tripping the light fantastic

ArtisteJenLuc Jen-Luc Piquant sez, "Phooey on C.P. Snow and his outmoded 'two cultures' argument!" (She remains a diehard fan of his excellent novel, The Search.) The science-and-art interface is thriving more than ever, evidenced by our recent discovery of Finnish artist Janne Parviainen. (h/t: The Daily What) Among other techniques, Parviainen is a fan of light painting, in which "exposures are made usually at night or in a darkened room by moving a handheld light source or by movin the camera." (Thank you, Wikipedia!)

He recently produced a series of light paintings — dubbed "Light Skeletons" — in the snow, with light as his paintbrush and, well, the night as his canvas. The image below, straight from the camera, is not only haunting but also attests to Parviainen's commitment to his art: not even the freezing cold could stop him! See, light painting requires long exposure times and a great deal of patience. So… "When you're standing two hours in a knee deep snow in minus 20 celsius degrees taking photos, playing with fire starts to sound like a great idea, haha!" he writes. "I only burnt my coat just a little while doing this."


Few people know this — excepting Dr. SkySkull over at Skulls in the Stars, who is a veritable trove of early sci-fi trivia — but the emergence of photography was eerily prefigured in a mid-18th century science fiction novel by Charles Francois Tiphaigne de la Roche called Giphantie. He envisioned an imaginary world where it was possible to capture images from nature on a canvas coated with a sticky substance, which would preserve the image after it had been dried in the dark. It would take more than a century for chemistry to catch up with de la Roche’s imagination. Scientists already knew that silver chloride and silver nitrate both turned dark when exposed to light, and the first silhouette images were captured by Thomas Wedgwood at the start of the 19th century. But it still hadn’t occurred to anyone that this photochemical effect could be used to make images permanent.

Snowmen Photography essentially freezes a moment in time by recording the visible light reflected from the objects in the camera lens’s field of view. The reflected light causes a chemical change to the film inside the camera, which is coated with grains of silver-halide crystals. These crystals are naturally sensitive to light. By opening a camera’s shutter for a split second, you expose the crystals to light and transfer energy from the photons to the silver halide crystals. This induces the chemical reaction, forming a latent image of the visible light reflected off the objects in the viewfinder.

If too much light is let in, too many grains will react and the picture will appear washed out. Too little light has the opposite effect: not enough grains react and the picture is too dark, as anyone who has ever taken an indoor photo without a flash can attest. Changing the size of the aperture or lens opening controls the amount of light. In modern cameras, this is the job of the diaphragm, which works the same way as the pupil in the eye. Chemicals are used in the developing process, which react in turn with the light-sensitive grains, darkening those exposed to light to produce a negative, which is then converted into a positive image in the printing process.

The modern digital camera works on the same principle as a conventional camera, but instead of focusing light onto a piece of film, it focuses it onto an image sensor made of tiny light-sensitive diodes that convert light into electrical charges. It turns the fluctuating waves of light (analog data) into bits of digital computer data. Digital cameras have contributed to the rise in light painting, too, since it's easier for artists to see the results immediately.

It was only a matter of time before artists and photographers (and artist photographers) figured out how to "paint" with light. The first to do was Man Ray, back in 1935, when he "signed" his series "Space Writing" with a penlight — something that wasn't discovered until 74 years later, by photographer Ellen Carey. (Apparently, for Man Ray, his light painting signature was just one big in-joke.) And in 1949, LIFE photographer Gjon Mili was assigned to photograph Pablo Picasso, and produced a series of shots of Picasso making impromptu sketches with a small flashlight. Per LIFE:

Why not have him draw in the dark with a light instead of a pencil?" mused the photographer… as he was on his way to the Riviera to photograph [Picasso]. At Madoura Pottery, Mili accomplished just that; he showed Picasso some of his photographs of light patterns formed by a skater's leaps — obtained by affixing tiny lights on the points of the skates. Picasso reacted instantly and this photo of Pablo Picasso drawing a centaur in the air was born. "This spectacular 'space drawing' is a momentary happening inscribed in thin air with a flashlight in the dark — an illumination of Picasso's brilliance set off by the spir of the moment," wrote Mili in Picasso's Third Dimension.

The Interwebz tell me that doing your own light painting is remarkably simple: all you need is a camera capable of long exposures (preferably digital); a tripod (because of the long exposure times); a flashlight; and a dark location. You can create a light painting by moving the camera itself, but the easiest way is to mount a camera on a tripod and use a moving light source as your "paintbrush" — anything from a basic flashlight or candles, to glowsticks and fiber optic light pens. You'll probably also want to use manual focus, which is better for dim light situations, and/or a slow film speed/low ISO setting. For sharper images, use a smaller aperture (f16 or f22), although this means you'll need a longer exposire time. If you want to get all artsy and blur things up a bit, larger apertures (f6) can be used.

So get out there and give it a shot one of these dark and stormy nights — especially for anyone still snowbound in the wake of last week's blizzard and going stir-crazy being trapped inside for days. Light painting is all the rage, people: it's even made its way into cell phone commercials:


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