Writing with Light

Thinking, making, connecting: MA Illustration

Part II: Chemistry and Light

So now, in Part II of this potted History of Photography, we approach the burgeoning world of Chemistry in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, but the histories here are far too complex and beautiful to do justice to in such a small blog so I direct you to the bibliography given at the bottom of the page if you want full versions… But there are several protagonists, and as in Part I, where I mentioned James Burke’s Connections, there isn’t one main event, but a series of interconnected ones. 

But first…


As I noted in Part I, the history of photography contains stories which are visually very interesting – I can see, in the camera obscura of my mind, dust motes swirling in the shafts of light that fall through the aperture in a chamber long ago and far away; I can see close ups of old fingers fettling glass lenses; I can see the soft upside image of a distant vista playing over a pale wall. And later, when the darkened chambers shrank, I can see the drape of black silk cloths, rosewood boxes, brass hinges and vellum screens and... This is why, much to my father’s dismay – he was a chemist – I was never a scientist because I couldn’t stick to the scaffolding of facts: I projected them in a wild cinematography of brilliant visions. Every story I read, every story I heard, got illustrated in my mind with my own personal visual fairy tale versions of the facts. I told my dad I didn’t want to work in an office or do typing or anything scientific: I wanted, I told him, to be creative… So I became a writer, and now I find myself sitting in an office, typing, and, right now, reading about the immense creativity of chemical scientists, for I know now science is a visual space in which huge imaginative leaps are made and tested… And what also strikes me is what polymaths these men were (sadly, no women photography pioneers yet in my researches): when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce wasn’t experimenting with early forms of photographic capture, he was busy inventing the pyreolophore, a sort of internal combustion engine for propelling boats, whilst Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre was trained in architecture and an accomplished theatre designer and developer of the Parisian theatrical spectacle the Diorama, as well as inventor of the Daguerreotype.

My dad told us science stories, and my mum showed my siblings and me the colours that bloom out when, say, a small drop of black ink is put onto Chromatography paper and a solvent dripped on it. With Dad, we artfully arranged objects – forks, a pair of scissors, bits of plants – on special shiny paper out in the sun and waited for a short while, then we tipped off the objects and ran up the stairs, taking our papers with us, into the red world of the dark room in the attic where the ghost lived. Here we slipped the papers into a chemical bath of developer and watched crisp white silhouettes slowly appear in the emerging black printed by the sun onto the paper. We fixed them, and I kept some for a while. And then in a mad clear out I threw them all away. 


Johann Heinrich Schulze

Johann Heinrich Schulze (1687-1744). Source: http://www.ohrekreis.de/index_122.html

So, back to the history, and this is where phylogeny does recapitulate ontogeny, for shadowgrams were my first photographs – now lost – and similar experiments with light sensitive chemicals are important events in the development of photography: in 1727, for example, German anatomy professor Johann Heinrich Schulze discovered that if he exposed precipitates of silver chloride and chalk to light, as opposed to heat, he could ‘print’ crude stencilled words onto them. Shadowgrams were also part of the early experiments made by William Henry Fox Talbot in the 1830s except that he called them Photogenic Drawings. In 1839, for example, he placed specimens of English wild vine onto paper prepared with silver salts to capture the ‘light’ shadows they made on the paper when exposed to the sun. But these images were a means to an end, merely stages on the way to finding a fixing process. Ironic then, that despite all the modern photographic methods available to them, artists/photographers such as Harry Nankin and Martha Madigan, should use the shadowgram method to create visually stunning work: Fox Talbot’s experiments into how to capture Nature is for these practitioners an end in itself. When we have lots of complex processes available to us, finding beauty in basic principles can be liberating. This last summer, after so much Photoshop and After Effects, I have enjoyed getting my hands dirty making pictures with sticks of graphite and putty rubbers.

Photographic Developer

When I started this blog, I wasn’t quite sure of the practical project it might accompany. But out of all the connections and the complexities comes a simplicity: all this thinking about the history of photography, which began as a contextual study, makes me want to make images out of it, for the vocabulary is rich: silver chloride, spectrum, salts, papers, lenses, copper, pewter… As if by magic, a picture emerges and the context has become the text. There are visions to be played with here of gentlemen scientists in top hats and frock coats, fob watches and dust motes and glass jars and silver salts. Here is a rich vein of visual potential which, with recent access to old family photographs and the eBay acquisition of a box-load of Victorian photographs, was perhaps lying latent, like images invisible on paper after exposure to the sun, but before the developer has done its work.

So now, they appear, these images. Slowly. But perhaps, like Fox Talbot with his troublesome contraption, the camera lucida (can’t you just imagine the swearing?), I might not be able to transpose them from prism to paper to my satisfaction. Experiments must commence.

(And as for Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. I haven’t forgotten him. Or the early women photographers. More in the next post!)

Fox Talbot, W. H., (1844) The Pencil of Nature, London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans. Available online: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/33447/33447-pdf.pdf
Hacking, J., & D. Company. (2012) Photography: The Whole Story, London: Thames and Hudson
Jeffrey, I., (1981) Photography: A Concise History, London: Thames and Hudson
Mulligen, T., & D. Wooters. (eds.) (2012) A History of Photography, from 1839 to the present day, Los Angeles: Taschen.
Towler, J., (1864) The Silver Sunbeam: A Practical and Theoretical Text-Book on Sun Drawing and Photographic Printing: Comprehending all the Wet and Dry Processes at Present Known, with Collodion, Albumen, Gelatine, Wax, Resin, and Silver; as also Heliographic Engraving, photolithography, Photozincography, Celestial Photography, Photography in Natural Colors, Tinting and Coloring of Photographs Printing in Various Colors; the Carbon Process; the Card-Picture, the Vignette, and Stereography, New York: Joseph H. Ladd
Trachtenberg, A., (1980) Classic Essays on Photography, New Haven: Leete’s Island Books
Watson, R., & H. Rappaport. (2013) Capturing the Light, London: Macmillan

Histories and Fairy Tales: Part 1

One of my favourite books as a child was James Burke’s Connections. The book (and indeed, the TV series which it accompanied), taught me that nothing is invented in perfect isolation: that previous and even parallel discoveries and inventions are paramount to the development of many modern day things. So, it must be noted that the history of photography is not a simple timeline: it is a messy weave of parallel threads knotted with notable events and competing vocabularies. It must also be separated out from the invention and development of the camera. That will be a story for Part II, or maybe even Part III.

But before I begin, another preliminary: I offer the following because, although it is a discredited theory, I am forever attracted to the perfect symmetry of the dusty old brass and cartridge paper science sensibility of Ernst Haekel‘s now thoroughly discredited Theory of Recapitulation. ‘Ontogeny,’ he stated, ‘recapitulates phylogeny.’ We know differently now. But I like to think that ontogeny (the study of the fertilised egg developing into the mature form) can still recapitulate phylogeny (the study of the development of the species) in the imagination, in poetry, in dreams, in images… The following history of photography is sort of mirrored in my own beginnings in the field, more of which later. In the meantime, making a linear tale of a vast historical and geographical panorama is difficult, so this is a potted history, or a story of connections and tangents. Believe the believable bits, forgive the recapitulations and discard the rest…

The Camera Obscura

In the dark and distant past, there were twinkling astrologers and robed scientists who, wielding brass oraries, astrolabes, calipers and crystal balls, experimented with alchemy and optics, and built darkened chambers, or camera obscura, to observe the properties of light and the projected images of the outside world falling, as if by magic, onto the inner walls of these chambers.


18th Century illustration of a camera obscura. Source: Ex Bibliotheca Gymnasii Altonani

The images are magical. The science is beautiful. Light rays from the sun fall onto an object and are reflected in all directions. The white incident rays, coming directly from the sun, are composed of a wide spectrum of different wave lengths of light colours. The reflected rays, however, consist of the wave lengths of light which have not been absorbed by the surfaces of the objects from which they are reflected: it is these unabsorbed wavelengths of light that cause us to perceive colour in the surfaces from which they are reflected. If some of these reflected rays happen to travel through a small hole, or aperture, in say, the wooden shutters over a window, and fall onto the inner wall opposite, they are ‘interrupted’,  and thus reflected again – enabling the eye to see them – and their colour information is disclosed. Thus, an image, often blurred but also often decipherable, appears on the wall. And because light travels in straight lines – a property which the camera obscura exposes and exploits – the projected image is always upside down.


Image of the New Royal Palace, Prague Castle (size aprox. 4 x 2 m) created on the attic wall by a hole in the tile roofing. Author: Gampe

Such projections can occur naturally in an ‘accidental’ camera obscura, as is evident in the attic of Prague Castle shown here, where a hole in a roof tile allows light rays reflected from the facade of a nearby building to be projected onto the attic wall; indeed, the principle has been known for thousands of years, the earliest known written account being Aristotle’s Problemata, in 350BC.  Other early scholars such as Euclid, Chinese philosopher Mozi, and Arab philosopher Al-kindi also noted and explored the optical phenomenon, but the first clear account of the camera obscura is given by Arab scholar Alhazen in his Kitab al-Manazir or Book of Optics, dating from 1011 to 1021. Alhazen recommended the device for the safe observation of solar eclipses.

The Camera and Art

According to Matt Gatton, a multi-media artist in the States, these early philosophers and scientists were not the first to discover the principle. He proposes a paleo-camera theory whereby the depiction of animals in caves in Paleolithic times emerges after small piercings in the hide coverings of huts allowed light rays, and thus an image of whatever was outside, to project through into their interiors. He theorises that the plaquettes or large flat stones sometimes found in caves alongside the wall paintings, and upon which are scratched the animal drawings found on the walls, are highly significant: these plaquettes have had less impact on public consciousness, perhaps because they are not as spectacular as the paintings on the cave walls, but, Gatton theorises, they could be working drawings made in camera obscura hide huts and subsequently taken into caves to assist with the wall painting process. Should such a technique lessen the Paleolithic artists in our estimation? These are, after all, the paintings of which Picasso remarked: ‘We have learnt nothing!’

Except that he didn’t. Different stories have him exiting Lascaux, or Chauvet, or Altomira… And the vocabulary differs, but it’s a great fairy tale and demonstrates how myth overlays history. In the end, Matt Gatton’s theory can only ever be a theory, but its modus operandi of camera obscura assisted drawing is an idea not restricted to Gatton’s appealing but unprovable assertion: David Hockney proposed something similar in his book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost secrets of the Old Masters, in which he describes making similar drawing experiments to Gatton, in comparing line marks made when capturing a person’s likeness from memory with those made when using a camera obscura. His case seems convincing, although now it is refuted robustly by David G. Stork et al in conference and in print (2011).  I suppose that there are things we want to believe – like ontogenies mirroring phylogenies – because they are poetic or perfectly structured but, in the name of science, we must resist. The truth isn’t always a perfect narrative, it’s often a messy one. Nevertheless, there is something darkly attractive in the arcane secrets and contraptions of the alchemists and the old masters. Herein lies the evocative vocabulary of Fleur Adcock’s 1979 poem The Ex-Queen among the Astronomers…  

Drawing of an early Camera Obscura

Seventeenth Century illustration of camera obscura from “Sketchbook on military art, including geometry, fortifications, artillery, mechanics, and pyrotechnics”. Source: Library of Congress

Whatever the truth of the Old Masters and their canvases and pin holes, other images do, however, demonstrate that later artists did set up camera obscura to capture distant vistas and buildings on paper or canvas. And some show that war and the military were, as ever, the driving forces of invention. And others, such as the sketches made by the great Canaletto given below, demonstrate unequivocally that resorting to the camera obscura was not the mark of a lesser artist: interpretation is still everything (in which case Matt Gratton’s theory does not diminish Paleolithic artists). In any case, the search for verisimilitude in art is perpetually unfinished, despite the solution offered in photography, and each era’s version of realism differs. As Descartes notes, “no image should completely liken the object it represents, for otherwise there could be no point of distinction between the object and its image” (cited in Fiorentini, 2006: 22).


Four drawings by Canaletto, representing Campo San Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, obtained with a Camera obscura. (Venice, Gallerie dell’Accademia)

I find this use of the camera obscura particularly interesting because it undercuts the perennial ‘Is Photography an Art?’ debate with evidence that some of the great artists used optical means to advance their work, and achieve a verisimilitude so very difficult, but not impossible, to achieve by aid of the eye alone: their achievements are underpinned, but not lessened, by a camera of sorts. Canaletto’s works are, after all, stunning in so many more ways than as accurate depictions of perspectives and spatial relationships. Funny that the desire for verisimilitude in art has driven the invention of the modern camera, and then when the camera is invented, art rejects it…

Camera_Obscura_box18thCenturyThese same artists’s needs and desires led to the addition of lenses to the pinhole of the camera obscura for the better focusing of light falling onto the paper, and also the introduction of angled mirrors to the chamber to invert the projection so that artists no longer had to look at images upside down. At the same time, the chamber itself was shrinking to become a portable box for the serious artist or the amusement of ladies in parlours. This decrease in size, however, undoubtedly cost it some of its magic, for the camera obscura was a scientific instrument, a drawing tool and, certainly in its larger ‘room’ format, a magical entertainment: visitors to Edinburgh can still visit the Victorian camera obscura on the castle promontory and see live, moving images of the city below projected onto a dish in a darkened room. However uneasily pleased I think I am, the effect, when I saw it a few years ago, was magical, and I wasn’t alone: when the images first fell onto the table before us, the audience gasped. The mix of darkness and light is a potent one, and artists such as Chris Fraser and Abelardo Morell are still using the physics of the camera obscura to create beautiful and often ephemeral artworks made of light. But back in the late 1700s matters were progressing again. Artists were still dissatisfied with the new improved camera obscura: its lenses caused colour aberrations which made copying the colours of Nature difficult, nor did they find its focus sharp enough beyond the central area. Something else clearly needed to be invented.

The Camera Lucida

In 1807, William Hyde Wollaston patented the camera lucida, a drawing tool similar to the camera obscura, but very much more portable for the artist in the field. Its optics had been described in 1611 by Johannes Kepler in his work on telescope refraction, Dioptrice seu demonstratio eorum quae visui & visibilibus propter Conspicilla ita pridem inventa accidunt (or Dioptrice for short), but had not been seriously exploited until Wollaston’s work. Erna Fiorentini makes a comprehensive comparative study of the two devices and I direct you there for more detail, but it’s safe to say artists were still not satisfied with either, for whatever the shortcomings of the camera obscura, the camera lucida had its own drawbacks not least of which was that it was notoriously difficult to use. It was William Henry Fox Talbot’s dissatisfaction with this aspect of it that led to him to wonder how its projected images might be fixed without the need for the artist to pencil in outlines by hand. The processes so far offered, after all, merely an artwork in outline only: the tones, textures and colours were still blank for the artist to fill in. Yet the image projected was tantalisingly life-like and rich.

James Burke’s comment that ‘Connections are made by accident’ is a simple truth. Perhaps the complex truth behind Fox Talbot’s connection to the invention of Photography is his desire to be better at art than he was. Inventions are, after all, sometimes about finding shortcuts. Perhaps this is at the heart of the suspicion with which art perceives photography: that the camera obscura, the camera lucida and the modern film or digital camera are somehow forms of cheating because they bypass the hours necessary to make a work by eye or from memory. How very far from the truth that turned out to be, what with all the messing around there was, especially for early pioneers, in the messy world of the chemical dark room.

William Henry Fox Talbot

William Henry Fox Talbot, by John Moffat, 1864.


Burke, J., (1978, 2007: reprint edn.) Connections, New York: Simon and Schuster.

Fiorentini, E., (2006) “Camera Obscura vs. Camera Lucida – Distinguishing Early Nineteenth Century Modes of Seeing” online: Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, http://www.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/Preprints/P307.PDF

Gatton, Matt. “First Light: Inside the Palaeolithic camera obscura” in Acts of Seeing: Artists, Scientists and the History of the Visual — a volume dedicated to Martin Kemp (Assimina Kaniari and Marina Wallace, eds.). London: Zidane, 2009.

Hockney, D., (2008, 2nd edn.) Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, London: Thames and Hudson.

Stork, D.G., et al. “Did Early Renaissance Painters Trace Optically Produced Images? The Conclusions from Independent Scientists, Art Historians and Artists” in Stanco, F., S. Battiato & G. Gallo (eds.) (2011) Digital Imaging for Cultural Heritage Preservation: Analysis, Restoration, and Reconstruction of Ancient Artworks )(Digital Imaging and Computer Vision), Boca Raton: CRC Press.

The Light Writers


The Moon, Lanzarote (2008) H. Newall

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. 

LightsLanzarote 15

The Moon, Lanzarote (2008) H. Newall

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.

Lee Duguid

Light Painting Photography (2012) Lee Duguid

Images, such as the one below, by Alan Jaras, use very different and secret techniques, but are other-worldly in their beauty.


Happy Families (2013) Alan Jaras

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.


Pathological Walk from the Front, Made visible by Incandescent Bulbs Fixed to the Front (1889) Marey and Demenÿ

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.


Anton Giulio Bragaglia (1911)


Anton Giulio Bragaglia (1911)

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.


Ballast (2011) Maelstrom Dance Company, chor. Lindsey Brocklebank. photo: H. Newall

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.


Time and Motion Study (1914) Frank Gilbreth

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?

Space Writing

Man Ray (19

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.

Pablo Picasso;Pablo Picasso [Misc.]

Picasso Draws with Light (1949) Gjon Mili

Pablo Picasso;Pablo Picasso [Misc.]

#2 (1949)


#3 (1949)

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.

Gene Kelly

Gene Kelly (1944) Gjon Mili

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.

Preliminaries: A Lonely Impulse of Delight

I have just started an MA in Illustration at The University of Hertfordshire. ‘Madness!’ you might say, if you know my life’s chaotic schedule of unremitting deadlines. I’m so busy most of the time that the thought of engaging with another major time-dependent project sends half of me – the sensible half – into a tailspin. The other half – the dreamer – is flying way above the clouds, doing what I think I’ve put off for far too long, which is admitting to myself that making images makes me happy. So, I have on my hands a battle of two halves, and all the while, a fragment of a half forgotten poem floats through my head… “A lonely impulse of delight / Drove to this tumult in the clouds”: it repeats and repeats and repeats…

These lines are from William Butler Yeats’s lyrical 1918 poem, An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, and while the poem deals, with beautiful drifting ambivalence, with the hostilities of the First World War, set against the unalloyed joy and freedom in what was at the time the novel experience of flying aircraft, the lines for me bring to mind the joy, and tumult, of the creative impulse. (Perhaps, bearing in mind my crazy deadlines, the first lines of this same poem are also germane: “I know that I shall meet my fate / Somewhere among the clouds above…”) And so, lest I forget, I must remind myself: I have embarked upon an MA. In Illustration. And for the first assignment, I must pick a keyword. So now delight and terror are swooping in a great big dogfight up in the clouds. I am flying, and so far, terror is winning!

I picked the keyword Photo-Graph because I’m often messing about with cameras, so it is, as a concept, something familiar – the terror insisted it must be familiar – but it is also a concept I’ve almost taken for granted up until now, because, up until now I’ve not given myself permission nor time to make more than a cursory exploration: yes, I’ve presented papers at conferences on the photographic documentation of performance; I’ve even just had my first exhibition of photographs at The Arts Centre, Edge Hill University, but I’ve never before examined deeply the concept of photograph as object. This is not a new idea: this is about the transparency that Sontag (amongst others) expounds in Against Interpretation (1966) and On Photography (1971). Photography, she claims, is a transparent medium because more often than not we look through it to see the content, or subject without recognising what she calls, ‘the thing in itself’, and what we might call the medium or surface that contains the subject (or, for the critics and commentators, the message). So, I want to look at this surface; to examine it (and scratch it) as another form of mark making, and so I have made the first sortie by cutting the word in two – hence the hyphenation – to break what is familiar into its constituent Greek halves: phos light and graphê write or draw, and thereby, de-familiarise it. This blog records my conceptual explorations: these entries are the first skirmishes of a tumult in the clouds. This is a tumult driven by that lonely impulse of delight. This is what I have always wanted to do.

Sontag. S., ([1966] 2009) Against Interpretation. London: Penguin Classics.

——— ([1971] 1979) On Photography. London: Penguin Books.

Yeats, W. B., ([1918] 1965) Men Who March Away: Poems of the First Wold War. London: Chatto & Windus.