturing the body

Volume 23, Number 3
Try This!
self-portrait silhouettes by Amy Snyder
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Photogram 1
Click to enlarge.
© Amy Snyder

photogram 4
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© Quincy Moore

You don't have to have a camera to make a photographic image. With a light source, an object to block the light, and light-sensitive paper, you can create wonderful silhouette-like images known as photograms. In this case, the light-blocking object will be you, as you create a self-portrait photogram.

For the past two years, high school students in a Basic Photography course (co-taught by the author and Katya Kallsen at the California College of Arts and Crafts Precollege program) have been making exquisite, mural-sized photograms of themselves. During the class, students choose a pose and attire that expresses something about who they are. The results range from poetic to abstract to humorous—but each student captures something unique, creating a very personal self-portrait.

Here are two different ways to make a photogram, one using regular photographic paper and processing, and the other using special "sun-print" paper that processes in plain water.

Activity 1: photogram wih photographic paper


  • photographic paper (available from photo supply stores in many different sizes—11" x 14," 16" x 20," and 20" x 24"—sold in packets of ten sheets with light-tight envelope included. (To make photograms of a large group, you can buy a roll of photographic paper and cut it to any size you like.)
  • pushpins
  • a safelight (a red "party" light bulb, or a regular light bulb painted with dark red nail polish will do; you can also buy safelight bulbs at a photo supply store)
  • a flash, and a friend to pop the flash (alternative: a bare light bulb in a socket or a clamp-on light; flick on for one or two seconds, then off again)
  • a room that you can make completely dark (best is a big closet or a room with no windows)

To Do and Notice

  1. Turn on your safelight and darken the room. Remember to block light leaks from under doors and around any windows (use towels or blankets for large leaks, tape for small ones)
  2. Pin a sheet of photographic paper to a wall.
  3. Set up a flash on the lowest power setting about ten to twelve feet from the paper. (Alternative: put a floor lamp with the bare bulb about ten to twelve feet away)
  4. Stand in front of the paper and try out various poses. When you've decided on a pose, stand as close as you can to the paper and have your friend pop the flash (or flick the light bulb on and off for about two seconds).
  5. Immediately put the paper into the light-tight envelope.
  6. Bring your photogram to a photo lab for processing.

For advanced photographers: If you have access to a darkroom, or a room with no windows such as a walk-in closet, you can develop your photogram yourself using plastic trays and standard developer, stop, and fixer for black-and-white photography. Just follow the directions that come with the chemicals.

Photogram 2
Click to enlarge.
© Katherine Bauer
Photogram 3
Click to enlarge.
© Amy Snyder

continue to the next activity: photogram made with the sun
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