Although some may think of photography as a modern invention there are some hints in antiquity that men dabbled with the idea that images could be projected on to light sensitive materials to produce a picture but keeping a permanent record of that image didn’t seem to be a concern. The first images printed with the attempt at making them permanent were made by Thomas Wedgewood around 1800 but the “photograms” he produced did not last. The first successful fixed images were made by Nicephore Niepce but they required at least 8 hours and up to several days of exposure in the camera in order to produce a finished print and the results were very crude. The first man to accomplish a more practical process and product was Louis Daguerre. The daguerreotype required only minutes of exposure in the camera and the pictures were clear with fine details. “Light Writing” took off from there with the advent of photographic paper, reduced exposure time, rolls of film, and cameras designed specifically for amateurs to use. The introduction of digital cameras and then the addition of cameras into “smart phones” have once again revitalized photography so that what used to take days to produce in Niepce’s time is now taken and almost instantaneously posted on the world-wide web. As science learns more about light and its properties it makes me wonder what the next photographic innovation will be.
While the basic principal of photography is writing with light, some forms of photography take that to a very literal degree and I confess I’ve become enamored with them! From artistic twirls of light sabers and children’s toys to the flashy spirals of burning steel wool, the art of painting a picture in the dark night with a vibrant light source is becoming a desired photo opp for me. And I’ll enlist help to produce them from anyone who’s willing to give it a whirl. So it’s no surprise that when my grandchildren visited recently that we ended up in the backyard with a bunch of gadgets and flashy lights to see what we could come up with. It’s not the first time I’ve turned my grandchildren into light writing accomplices. In fact, four out of five have all had fun playing in the dark with Grammy and her camera. And it’s not surprising that all this history and light writing has gotten me thinking about how my own personal history is entwined with the history of photography at large thanks to this sub-genre of photographic styles.
I never really think much about being a part of history when I carry my camera out of the house in search of a picture. I get a sense of it though when I pull out the pictures of my ancestors recorded on tintypes or the collection of large square negatives I have from the old cameras where the photographer disappeared under a large curtain when taking the picture. I look at them and realize that history, both personal and photographic, is recorded there. I also feel that historic connection when I look at pictures of my own parents with camera in hand and then compare them to my own (silly) “selfies” that include my camera or the photos of my grandchildren in action with their cameras. Unlike the twirls and spirals we create with flashlights and steel wool that leave an imprint of their momentary existence, the pictures in my hand seem more permanent because of the family legacy they represent.
We all understand the power of light. All it takes is one tiny candle and a dark room seems warmer and less threatening when it is lit. We love the sun all the more after a string of gloomy and cloudy days or when it rises after a dark, stormy night. In photography we try to master it; to understand the nuances it is producing on our subject, to strike a balance of it within our composition so that our picture is neither under or over exposed. We want to write with our cameras the legacy of a moment, a fleeting view that captured our attention, a small piece of our personal history. In essence we write in light, “I saw this and it moved me to take this picture” or “This is meaningful to me”. And little do we think that someday a future generation might look at those images and say, “My great, great grandmother took this picture.” But the truth is we are a point on the timeline of photography, in both the broadest scope and the most personal sense, by the mere fact that with the latest generation of photographic equipment in our hands, we continue the history of writing with light each time we take a picture.