Peter Solness: The Worlds of a Light Painter

© Peter Solness ‘Fig Tree at Lady Jane Beach’ [detail] 2009 from the series ‘Waters Edge’

Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.

George Eastman

Introduction

Light is essential to photography. In many languages, the very name means ‘light writing’. It is the illumination of the sun or the studio lights washing over the subject and reflecting back that is captured by the camera. Captured in a fraction of a second – freezing a single moment.

Light painting is different. A light painting is made over time as a small hand-held torch or other portable light source is used to selectively illuminate various parts of the subject. The entire process takes place in darkness, with the camera aperture remaining open. In this case, it is not the tripping of the shutter that defines the image that forms on the film or digital plate, but the light of the torch passing selectively over the subject, painting it into visibility, inch by inch.

Control is not the only property of this means of making a photographic image. We are used to seeing the world lit by a single source, the sun. Even in the studio, the effects created tend to mimic a single light source with reflected light filling the shadows. When multiple light sources are apparent, we immediately think of the night and artificial light, because that is the only time we experience light shining from several directions. There is only ever one sun.

In light painting, however, light strikes the subject from a continuously changing direction and angle. The resulting image shows the subject lit but with no apparent external source of illumination. It seems luminous, glowing of its own volition.

The Australian artist Peter Solness has been experimenting with light painting for more than two decades. His rich and varied body of photographic series harnesses the qualities of painting with light, not simply as a visual effect, but as a way to reach more deeply into the heart of his subjects: to seduce the eye, focus attention and encourage contemplation. Over the years, his practice has been defined not by a singular style, but by a continuing sense of adventure as he explores innovative ways to extend and apply his light-painting skills. His approach to the role of artist has also evolved. In recent years, his practice has increasingly involved collaboration, with projects devised to encourage others to explore and celebrate their own creativity.

Alasdair Foster


Interview

Alasdair: How did your life as a photographer begin?

Peter: When I was sixteen years of age I began photographing surfers, later developing a photojournalistic career that took me all over the world. Over the next quarter century, I worked on countless magazine and newspaper assignments and completed book projects on subjects as diverse as the Trans-Siberian Railway, the Chinese Army and a tribute to Australia’s most venerable trees.

It was in 1995, while I was making ‘Tree Stories’, that I began to explore the illustrative qualities of photographic light painting. Without all the clutter of detail that daylight reveals, I found I could imbue my subjects with an aesthetic that daytime photography could not equal. In those days, I was still working with film cameras, so the process of light painting was complex and slow. It wasn’t until the advent of high-resolution digital cameras in the mid-2000s that my dedication to light painting really kicked in.

© Peter Solness ‘Figtree at Federation Valley’ 2010

How did digital change things?

The digital camera, with its rear monitor that allows a photographer to instantly review images, was a game changer. I could now be more ambitious because I could immediately see the finished image in the camera monitor. And given the digital camera is sensitive across such a wide exposure range, I could begin to work with small handheld torches, which were much more nuanced than the starkness of electronic flash. I already understood the fundamentals of light painting, so I was able to problem solve and adapt very quickly to this new method of photography.

Can you briefly describe what you mean by ‘light-painting’: how it is achieved and why you think it is like painting?

At the time, I didn’t call myself a ‘light painter’ because I had never really considered the term. To me I was a night photographer who liked to work and play with lights in darkness. But, as time went on, I came to realise that painting with light is what best defines my practice. I had a selection of hand-held torches with a variety of focusing beams so that I could choose my light-source just as a painter chooses the brush with which to apply paint to a canvas.

What draws you to this method of making photographic images?

Photographing at night, I start from a black canvas; the camera only records the things I choose to light with my torches. For me, this was a profound shift in my practice that amounted to a mid-career reinvention of myself as a photographic artist. I began, quite literally, to see the world in a different light; to reimagine it.

I first became aware of your work through your images of nature. How did those series begin?

My ongoing love of the Australian bush began in the early 1980s on a two-year solo motorcycle journey I began when I was 22 years old. During the trip, I often found myself camping in the most extraordinary landscapes. In 2009, I began a series of projects to capture the rich natural beauty to be found in Sydney; to discover the timeless landscape that still lives within the modern city.

It is remarkable how the light-painting technique can be applied to natural forms that are both large and small. For example, the image of a waratah flower and that of a large fig tree clinging to a sandstone wall.

I found the waratah in the south of the city, it was in its natural state, growing wild. The flower has a complexity that would be lost either in excessive contrast or flattened by conventional soft lighting. I used a tiny torch, the size of my little finger, to illuminate it. By weaving the light beam in and around the nodules of the flower head, I could sculpt the architecture of the flower with light.

The Figtree is at Lady Jane Beach [seen at the top of this page]. I wanted to animate the bark of the tree so that it seems to writhe. Torchlight ‘adheres’ better to some surfaces than others. Certain trees and rocks respond well to light painting. Generally wet and glossy surfaces do not. In this case, the roots of the fig tree on a sandstone wall proved to be ideal subject matter.

© Peter Solness ‘Waratah, East Heathcote’ 2010 from the series ‘Gondwana’

These plants are part of Australia’s natural heritage, one which amazed the first explorers arriving from Europe. But you have also worked to – quite literally – bring to light some of the artefacts of this land’s ancient human culture.

The images in the series ‘Traces’ detail pre-European Aboriginal rock engravings, all found within fifty kilometres of Sydney’s city centre. They served as education sites for various indigenous groups, especially the Dharawal and Gadigal. They depict fish, animals and spiritual figures, carved into the soft sandstone. They are notoriously difficult to photograph during the daytime because they have been worn down by the weather and are now barely visible to the naked eye.

I recognised that through the careful use of highly focused torchlight I could trace the outline of the carvings and elevate these important but fading cultural remains to another realm of visual experience.

Your recent image ‘Black Duck Dreaming’ is particularly effective example.

This engraving was shown to me by Les Bursill, a specialist in Aboriginal art sites, and is not known to the wider public. To illuminate ancient petroglyphs like this, I follow the outlines over the surface of the rock with a small torch during a long camera exposure. It takes repeated attempts to render the outline accurately, but I find the result quite mesmerising; the way the light animates the figures helps to emphasis the spiritual nature traditionally associated with these sites.

You have also adapted light painting to explore the more recent history of the colonial settlers who came to Australia in the nineteenth century. Can you tell me about the images you made in the historic gold-mining town of Hill End in western New South Wales?

As a visitor to Hill End today, you are constantly aware of a great absence. In its heyday in the 1870s, Hill End was home to some 8,000 residents. Today the population is just 150 people. The town is defined by its wonderful history, but that history is not materially available to a camera lens.

Fortunately, the town has an extraordinary legacy: a priceless photographic record of 3,500 glass-plate negatives (now held in the State Library). The collection was built by Bernhardt Holtermann (1838–1885). He was a gold miner who discovered the world’s largest specimen of reef gold. This made him instantly rich and he invested his newfound wealth in commissioning Henry Beaufoy Merlin (c.1830–1873) and Charles Bayliss (1850–1897) to photograph the town and its people. I was able to project these images of the long-dead townspeople onto the buildings which survive today, making visible the ghosts of Hill End’s past.

Your oeuvre is remarkable for the variety of ways in which you explore the wider practice of light painting. In ‘Light Forms’ you abandon a material subject to create structures of pure light.

I would call this ‘light graffiti’. Here I am not painting light onto a subject to honour its form and meaning, but creating shapes and textures from light itself. With ‘Waterscape #2’ I was curious to see if I could emulate liquid using pure light. The material I used to create this effect is called electroluminescent wire [a thin copper wire coated in a phosphor which glows when an alternating current is applied to it]. This image was made when I was visiting an old water reservoir in Centennial Park in Sydney. I began to imagine what it would be like to – symbolically – release the water from the reservoir to cascade down the steps in front of me. I didn’t just want the light to look like water, but to move like water.

Later, I developed this idea in a more abstract form in which the ‘water’ is falling vertically behind the heavy rusted framework of the old iron bridge.

You have also used the techniques of light graffiti for some large-scale public performances.

Yes. Light graffiti works well for group activities, because there is a carnival atmosphere when you have lights spinning around in the dark.

2015 was the International Year of Light and I was asked to create a large-scale group experience in celebration. Through my background as an educator, I knew what engages people when it comes to creating light-graffiti images. What I hadn’t anticipated was the passionate desire people had to play an active role in such an event. I had now entered into the realm of public art; it was no longer all about me as the artist. I was the facilitator for others to share in the creation of art from light.

This more socially focused aspect of your practice found another form of expression in the portraits you made at the Villawood East Housing Estate. What drew you to this troubled urban development?

I wanted to strip away the visual stereotypes associated with Urana Street and the Villawood Estate to see if I could help the subjects feel differently about themselves. Using light painting, we were able to collaborate on creating a way for them to reimagine themselves. The sessions were structured as community workshops and afterwards we had a low-key exhibition in a local shop. I wanted to keep the whole thing community-based and avoid the remoteness of a formal gallery space.

How did it go?

Not only did the subjects feel good about themselves because they were featured in an art show, but there was also considerable press interest in their images, with front-page and feature-length articles in the local newspapers. People were seeing themselves in a new way but, importantly, the wider community came to understand the residents of the low-income housing estate differently, where previously they might simply have ignored or dismissed them.

© Peter Solness ‘Genevieve Carroll and Bill Moseley’ 2016 from the series ‘Tableau’

You have been exploring portraiture through light painting in your recent series ‘Tableau’. How did this series come about?

I had been experimenting with light-painted portraiture for a few years. However, the underlying concept for this series arose during my artist residency at Hill End in 2016. I was in the backyard of a nineteenth-century gold-rush cottage with two artists: Bill Moseley and Genevieve Carroll. We were looking at an old rowboat lying forlornly on the grass, a remnant of Bill’s former life as a boat restorer on Sydney Harbour, before the couple moved inland to set up an artist studio. Here was a scene that was so lyrical that I felt I had to create a picture. With their acute aesthetic sense, Bill and Genevieve occupied the picture space seamlessly.

I have found the benefit of working with creative people is that they tend to be visually literate and understand that the tenuous process of developing ideas takes time – especially when you are a light painter. The subject of each of these ‘Tableau’ images is a couple who are, in each case, both creative artists.

These portraits have a very painterly feel to them.

I didn’t set out to create this tableau look.  My approach was shaped by the technical challenges of light painting. This means posing people in darkness and asking them to be as still as possible during long camera exposures. I came to realise these images reminded me of seventeenth-century European paintings, where the atmospheric use of light and shadow were employed to create a chiaroscuro effect.

They also feel very intimate…

There is an uncanny aspect to creating these images. As the maker, I am in each of the photographs and the viewer shares something of that experience in the final image. I must enter the picture frame to get close to my subjects, so that I can light them with my torch. But, because I am moving and do not illuminate myself, I remain invisible.

© Peter Solness ‘Theo Tremblay and Paloma Ramos’ 2016 from the series ‘Tableau’

What have you learned about yourself over the years, through the process of making these light paintings?

Light painting is ephemeral and there is a poignancy that comes with that, which I find compelling. I don’t want to work in a studio where everything is controlled. Countless times I have failed to realise a given idea, but I am OK with that. Failure is simply the pathway to understanding a complex craft; it is how you learn more.

Light painting has taken me beyond just being a man with a camera looking for a great photo. It has allowed me to expand my universe and, in so doing, feel more complete as an artist and a person.


Biographical Notes

Peter Solness was born in Sydney in 1958. After leaving high school, he studied photography at Sydney TAFE. In his early career, he worked on editorial photography for leading magazines and newspapers both in Australia and overseas, and a variety of high-level corporate clients. As an artist, he has exhibited widely in Australia, and in Europe and Asia. His work is held in many public and private collections including the National Library of Australia, the State Library of New South Wales, the Museum of Sydney, Macquarie University Gallery, and Ballarat Fine Art Gallery. In 2010, and again in 2014, he was awarded the prestigious New South Wales government’s Plein Air Photographic Prize, for one of his light painted images.


This article was first published in Chinese, in the July 2017 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.