Light permeates the history of representation, and it has played a crucial role as an agent of the modern. Light was the protagonist both when the impressionists let shimmering reflections fragment the surface of their canvasses and not least when the light that had shone through the camera obscura for centuries was finally fixed in the photograph – an image drawn by light.
Light is also at the centre of Danish artist Nicolai Howalt’s photographic series Light Break: Photography / Light Therapy, 2014. Yet the light in this body of work is not a carrier of symbolic meaning, nor is it subservient to a motif. It is light itself Howalt wants to capture, not what it illuminates.
In the numerous images comprising the series, Howalt succeeds in visualising the invisible by letting luminous, coloured rays of sunlight materialize on the photographic paper. Pointing his large pinhole-style camera towards the sun and directing selected rays through the medical lenses and filters alluded to in the series’ title, Howalt’s working method resembles that of a natural scientist. The concrete use of the sun also brings to mind an early name for photography: “héliographie”
(sun-writing), coined years before its public announcement, by one of its inventors, Niécephore Niépce, to describe what was at play in his photographic experiments.
Art and science have always been closely intertwined within photography, as illustrated by its official inventor Louis Daguerre’s claim in 1838 that: “The daguerreotype is not merely an instrument which serves to draw Nature; on the contrary it is a chemical and physical process which gives her the power to reproduce herself”.
Photography’s scientific capacity is central to Light Break: Photography / Light Therapy, both through the character of alchemical experimentation in Howalt’s images of light and through the connection to Faroese physician Niels Ryberg Finsen (1860-1904). Finsen’s use of light therapy – or phototherapy – to treat skin disease, most notably lupus, earned him the Nobel Prize, but in spite of the continued relevance of his experiments, his role in public awareness is diminished, and his equipment confined to the archives of the Medical Museion (Medicinsk Museion) in Copenhagen. It is from here Howalt has borrowed the original filters and rock crystal lenses used to capture the infrared and ultraviolet rays at the fringes of the electromagnetic spectrum as well as all those in between.
Though the link between Howalt’s abstract images and the medical experiments of Niels Finsen is as aesthetically invisible as the light becomes visible in Howalt’s images, it nonetheless resounds in them as more than a conceptual framework, through the application to photography of the same tools used in phototherapy.
Photography was an important tool for Finsen too. To him the skin served as the photographic paper of the human body on which the transformative powers of light played out their healing as well as destructive powers. It was also the photographic portraits of his patients, documenting their gradual improvement, which eventually enabled him to prove the effect of his treatment. Howalt has used some of these images in his exploration of Finsen’s light therapy, and the moving solemnity of their formal-attired subjects who are defying disfiguring illness in front of the camera, adds an eerie Victorian contrast to the alluringly beautiful displays of light captured in Light Break: Photography / Light Therapy.
Like Finsen, Nicolai Howalt has in previous work explored the fascination of before and after images and the availability to imagination of the time span in between, as it is the case in his series Boxer (2000-03) portraying adolescent boys in the moments just before and straight after their first boxing match.
The images of distilled light in Light Break: Photography / Light Therapy are also in a sense after images, but they stand out by lacking an equivalent of the before, since the depicted light is not visible prior to being captured as a negative impression on paper. The result of this peculiar detachment of the image from its referent in Light Break: Photography / Light Therapy is a type of picture, which appears to defy the notion of time that traditionally clings to photography.
Originally celebrated as a means by which to capture an instant and pull it out of the flux of time, it quickly became evident that in its attempt to stop time, photography did little more than draw attention to its passing, resulting in a sense of acute irrevocability of the moments it captured.
Howalt’s images are not tied to any treasured, unique moments but result from the endless abundance of light streaming from the sun. Sometimes it emerges as a tiny speck on the paper, sometimes as a solid, haloed disc, and in yet other images, as an explosion of light, seemingly wanting to burst through the confinement of its square of photo paper.
But while the images in Light Break: Photography / Light Therapy are devoid of remembered time, they do contain time in a more solid form. This emerges both through the momentary exposure of paper to light to create an image, the minutes it takes light to travel from the sun to the surface of the earth, and the hundred thousands of years required for light to travel from the core of the sun to its surface. The relationship between photography, light and scientific time, was already put into perspective in 1850 by the painter Eugene Delacroix, who remarked on the photographs of a star that its light “had left the celestial sphere a long time before Daguerre had discovered the process by means of which we have just gained control of this light”
Being thus connected to both the smallest entities and vastest lengths of time, what the images of Light Break: Photography / Light Therapy lack or escape is in fact not time but narrative. In each photograph depicting an event in time, from the everyday to the sensational, a narrative is contained of all the time leading up to it and all the time that follows after it, even if these narratives remain outside the image frame. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes famously addressed this trait of photography through his realization that people in old photographs were simultaneously dead, going to die and a reminder of one’s own imminent death.
The images of Light Break: Photography / Light Therapy do not share this implication. They are first and foremost visually compelling natural phenomena mediated and caught in photographs, or rather photograms. What they convey is the natural magic of photography not the melancholy.
Although the light in the images is mediated through Finsen’s equipment as well as Howalt’s artistic intervention, the element of chance is as important to the series as the attempt at control. A duality exists between on the one hand the careful selection of lenses and filters and then on the other, the unexpected results occurring on the paper. The spectrum of nanometres within which rays of light are made visible provides the framework within which light is allowed to perform its natural magic.
The colours ranging from deep and saturated to light, ephemeral and transparent appear in combinations which at times seem impossible to imagine were it not for the intervention of coincidence, and the images in which rays of light have accidentally escaped the space designated for them are among the most captivating. In some of the images, traces of clouds surrounding the disc of the sun gives the photographs the appearance of water colour paintings, while in others they appear to offer glimpses into the human body or the indefinite universe.
Instead of forming part of a narrative, it seems that these rays of light have for a moment entered the viewing space (Blickraum) of the photograph and there left an imprint or trace.
The notion that the photographic image is more than a mere representation, being “also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask” is an idea so often repeated within the discourse of photography as to border on the cliché. However with light being both what is made visible in Howalt’s images and the method for making it visible, the idea of photography’s indexicality resonates within these images in a manner both more abstract and more material than what is usually the case.
In Celestial Bodies Georges Bataille describes the sun as a star which “constantly projects part of its own substance in the form of light and heat through space” In Light Break: Photography / Light Therapy, this excess energy, which according to Bataille is destined for waste, has instead been absorbed by the photo paper, from where it now glows in a multitude of colours.
In his speech at the introduction of photography in 1839, François Arago said of the invention: “turn it to the observation of nature, what they had hoped for from it always seems tiny in comparison to the succession of subsequent discoveries which it contributes.”
Howalt’s intrinsically photographic yet novel and experimenting approach in Light Break: Photography / Light Therapy confirm Arago’s prophecy and reminds us that the boundary of photography has not yet been reached.