Writing with Light

Thinking, making, connecting: MA Illustration

Posts tagged ‘Photoshop’

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.

But is it art?


The World’s most expensive photograph to date. Rhein II (1999) Andreas Gursky.
Sold in 2011 for $4.3million.

In all the writing and thinking about History and my own histories, the debate ‘Is It Art?’ keeps coming back. The debate seems to coalesce about two areas:

  • The time taken to make an image
  • Mechanical processes involved

It’s a debate I’ve had with myself about my own processes: making pictures with a camera does seem easy in comparison with making paintings or drawings, and yet the hours it can take to perfect one photographic image seems to negate this former statement. It’s easy to press the shutter button, but it’s hard to photograph things well; it’s difficult to process images, either in a chemical or a digital darkroom.

There is also a subtext which might be termed the democratisation of making art: who is allowed to be an artist has been – and still is to an extent – controlled in society by a social system whereby artists must either have independent means or patrons or spouses with a regular income. The photographer as businessperson, and thus involved in dirty mercantile activity, is not a real artist: artists have a higher calling. Art is, after all, not made for money, but for love. But we all have to eat. We can’t all lie around, writing poetry, and dying of consumption in attics…

From photography’s inception, the terminology of the artist is present in discussions of the daguerreotype, the talbotype, and yet the story is also of a relentless drive into mass production (and thus commercialism), and it is this and the mechanical aspects of the process which eclipse any notion of artistry in the taking and production of an image. Commentators, not least of all Fox Talbot, write of Nature being the author of the works, and of images making themselves. Fox Talbot wrote:

it is not the artist who makes the picture, but the picture which makes itself. All that the artist does is to dispose the apparatus before the object whose image he requires; he then leaves it for a certain time, greater or less, according to circumstances. At the end of the time he returns, takes out his picture, and finds it finished.

                                                                                                         (Talbot, 1839: online)

So whilst he speaks of the artist, he claims that this artist does nothing other than deploy the camera, and rather disingenuously neglects the artistry of choosing what the lens should frame; the craftsmanship of preparing the plates beforehand; the skill of knowing how long to make the exposure for; not to mention the skill in subsequently developing and fixing the image. 

Lady Elizabeth Eastlake writing in 1857 is equally determined that photography cannot be art because, in a long winded flowery way, she says that art selects and refines, while the camera does not: it takes everything indiscriminately (in Trachtenerg, 1980: pp58). This is the same issue noted by Ian Jeffrey in Photography: A Concise History: ‘Lured by hallowed reputations, photographers stationed their instruments in front of abbeys, castles, palaces, beauty spots – and came away with untidy evidence of building projects, repair work, scaffolding, stonemasons’ yards, street trade and tumbledown housing’. (1981: 14). Photography is not a replacement for painting or drawing, as Fox Talbot with his complicated camera lucida initially hoped, ‘holding, as he believed,’ as Lady Eastlake writes, ‘the keys of imitation in his hands’; it is, however, a different art all together.

Walter Benjamin’s account of art and photography’s early skirmishes is enlightening:

With the advent of the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction, photography, simultaneously with the rise of socialism, art sensed the approaching crisis which has become evident a century later. At the time, art reacted with the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, that is, with a theology of art. This gave rise to what might be called a negative theology in the form of the idea of ‘pure’ art, which not only denied any social function of art but also any categorizing by subject matter.

                                                                                                                       (1968: 224)

So ‘Art’ was threatened. Maybe the same process is at work with all the current talk of the demise of the art of photography due to the rise and rise of the smartphone camera: Stuart Jeffries writing in The Guardian cites photographer Antonio Olmos as saying, ‘There have never been so many photographs taken, but photography is dying.’ So Jeffries asks: ‘Isn’t what we’re witnessing a revolution in photography, thanks to digital technology, that makes it more democratic?’ And Olmos is pragmatic and agrees, but thinks photography is dying for a much more prosaic reason: ‘The iPhone has a crap lens. You can take a beautiful picture on the iPhone and blow it up for a print and it looks terrible.’

But who needs prints in a paper-free world? [Jeffries asks.] “For me the print is the ultimate expression of photography,” [Olmos] retorts. “When I do street photography courses, I get people to print pictures – often for the first time. The idea is to slow them down, to make them make – not just take – photographs.”

                                                                                                (Jeffries, 2013: online)

The slowing down is the thing. Artists, then, are slow… Ironic that Lady Elizabeth Eastlake should note in 1857 that the early scientist-photographers were seeking the ‘element of rapidity’ (1857: 52). Now that we have it, we need to slow it all down again. Unless we’re street photographers…

…In Osaka in 2011, I saw an exhibition of work by street photographer Daido Moriyama. It rained torrentially while I was there. After I’d looked at the hundreds of images on display, I sat for hours in the cafe leafing through the exhibition book I’d bought. And because it was still raining – the kind of rain that soaks you through just thinking about it – I went round the exhibition again. It was stunning even the second time around. And this time I watched the film of Moriyama talking about his process demonstrating how he selected and shot this subjects. He talked in Japanese, but the film camera walked with him as he strode through a city, Tokyo perhaps, camera in hand, cigarette between his fingers, and shot things, without breaking his step… It probably took longer for me to look at the images than it did him when he was walking and shooting. And yet each image, black and white and hung against white, framed as art, was grimy, sometimes blurred, sometimes off kilter, and always starkly beautiful… would I think that if I came across such images on the internet, not labelled as ‘art’?… we swiftly flick swiftly through images, taking them in at a glance: we Flickr them, we click and flick and click through them. Sontag makes the observation that the photograph in print does not control us like the photograph on film does, as compared to a book (or a computer screen)

The sequence in which the photographs are to be looked at is proposed by the order of pages, but nothing holds readers to the recommended order or indicates the amount of time to be spent on each photograph.

                                                                                                                                    (1979: 5)

True enough, we can walk as fast or as slow as we like in the gallery, and in a book, we can turn the pages as we please. But in a film… and maybe it was watching the film of Moriyama’s photos that really burned them into the retina of my heart. Film however, as Sontag notes, chooses how long you spend with each image. So maybe then, if artists aren’t slow, art is slow. And maybe, as Sontag suggests, film is the best medium for exhibiting photography.

Judge for yourself: for copyright reasons, I direct you to Moriyama’s site rather than post them here, but I can share images I took in Japan in response. These are almost SOOC, in that in post, I converted them to black and white and sharpened them because I shoot in RAW. For the rest, each image is as I took it.

Osaka at night

Cycle (2011) H. Newall

I would never dream, normally, of shooting in the street like this, but Moriyama’s show encouraged me. EnCouraged. I was brave, suddenly. And being in a foreign world somehow helped.


Hiroshima (2011) H. Newall

Perhaps it was because, as a foreigner it was easier to ‘see’ the street environment. It was a strange place to me: it was the city defamiliarized. And there certainly was the sense that as a foreigner I had ‘permission’ to take pictures that I would normally find it excruciating to take. I can’t take street images in the city near where I live because someone might stop me; someone might object; someone might mind… Certainly all these things were true in Osaka, but they didn’t seem to matter so much. I took the night images walking round by myself with a huge grabbable camera. Wouldn’t dream of doing that in the UK.


Subway (2011) H. Newall

Snaps. Snappy to take. Snapped fast. Not always art. Art is in the eye of the artist. Art is in the eye of the beholder. Art is beautiful. Art is imperfect. Art is dangerous. Art is a lie to tell us the truth. Arts snaps at our complacencies. Snaps.

I hate snapping. I used to take hundreds of photos on holidays, always with the hope that something might happen and they’d metamorphose between the shutter release and the prints arriving back into something wonderful. And sometimes they were quite good, but mostly they were disappointing, and mainly because I’d had no control over much of the shooting and processing. This was because I always had crap point-and-shoot film cameras and so couldn’t really do much other than control what I pointed the camera at. The rest was auto shutter, auto aperture, auto ISO: the camera was deciding everything, and then Kodak or Max Speilmann got to decide the rest. And this is why my pictures weren’t art, even if some of them looked quite good some of the time.

Art then is control over the outcome? Bayles and Orland write, ‘Control, apparently, is not the answer. People who need certainty in their lives are less likely to make art that is risky, subversive,  complicated, iffy, suggestive or spontaneous’ (1993: 21). So, control sometimes. Sometimes, it’s experimentation which requires a loss of control, but here, the camera would either try to compensate, or I’d get stickers over the photos from the Photo Lab, which said polite things but the messages implied: ‘This rubbish picture would greatly be improved if you’d stopped experimenting and taken it the way the camera manufacturers thought you should…’

Then I got a big SLR and went to Africa, and things improved a little. But I still had no control because I was not developing my images. And whilst I considered setting up a black and white dark room, I didn’t have the space, nor at that time the funds…

Then I came home from Africa with a suitcase full of Max Speilmann lions and got a digital point-and-shoot. It promised to be different. It promised to be cheaper. I pushed it to its limits. It was still not what I was looking for, although it was certainly cheaper now that I was no longer stockpiling all those packets of unlooked at prints… And then I got a DSLR, a Canon 50D. And the Apple programme Aperture. And shortly after that, Photoshop. And then a 5D Mk II… And suddenly, here was control in camera. And here was control post-production. And here were two new debates to contend with:

  • Digital photography is not as good as film photography: discuss
  • Post-production is not as good as getting it right in camera: discuss

These are big arguments I can’t rehearse here – I can, however, tell you my answers: yes, digital is freedom; yes, post-production is my favourite part – but out of it all – the snapping and the printing and the digital arms race upsizing – comes a manifesto for making images. It was there all along, this manifesto, it just took me a while to see it.

Bayles, D., & T. Orland. (1993) Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, Santa Cruz: The Image Continuum
Benjamin, W., ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Walter, B., H. Zohn (trans.) (1968) Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, New York: Schocken Books
Fox Talbot, W. W., ‘The Pencil of Nature: A New Discovery’ in The Corsair. A Gazette of Literature, Art, Dramatic Criticism, fashion and Novelty (New-York) Vol. 1, No. 5 (Saturday, 13 April 1839) pp. 70-72. Online resource, The Daguerreian Society)
Jeffries, S., (2013) ‘The Death of Photography: Are Camera Phones Destroying an Artform?’ The Guardian, 13 December 2013, (Online)
Sontag, S., (1979) On Photography, London: Penguin

(Re)Creating History: Annu Palakunnathu Matthew and Moira Shearer

An Indian from India

An Indian from India Annu Palakunnathu Matthew

Via Jill Enfield, I came across the work of Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, who makes beautiful work with reconstructions of old photographs, sometimes in oratone. Enfield was giving a lecture for B and H Photography about her own work in using old chemical darkroom techniques to make pictures. She offered examples of the work of others and Annu Palakunnathu Matthew was among the many names. Her work stood out for me, however, for several reasons. Matthew plays with layers and animations of people slowly superimposed over their younger selves. She also takes old photographs and superimposes herself into them and puts them side by side. The beauty is in the content of the image, but also in the oratone itself (oratone being a collodion image, on glass, backed with gold); it’s in the gentleness of the old monochrome images; and in the expression of the passage of time which the digital reworkings – as stills and animation – offer the viewer. Here, the gentle collision of ages in the slow animations annihilates the times between each image. Time passes far too quickly. All too soon we are changed. And gone. We are all history… Time in photographs, however, is static: it shows us what we can never actually have, as Barthes notes in Camera Lucida: ‘What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially’ (2000: 4). Matthew’s reiterations are phantoms of moments that are unrepeatable, but like performances, they exist as if iterated for the first time, existing forever in that uncanny performance limbo of being simultaneously real and unreal.

Matthew’s work explores time but also identity and ‘otherness’: she says in her artist’s statement:

As an immigrant, I am often questioned about where I am “really from.” When I say that I am Indian, I often have to clarify that I am an Indian from India. Not an American-Indian, but rather an Indian-American, South-Asian Indian or even an Indian-Indian.


Time, traced back in the images, takes us to when identity was firmly placed as geographical, and if it was different it was ‘other’ and ‘difficult’: in her images, she plays the roles her interlocutors expect of her; she becomes ‘really from’ elsewhere. She thus plays with expectation, but with humour and sadness. Her work mixes cross-dressing; cross-time; cross-generations; and cross-processes. Her use of old methods combined with digital forms undercuts it all as if to say: everything is, in any case, a mish-mash of old and new; old and young; male and female; here and there; centre and other. Everything is postmodern. Everything is iterated and reiterated, and not necessarily in that order.

An Indian from India

And Indian from India Annu Palakunnathu Matthew

Matthew’s work is inspirational because in it I find combined several themes to which I myself keep returning. I am a digital photographer, but I collect old photographs and make new images and animations with them.


Still from an animation Beach Dream H. Newall

I have a box of old portraits of people whose names and identities are most likely forever lost, and this sense of lost identity I find fertile ground. I’ve spent hours digitally restoring some of these images, during which time there’s been plenty of thinking about these forgotten people as I restore eyes, mouths, dresses, fingers… I pondered on what their names might have been. In most cases, there is no way of ever knowing.

I’ve used some of these photographs to make images and animations for theatre projection, and I’ve had faint stirrings of ethical problems with this: I have therefore (I think), never made an animation that disrespects the images or the people in them. I photographed Victorian grave stones once in Whitby for another project and had similar ethical stirrings. Since the stones in one field seemed to be separated from the land (and bodies) where they’d originally stood, here were memories of people who were present in stone name only, and the stones themselves were eroding in the rain, names melting away, one stone molecule at a time. The old photographs of people became for me, at that point, like these old grave stones: I imagined a field of silver people standing like stones… There’s a picture I’ve still to make, exploring presence and absence and faces without names… This is an image personifying (literally, in the anonymous silent silver people) Sontag’s and Barthes’s notion of death in the image: “All photographs are memento mori,’ Sontag writes in On Photography, ‘To take a photograph is to participate in a person’s (or a thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability’ (1979: 15). And Barthes: ‘Photography is a kind of primitive theatre, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead’ (2000: 32).

Moira Scared

Mark Edward as Moira (2013) H. Newall


Moira Shearer as Vicky in The Red Shoes (1948) dir. Michael Powell

The second theme that interests me is reconstruction. In the autumn of 2013 I staged an exhibition in collaboration with dancer and friend Mark Edward, in which iconic dance images are recreated, not however, by lithe young female ballerinas, but an overweight 40 year old drag queen (he won’t mind me saying that!). The exhibition, Dying Swans and Dragged Up Dames offered themes of fakery, pastiche, ageing and Photoshop. The images were fond and fun rather than pisstakes… We laughed making them. I hope they made people smile as they looked at the made-up faces of the Tableau Vivant we’d made for them.

I quote some of the text I wrote to accompany the images: ‘These are tragi-comedy images:  The tragedy lies in knowing that the dancers we watch will eventually become too past it to dance, the comedy from the bombastic contrast between athletic dance bodies and an aged, overweight one attempting and achieving (thank you Photoshop!) the same balletic feats. This exhibition fondly foregrounds cultural obsessions with youth and Photoshop, and the erasure of age in both live performance – ballet, drag or otherwise – and the digital dark room, where ability and beauty can be airbrushed and ‘improved’.  These are images of old drag ballet queens, flamboyant in the performance of being clapped out and over the hill, but still dancing.’ (Exhibition Notes, Dying Swans and Dragged Up Dames, The Arts Centre, Edge Hill University, Ormskirk, October 2013)

L.P. Hartley’s The Go Between has an excellent first line, perhaps the best first line in a novel ever:

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

I’m interested in historical processes and historical content and the differences (and perhaps the Derridean différances), between then and now: Annu Palakunnathu Mathew demonstrates that this is not wholly a retrospective process, but that there are new artifacts to be made with historical things. They do do things differently, alternatively, in the past, and as Harold Davis notes, they often did things in the past long before we thought of (re)doing them: the first HDR print, he claims, was The Great Wave, made in 1857 by Gustav Le Grey… (2012: 16). So the old adage of there being nothing new under the sun probably holds true. We do things again; we do things differently, différantly; sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously; we remake the old to make something new…

Barthes, R., (2000) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, London: Vintage
Davis, H., (2012) Creating HDR Photos, New York: Amphoto Books
Enfield, J., (2013) Jill Enfield’s Guide to Photographic Alternative Processes: Popular Historical and Contemporary Techniques, Abingdon: Focal Press
Enfield, J., ‘Guide to Alternative Photographic Processes, B and H online lecture, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckkHW6f3xoI (accessed Dec 2013; Jan 2014)
Palannuathu Matthew, A., www.annumatthew.com (accessed: Dec 2013; Jan 2014)
Sontag, S., (1979) On Photography, London: Penguin Books