Writing with Light

Thinking, making, connecting: MA Illustration

Posts tagged ‘light’

Writing With Light


I Heard what You Were Thinking (c.2008) H. Newall

When I’m not holding a camera up to a car windscreen, I’m opening its shutter on a bulb setting onto lights in the night from a standing position. It only takes a few in and out breaths to write light onto the sensor, so now I write things in the air with the lens, and then when I want to move to something else I cover the lens momentarily and set up again.


Love Letter II (c.2008) H. Hewall

And whilst it’s all about chance and not knowing what will come out, the more I do this, the more I can control the effect because I can sort of predict what might happen and adjust accordingly.

The image at the top of this post, Alastair on the Hill, is not a Photoshop blend: the city lights were drawn onto the sensor, then a strobe was deployed onto the figure while the shutter was still open. The other images above are, however, straight out of camera. At the time I took them and first looked at them, I was blown away. I’d found a new thing to do with the camera. Now they look unfinished: now that the initial joyful ludic impulse has been satisfied, images like this are raw material photographs to blend in Photoshop layers.

The images below are some of the ones I’ve been experimenting with over Christmas, the season of darkness and fairy lights. This has to be done in darkness bar the lights that will be the ‘pencils’, to steal Fox Talbot’s metaphor, because any stray light will smudge and begin to print the room features onto the sensor. I wait till everyone’s gone to bed. Then, it’s easy to spend time into the small hours filling a camera card with photograph after photograph of lights drawn over the sensor by the action of moving the camera around when the shutter is open. It mystifies the cat.


Burn (2014) H. Newall

Burn, above, and the images below are layered and blended so that I have some artistic control over a final outcome. I play with different lenses and different focal lengths. I shift focal lengths on the zoom lenses during the shot. I spin. I wave the camera. I write my name in the air…


Lights (2014) H. Newall

All of these images were made in Photoshop using the same photographs but in different combinations. In this sense, the aleatory aspect of the work continues in Photoshop, since I cannot anticipate the outcome, I can only experiment and see how things turn out. I love this phase because it has a zen sense of now. There is no before or after. Bayles and Orland write that, ‘Art is like beginning a sentence before you know its ending’ (1993: 20). Here, the work isn’t finished, to paraphrase Leonardo da Vinci, it is abandoned. 


Chandelier (2014) H. Newall

Chandelier is at least two photographs blended together. The final image is then tightly cropped in to make a composition out of the flow of the light streaks. It’s hard to compose in camera because it’s difficult to judge where the light streaks will end up on the sensor.


Flash (2014) H. Newall

Flash is a blend of a close up and a long shot. It’s almost the same blended image as Pale, but with different blending modes applied.


Pale (2014) H. Newall

I like symmetry, although I acknowledge there can be nothing more pleasing than a pattern disrupted. Blue Orchid was made by repeating layers over themselves and blending them through so that the architecture created by the light is repeated. Colours were adjusted in a Hue and Saturation Adjustment Layer and in Curves. I like glowing colours against darkness: it’s what it looks like inside a head full of synaesthesia.

These images feel finished, but my plan is that they are the raw material for a further process of integration with the silver people of the old photographs. They may end up as animations, or as stills, maybe both…

Blue Orch

Blue Orchid (2014) H. Newall

Shooting Out of Windows


Traffic H. Newall

I like shooting out of windows. Shooting pictures, I hasten to add. It started on the drive home from the airport after the fateful Lanzarote light writing trip. They have to be moving windows. Car windows. I am in the passenger seat (before you arrest me). I’ve yet to try a train window. This is light writing on the wild side. No control. No idea even of what will come out. Totally aleatory process. Guess the exposure using a bulb setting. Point the camera out of the windscreen. Point and guess.


Industrial Scene I H. Newall

The lit-up street furniture is fixed, lampposts, illuminated sins, traffic signals, Shop fronts, all can be factored into a light drawing ‘pass’, but the movement and speed of the car are chance elements, as are the headlamps and tail lights and indicators of others cars… Time of day is a factor. More ambient light means the light exposure can be less, and the canvas will be smudged electric blue or pink (or whatever the sky and weather is doing) in tone. It’s all beautiful guess work. And there’s no looking till afterwards, because after every shot the camera has to save it to the disc, and then it’s time to shoot again. My husband is now an experienced light pass driver.


Industrial Scene II H. Newall

The planning is in what settings to use for a particular pass: the Runcorn Widnes Bridge, for example, is brilliantly lit. Too bright perhaps, but it’s on my list to shoot: its architecture is spectacular at night when, on calm nights, it is reflected perfectly in the River Mersey, so that it becomes one part of a pale oval of steel against the night sky. This is one form of night photography where skill and experience assists the photographer to take the shot. Skill and experience and the sense of an anticipated result affect the technical choices made. In shooting from a moving car, however, the shot is never predictable.


Industrial Scene III H. Newall

The effect, however, is sort of predictable after a while: I know I will grab parallel lines of bright light in glowing reds and ambers and white. I know these lines will spike across the canvas, in parallels of jittery ups and downs, each jitter recording a jolt of the car over uneven bits of road. I know the canvas will be an average of the time the shutter was open. And sometimes it’s a good result and sometimes less so. But the result is always a surprise.


Street Lamps H. Newall

Maybe this is the parallel of a Jackson Pollock spatter of paint. He chose his colours but the exact trajectories and patterns of the paint spatters were, in the end, defined by the chaos of chance.

A Manifesto



Silver H. Newall

  • I shoot totally in manual;
  • I mess with the controls;
  • I get messed up by control;
  • I shoot as many photos as I want, because it’s digital and I can;
  • I try to get it right in camera, but I love what post-production can do (change the colour of a dress; shift the light balance; shift the light; change the backdrop; alter the tilt of a hand…);
  • I shoot in RAW;
  • Photographs are raw material;
  • Who cares about SOOC?;
  • I composite; collage; remake;
  • I take my photographs in a camera: I make my images in Photoshop;
Walk on the [Wild Side]

Walk on the Wild Side H. Newall

  • The photograph can be an object: limited edition images on paper, wood, clay, glass; or stitched and pierced photographs; maybe all of these all at the same time;
  • The photograph can be an ephemeral thing: an image on unfixed light sensitive paper in a dark box… How many times can you look at it before it’s gone?
  • The projected image as art; where does the art reside? In the thin spindles of light rays falling on a wall, or a body, or a tree, or a wall of water? Or maybe it lies in the digital file in the computer? Or in the idea?
Still from a performance projection

Still from performance projection for The Ghost of Someone Not Yet Drowned (2011) The Victoria Baths, Manchester

  • I rarely take any of my (heavy) DSLRs out to take holiday ‘snaps’: I use my iPhone to take snaps;
  • I use some of these snaps as textures in my composites;


  • I hate the word snaps;
  • Snappy snaps;
  • I don’t want to take your wedding photos or your event photos; especially not for free;
  • I can lie on the ground and take close-ups of gravel for hours;
  • There is always something to photograph.
Still Life

Still Life: H. Newall

Shadows of the Past

A very important aspect of a photogram is this contact, how do I put it…a photogram is not a reproduced print, it is a contact picture. You sense that the object was originally in contact with the picture.

                                                                                (Floris Neusüss, V&A, 2010; online)

Many practitioners are working with past forms. Artist, Spring Hurlbut, for example, has worked in conjunction with Mike Robinson, to make daguerretypes of artifacts in a museum. Their work is featured on Lady Lazarus’s blog.  Whilst the loveliness of these kinds of projects is undoubted, they never excite me as much the ones where I feel, ‘I could experiment with that.’ In this sense, it is the shadowgrams that attract me, mainly because I’ve done them before, so long ago…

Two books in particular have, therefore, opened up new artists to me because they deal with shadowgrams: Jill Enfield’s Guide to Photographic Alternative Processes: Popular Historical and Contemporary Techniques and Martin Barnes’s Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography.

Enfield can also be found giving a presentation online. Her talk is fascinating: she discusses the variety of alternative methods she uses, but mostly she surveys the variety of artists making work with these other older chemical forms. ‘Why limit yourself to just digital or film?’ she asks, ‘There are 3 centuries of photography to work with.’ 

Enfield discussed in her talk (albeit briefly) the work of Martha Madigan who makes beautiful large scale shadowgrams. The images are sensuous: you sense the presence of a real rather than a painterly body in the images, through what Neusüss terms ‘contact’. But some of the images are mottled with leaves and the textures of grasses and flowers; others with intersections between positive and negative images. They are beautiful glowing things.


Graciela XII, Martha Madigan

The work of Floris Neusüss is similar in that he too works with shadowgrams and light sensitive paper, and often uses the human form.


Untitled Photograph Floris Neusüss

The silhouette is not a tightly focused crisp image, but is rendered softer and more human by the blurring at the edges. We are given the suggestion of presence: this image is a map of the time when the light sifted around the flesh and reacted with the chemicals in the paper. The time taken to make this image is undoubtedly more than for a usual exposure but it suggests that time is fleeting; that it slips away. The physicality of this process is appealing and numenous. The softness offers a fragility; the silhouette gives a sense of seeing something intimate or private, as though through a sheer curtain: we are there, but not quite there with the subject of the image. Barnes writes of his work: ‘it explores the forms of the body and external objects in a poetic dialogue between presence and absence’ (2010: 26). These are works which seem even more personal and intimate and, dare I say it, spiritual, than more usual forms of photography.

There are other contemporary artists and photographers working in this camera free method – Susan Derges, Garry Fabian Miller, Adam Fuss to name the ones features in Barnes’s book – but it is these two, Madigan and Neusüss that inspire to me play with similar forms. Their work is ethereal and breathtakingly beautiful.

Barnes, M., (2010) Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography, London: Merrell in association with the V&A
Enfield, J., (2013) Jill Enfield’s Guide to Photographic Alternative Processes: Popular Historical and Contemporary Techniques, New York: Focal Press

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.

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.