What is a photogram?

How and why we chose our startup's name 🤔 🎨 📸

Coming up with a good startup name is hard. We faced this challenge last year when we were thinking about what to call our startup.

We tried everything. We rummaged through blog posts. Scribbled in notebooks. Wore out whiteboard pens drawing Venn and spider diagrams. By the time we finished we had spun up a web of useless jargon and acronyms.

Eventually we settled on Photogram. But, how and why did we choose this name?

A lot of people at the time thought that we just removed the “Insta” from Instagram and replaced it with “Photo”. We didn’t do that. That would be lazy.

Our startup’s name in fact has a much richer story that’s rooted in art history. In this post we’re going to explain what a photogram is and why it inspired us.

Inspiration

Vishal remembers the moment clearly. When him and Liam were thinking about a suitable name for their company in May 2019, they had spent at least a couple of days scratching their heads or banging them against a wall hoping for a name to appear.

The number of start-ups that have been created around the world since the turn of the millennium has been astonishing. The task of coming up with a unique startup name that stands out—and is not completely ridiculous—has become a challenge in itself. To help desperate founders, a library of tools and guides such as business name generators and how-to blog posts have eased the pain, but not by much.

They were running out of time. By the end of the month Vishal and Liam were required to have a working name for their startup as part of the Entrepreneur First programme where they both met earlier in the year.

As a change of tactic, Vishal and Liam decided to ditch the business school recommendations and instead take inspiration by diving deep into art history.

Because the two founders were building an AI-accelerated computational camera (you can read a previous post to learn why) they first started by looking at the genesis of photography in the 18th century. Then they meandered through the 19th Century and ended up discussing the development of photography at the Bauhaus, which turned out to be a vital source of inspiration for the two founders.

The Bauhaus School, founded in Weimar in 1919 and then later moved to Dessau and Berlin, Germany, was one of the most influential art and design schools in the 20th century. Academics and artists from the Bauhaus were interested in photography, cameras and how new technology impacted creativity. Yet an increasingly hostile government put the ideas of modernism developed at the school under pressure.

After the Nazis had closed the Bauhaus School in 1932, Walter Gropius, one of the initial founders of the Bauhaus school who had reallocated to the Department of Architecture at Harvard University, convinced Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, an artist and ex-colleague from the Bauhaus, to come to Chicago in 1937 to head a school called the New Bauhaus, later renamed the School of Design.

The School of Design in Chicago was an influential school that fostered experimentation between art, craft, design and architecture. László Moholy-Nagy was the driving force of this philosophy and encouraged students and artists to use cameras and photography in particular for imagining new worlds. A recent independent film called The New Bauhaus documents his influence on the School of Design:

But, what is a photogram?

A photogram is a photographic image made without a camera by placing objects directly onto the surface of a light-sensitive photographic paper and then exposing it to light. The Tate describes it as a “technique of creating photographic prints without using a camera (photograms) as old as photography itself — but emerged again in various avant-garde contexts in the early 1920s”.

A photogram, therefore, is a type of artwork, much like an oil painting, a screen print or a sculpture. According to an excerpt by the Guggenheim, Moholy-Nagy coined the term photogram in 1925 to describe his work using camera-less photography. Man Ray, an American artist, popularised them too in the early 20th as he saw an affinity between photograms and painting. But the process of generating images with light-sensitive materials and without a camera dates back to at least the 18th century.

Moholy-Nagy was so fond of photograms he used them as a teaching tool to explain the essence of photography; how to construct composition and form, and also how to deal with light-sensitive materials and chemicals. The School of Design was so proud of the photogram as a teaching method that they curated an exhibition called How to Make a Photogram at the Museum of Modern Art in 1942.

Ted Forbes, an American photographer who runs the influential YouTube channel The Art of Photography, explains how to make a photogram:

Photogram

It was the concept of generating photos without a camera that inspired Vishal and Liam.

As they were building an AI-accelerated computational camera, and because of their new-found insight into photograms, they kept generating marketing phrases for their camera such as “take an image with a computer rather than a camera” and “reimagine your camera as a computer”.

Although they were technically building a lens-based optical system that focuses light onto an imaging sensor—in other words, a camera—the brain of the camera is a powerful, modern computer made of a CPU, GPU and TPU, running its own operating system. This provided enough scope for the two founders to think about their camera as a computer.

There was only one thing left.

In the UK, for a founder to register a business they must decide on a unique company name and are required to complete the necessary paperwork before filing at a government institution called Companies House—a process that usually takes a few hours to complete.

Companies House has a tool to help founders search whether a company name exists or not.

Vishal typed in “photogram”…

To his surprise, Photogram Ltd was available! He mentioned it to Liam and they both agreed on the name so they grabbed it.

Ending

So there you have it. That’s the story about why we decided to call our company Photogram.

We didn’t just look at Instagram and think let’s remove the “Insta” and add “Photo”. Reassuringly, too, we didn’t just bash in a few words into a business name generator and hope for the best.

We thought hard about our name. Our company has been inspired by the word photogram, a process by which a photograph is created without a camera, but the wonderfully innovative and experimental work of Bauhaus School and, specifically, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy is something we want to imbue in our work. As he once claimed, “it is not the person ignorant of writing but the one ignorant of photography who will be the illiterate of the future”.