Nigel Green, PhD spent many hours discussing this project with me, curating the images and contributing his knowledge from his extensive research into the wider subject.
This essay was written in the first instance for a book and was adapted for the exhibition at Solaris.
In Search of The Real: Lucent
“Light does not reveal but is rather the site of revelation itself”.
Lucinda Wells began taking photographs from a single window vantage point overlooking the sea in 2012. Shooting only at night she directed her camera at the streetlights obstructing the open space of the sea and sky to reveal incidents of light phenomena that continued to appear and mutate in a symbiotic process of observation and reflection. Focusing on the aberrations that most photographers seek to limit and avoid, light, as form and revelation has become the subject of Wells’ interest and investigation.
Photography and western philosophy share the ‘founding metaphor’ii of light.
In her essay The Burning Mirror: Photography in an Ambivalent Light, Melissa Miles refers to photography being founded on a ‘language of light.’ Miles argues that the principle of light in both philosophy and photography are based on ‘certain assumptions’ about its stability, which serve to underpin its relationship to ‘truth.’ Hence the exclusion of ‘light’s disruptive potential’ that becomes evident in ‘the photographic phenomena of lens flare, over-exposure and solarization,’ which ‘refigure light as an agent of excess.’iii
Miles states, that, “lens flare must not be understood simply in terms of destruction or immolation, but rather as a means through which light can return as a shifting and destabilizing force within the matrix of presence, form and truth in photography.”iv Lens flare constitutes the emergence of additional forms that indicate a phenomenal presence beyond, or in ‘excess,’ of that which is being recorded. Whilst flare and overexposure might draw our attention to the limits of the photographic it also invites us to speculate on how the instrumentality of light can open up photographic discourse to areas of thought and investigation that it normally excludes.
The light forms that Wells has methodically recorded are systematic and exhaustive. It is possible to identify a typology of forms with categories and sub-divisions. Forms emerge, evolve and mutate in a compelling sequence of investigations. We ask if these forms are ever present at the limit of the human optic or simply a product of mechanical observation? Is the experiment that Wells obsessively conducts a form of conceptual art or is she perhaps a medium, a conduit for phenomena that lay at the periphery of experience? There is no doubt that for Wells the mystical or metaphysical connotations are significant and form part of a subjective cosmogony where lived events are intricately linked to the appearance of new phenomena. The relationship between light and mystical experience is well established. In 1600 Jacob Boehme had a vision instigated by the observation of a beam of sunlight reflecting in a pewter plate, which he believed to be a revelation of the spiritual structure of the world.v Knowledge which he conceptualised and represented in a series of complex diagrams.
Photography has also served to reveal the invisible at the limits of perception, with x-ray, infrared or ultraviolet photography or the most recent Hubble eXtreme Deep Field images of the distant universe all serving to reveal the previously unseen. Historically such developments implied the possibility that apparitions, occult phenomena and even thoughts might also be recorded photographically. Inspired by Franz Anton Mesmer’s theory of animal magnetism and the notion of a universal fluid that connected the human body to its surroundings, the ‘thoughtographic’vi or fluid photography experiments of Louis Darget involved the placing of photographic plates on parts of the body, which when processed produced amorphous chemical forms. Darget also purported to be able to record thoughts directly from the mind. Without Darget’s accompanying interpretation of the results we are left with the remnants of a process, hazy stain like surfaces occasionally punctuated by more distinct forms originating from points of contact such as finger prints or small objects.
We are drawn to the material nature of the medium but are immediately invited to look beyond it to its suggested alternative and directed referent. The desire to see beyond materiality to find representation or to pursue the esoteric is largely dependant on the absence of a photographic language that includes the ambiguity of its non-representational constituents. As Katharina Steidl suggests, this confusion arises from photography’s indexical relationship with reality, consequently, the “traces on the photographic plate must show something. “ Even if that something cannot be identified or linked to existing knowledge it has left its trace. Steidl states that, “in order to become concrete, it needs the active participation of the beholder’s imagination.” vii
This contradicts the fundamental premise that photography is not reliant on the imagination to be readable. Indeed the critique of photography exemplified by Charles Baudelaire was based on it being no more that a means of mechanical recording, a technical process with no artistic or interpretive value. However, as James Roberts points out, the imperfections and accidental qualities produced by the medium, “produce visual effects that take photography away from the everyday and place it somewhere else.”viii It is this space that is most troubling for conventional photographic discourse by the very nature of its ambiguity. It becomes an interpretive and speculative space where the imagination can be active in investing ideas that remain foreclosed elsewhere. To return to a simple technical opposition Roberts reminds us that, “the camera simply projects light in a continuous stream, reflected from the objects in front of it – it never lies, only the print does.” ix
Although this might be self-evident in the photographic investigations of Darget where it is the chemical materiality of the printed or exposed surface that produces the forms in question. This is not the case in Wells’ images, which are entirely captured in camera and are not subject to post-production or variations of chemical printing. Visually however there is a connection in the emergent forms that appear and evolve across an ever expanding body of work. One that invites a similar process of imaginative engagement and participation in the narrative they establish. If ultimately these forms can be reduced to the fugitive agency of light they nonetheless constitute a counter discourse of the excess – excess light, excess information and an excess desire to think beyond the limitations of the photographic referent. Where reading and misreading provide access to other areas of thought beyond the mundane. Ultimately these images show an unstable field of reference that has unique and compelling beauty – a genre of photography, where the process of photography itself becomes a complicit mediator in what is seen. Wells invites us to look again at the world around us and see in it something wonderful.
iMichael Goven, The Radical Reality of James Turrell. https://unframed.lacma.org/2013/05/22/the-radical-reality-of-james-turrell accessed ?
iiDerrida suggests, ‘that the metaphor of darkness and light is ‘the founding metaphor of Western Philosophy.’ – Cadava, Eduardo, Words of Light, Theses on the Photography of History, Princeton Press, 1997, p. 136.
iiiMiles, Melissa, ‘The Burning Mirror: Photography in an Ambivalent Light’, in Journal of Visual Culture, Vol 4, Number 3, Dec 2005, p.229.
iv Ibid., p. 335.
viClement Cheroux, The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, Yale University Press (30 Sept. 2005)
viiSteidl, Katharina. 2011. Traces of/by nature: August Strindberg’s photographic experiments of the 1890’s. In: Modernities Revisited, ed. M.
Behrensen, L. Lee and A. S. Tekelioglu, Vienna: IWM Junior Visiting Fellows’e
Conferences, Vol. 29. – http://www.iwm.at/publications/5-junior-visiting-fellows-conferences/vol-xxix/katharina-steidl-2/ accessed 10 Mar 2016
James Roberts Remain in the Light: The photography of the Invisible. Frieze
http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/remain_in_light/ Accessed 10 Mar 2016