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    Light painting: a new way to experience the dark


    The first thing a photographer worries about is the lighting of his subject. The lighting can create the mood of the image, change the color saturation, or transform the way a subject is featured. Lighting, more than any other factor, determines the final result of the photo. While the typical photographer tirelessly works to manipulate artificial and natural light, there’s a growing population of photographers who instead seek out darkness.

    Photo by Steven Erra
    In the solitude of the night, these artists often trek out to remote locations where city lights are nowhere to be found. Upon the canvas of the dark, they create beautiful drawings using streaks of light, providing striking contrast to their backdrops. This form of art is called Light Painting.
    Jason D. Page is one of these photographers. He uses light to portray his own imaginary world, creating images one might find in a storybook. He typically works alone in desolate locations like beaches, woods, and swamps, where he is able to tap into man’s natural fear of the dark to create beauty. “There is a fine line between being afraid and being inspired and imaginative. Right on that line is when I feel my most creative,” he explains.
    Photo by Jason D.Page

    To produce light paintings, artists like Page find a dark location and open the shutter speed on their camera for an extended period of time. The camera then takes up to five minutes to expose the image. In that time the artists are able to move light sources in front of the camera to draw strokes of light and illustrations within the scene.

    Like Page, light painter Darren Pearson, who works under the alias Darius Twin, focuses much of his work on finding the right location for his shot, and his home of California gives him a diverse choice of landscapes. “I look for interesting natural formations. If they’re beautiful in the day, then they’re beautiful at night too,” he says, adding that finding the right location doesn’t come easy. Many times, he’s faced bears, coyotes, rattlesnakes, and perilous heights.

    Spinosaraus pearson
    Photo by Darius Twin (aka Darren Pearson)

    “Light art is like [being] the nocturnal Indiana Jones of photography,” Pearson jokes. When he finds the right location, Pearson adds illustrative light images that are “often humorous and sometimes spooky,” he says.
    While there are many physical obstacles that come with working in the dark, light painting has also become a tool to overcome challenges. For many light painters, it is a form of art therapy and expression. For Steven Erra, it’s a way to overcome his sight impairment. Erra is legally blind and one of the founding artists of a group of visually impaired photographers known as the Seeing with Photography Collective.

    Erra discovered his passion for light painting during a photography class for people with sight impairments. He was drawn to the tactile nature of light painting that allowed him to use his hands to construct a scene out of props and people. The hands-on nature of the art gives people with sight impairments a way to build something without seeing.

    The members of this class, with varying levels of vision, formed the collective and together proved that lack of sight and visual art are not mutually exclusive.

    The collective acts as an artistic outlet, a social group, and a way for some members to see using their imaginations. For the completely blind members, for example, a sighted group leader describes their artwork to them, allowing the artists to delve into their minds and mentally picture the image. 

    Photo by Jason D. Page

    “Visual art is my identity,” says Erra who studied painting and photography long before he his sight began declining. Erra has Retinitis Pigmentosa, commonly known as tunnel vision, and can only in a very small area in the center of his eye when light is bright. Light painting has provided him with the comfort that as his vision becomes more limited, he will still be able to create meaningful artwork.

    Light painters cannot see the process of their work until it is over, therefore they must learn to embrace mistakes. “Accidents can take my work in a direction that I would have never thought of on my own. It’s these unpredictable properties that make every one of my light paintings unique and unrepeatable,” Page says.

    Photo by Steven Erra

    Because of their sight impairments, members of the Seeing with Photography Collective must relinquish some control over their work, which has produced some breathtaking results. Erra even knows a sighted photographer who will sometimes blindfold himself while creating light paintings. In letting go of his sight, this artist has actually created some of his best work.

    While these artists use the same basic technique to create their work, their results are very diverse. “Ask different light artists to draw a skeleton,” Pearson explains. “They’ll all come out differently. It’s really interesting to see the nuance of each style.”

    Though light painters may have completely different styles, they all share a profound appreciation for light. Light has provided these artists with an outlet for imagination, a way to explore, and even allows them to see in new ways. So while traditional photographers manipulate light to showcase their subjects, for light painters, light isn’t just a tool, it’s their muse.