Photoshop was not used in the making of these images.
That’s the phrase light painters use to amaze their audiences and explain their art form. Sweeping light patterns, shadows that defy natural light properties and cloned figures that make otherworldly scenes are actually created and captured in the time between clicks of a camera shutter.
“Light painting, to me, is long-exposure photography where you intentionally light a scene with either moving lights, still lights or moving cameras,” says Dan Chick, a light painter in Denver. He calls it “performance photography” because once the shutter is open, the artist has to create inside that frame to get the desired effect before it closes. No two takes produce the same shot.
Chick is a programmer/web developer with a degree in applied physics from Queens University in Ontario, Canada. Ones and zeros are his livelihood, but not his life. From the time he was a kid, Chick’s parents encouraged him to learn a diversity of subjects and skills. He was a serious photography hobbyist for a long time, snapping modeled portraits of people who were on the eccentric side — but even those personalities dulled after so many similar photo shoots. Dodgeball and hockey games didn’t supply enough inspiration, either. He hung up his camera for five years.
What Chick really wanted was to provoke mystery. He stepped into a dark space and opened his camera shutter again, this time leaving it open for several minutes. He discovered he could “hack light.”
To hack is to modify or manipulate in a clever way, taking something existing and making it behave differently. Steel wool, color-wrapped soda bottles, wine glasses, prisms and mirrors combined with a light source like LED strips or lasers create various effects like calligraphy or sparks. Chick has close to forty flashlights stowed away at home, and more recently has been teaching others about infrared treatments that change light wavelengths.
Chick gets satisfaction when someone is baffled at his photographs.“I think people grow when they encounter cool things that intrigue them,” he notes.
If you give a light painter a flashlight and a dark corner, they’ll come up with something cool, according to Chick. But gather a bunch of artists from around the world to perform in front of the camera, and you get more intricate and involved scenes — potentially unlimited fantasy.
See Chick’s latest project: a group mosaic featuring fifty artists from twenty countries who made 456 light-painting photographs used as tiles that were put together to form a version of Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.”
The piece is called “Stars of the Night,” referring to light painters’ brilliant work, often done while running around in the late hours. It was a collaboration made in honor of the International Day of Light, presented by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural organization (UNESCO), a global initiative existing to bring attention to light and the role it plays in science, culture and art, education and sustainable development. The Light Painting World Alliance (LPWA), an official collaborative partner of the International Day of Light, organized an artist meetup in Paris from May 16 to 19.
“It is important for us to make big activity on IDL, as this could help us to be more visible and become friends,” Sergey Churkin, founder of LPWA, says. He considers the craft a niche within a niche within a niche. It’s an art form combining “regular” forms such as photography, choreography, painting, drawing, physical and optical experiments, high-tech technologies. It’s this wonder and multiple points of entry to the craft that draws people together from different countries and social statuses.
It seems all you need to get connected in the light-painting world is a social status — online, that is. Facebook and Flickr are host to many regional and widespread groups, and the official LPWA website has a database of painters around the world with local representatives for each affiliated country. “I wanted to be someone that others could find if they were looking,” Chick says. He joined LPWA four years ago and is now one of ten representatives in the U.S.
Serious light painters are few and far between in the States. According to Chick, the real hubs are in concentrated areas of Europe, particularly in Spain, Germany, the U.K. and France. Chick has attended a few international meetups, where he ate dinner with impressive artists he’d followed online. He’s participated in romps through Rome and in Berlin, where he commissioned his friends’ help in proposing to Nancy Nguyen, his partner in art, business and life.
Nguyen and Chick love to travel for shoots but are set on building a thriving light-painting scene near home in Denver. Chick established a Facebook group open to photographers, models, technologists and assistants.
Paul Burns of Colorado Springs credits Chick for a richer and broader art experience outside his own home.
“Dan is the central point for light painting in Colorado,” Burns says. “By getting together, we also rekindle ideas and the passion to do more art or expand our abilities. We are somewhat outsiders in the photography/art world, and by coming together we reaffirm each other.”
Russell Klimas, also of Colorado Springs, got started light painting in July 2017. Chick found him via Instagram and appreciates him as one who dives in head-first and pushes boundaries. Klimas’s latest technique is what he calls “top-down” shooting. He hovers a camera attached to a drone about fifty feet in the air, opens the shutter, and light-paints on the ground until an assistant closes the shutter. Anyone is welcome to join him on his shoots; it’s a “Come on down, we’re going to have a party,” kind of vibe. Klimas also hopes to spread the word by visiting high school photography classes, showing students possibilities they might not have seen before.
According to LPWA, light painters rarely deal on a professional commercial basis, mostly because there’s a lack of understanding of the art and its potential as a service.
Chick and Nguyen recognize the unfulfilled opportunity. They plan to expand their skills into business ventures. Carbon Creatures, a 3-D design, print illustration, art and product photography and motion graphics company, is up and ready to go, with Nguyen handling designs and Chick on business and tech.
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They’ve also developed a software that puts the power of light painting and performing into the public’s hands. Light Monster, the light effect and real-time webcam feed system, will be available for events and parties in addition to potential performances or installations by Chick and Nguyen.
Even with new enterprises at hand, the duo won’t halt their light-painting adventures. The third annual Light Painting Meteor Jam is coming up in August. An expected twenty to thirty people will arrive in White Pocket, Arizona, to combine astro-photography with light painting.
“It’s an opportunity to get together with friends,” Chick said. “The conditions were really bad this last year with cloud coverage. We didn’t get to see much sky or meteors at all, but we still had a blast.”
See more of Chick's work at Hack the Light.