I discovered light writing by accident. I was trying and failing to take night shots with a long exposure without a tripod, and improvising badly with a stone wall, clamping my arms to my side, and not breathing. In a digital world, we get instant feedback and I could see what I’d shot within seconds. As night shots they were a spectacular failure. A failure because they weren’t the crisp, beautiful things I’d hoped for; spectacular because they were to me much more visually interesting than a hackneyed crisp night shot would have been. I was very fascinated with the marks that even tiny movements and breathing made with the distant lights over the sensor. And then I started drawing with the moon, drawing with the street lights, moving the camera; assessing the result… This, I soon realised, was painting with a brush made out of light and time.
Those first images are crude and exploratory. But there was, I discovered subsequently, a whole world of light writers out there, doing things with cameras, moons, torches, and burning steel wool. Be advised that it’s a dangerous technique, so would-be steel woollers need to prep well. The stunning image below is taken by Lee Duguid, and, according to his commentary, is a first attempt. Not bad.
Images, such as the one below, by Alan Jaras, use very different and secret techniques, but are other-worldly in their beauty.
It seems that photographers are as entranced by light as they ever were… But this strange form of rejecting the realism that photography offers isn’t a digital or recent phenomenon: light writing, it transpires, is quite an old art, almost as old as photography itself. In the late 1800s a physiology scientist called Georges Demenÿ worked as an assistant to Etienne-Jules Marey. Using chronophotography, or sequential photography, they created images which were made in all likelihood to expose the way the human body moves, but which are beautiful examples in their own right of light art. In 1889, they fixed lights to a lab assistant so that the lights would record his body’s movements on the camera plate.
In 1911, Anton Giulio Bragaglia established what he called photodynamism. He shot images at slow shutter speeds, moving his models in the frame to capture the blurs of light on the frame as they moved.
I have to confess, that during the many theatre photoshoots that I do (and which I love), there are boring moments when a cue has to be fixed, and the show stalls, and I use this technique to entertain myself. Because these are hand-held, the sensor records the movement of my breathing combined with the choreography of the dancers. The images suggest to me Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamodorians, from Slaughterhouse-Five, who see all time simultaneously.
In Frank Gilbreth and his wife Lillian Moller Gilbreth used the similar techniques to make time and motion studies of certain actions. They did not consider the results to be art, but as studies to aid the streamlining of clerical work actions.
Artists associated with this technique most famously include Picasso, but before he worked with Life Magazine photographer, Gjon Mili, others were experimenting with the technique, most notably photographer Man Ray. It had been thought until recently that the marks he made were random, but in 2009, photographer Ellen Carey found, by examining the shots with a mirror, that he was actually often writing his signature into the air with light. Who hasn’t done that with a sparkler?
And so to the most famous example because it involves Pablo Picasso. The pictures, however were made by LIFE photographer Gjon Mili. Mili had already been experimenting with photodynamism, and with recording lights embedded into the skates of ice skater, Carol Lynne. He asked if Picasso would like to try something similar, and Picasso drew his famous creatures and centaurs in the air while Mili shot pictures. Both Picasso and Mili were drawing with light. In some of the pictures, with a pop of a flash bulb, Picasso is also captured, frozen in time, caught in the act of drawing. For the story, and more images, go to the LIFE Magazine online site.
Mili’s images of dancers Gene Kelly and Martha Graham are equally stunning, capturing as they do, the exuberance of the dance that one still image often can’t.
There’s much more that could be said, but suffice to say that light painting is a bright area of activity. Light Painting is out there with contemporary practitioners such as Corey Bryson, graphic and motion designer Ricky Diaghe and collectives such as Lichtfaktor, all of them using stills and/or animations involving light painting, while computer artists such as Chuck Anderson have demonstrated how to replicate light painting effects using Photoshop for those of us too scared to go out after midnight and light up some steel wool.
It’s a dark world out there. It needs light painting. Get a torch.