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Oct / Nov 2012
Painting By Lumens

Writer: Michael Tannenbaum

It can be argued that in the end art is really the process of capturing the products of light, on paper or canvas. But in a promising yet much overlooked field, some artists even ‘paint’ with light itself. 


If necessity is the mother of invention, then it is about time accident gets its due recognition as the crazy, Nikola-Tesla-worshipping uncle.

In June 2007, JanLeonardo Wöllert found himself trapped inside an old salt warehouse in Bremen, Germany. “The security man had no idea I was in there,” Jan recalls, not just fondly, but with exuberance. “He shut the gate, went on his way, and there I was, stranded for the night.”

Many people in this situation would contemplate their will or pen a frantic love letter, but Jan had his grandfather’s old Leica 35mm SLR, with its treasured wide-angle lens. He also had with him a 40cm light stick (imagine an LED lit torch) manufactured by LED Lenser, a global leader in light technology headquartered in Solingen.

With a sense of possibility approaching Promethean levels that night, Jan began to experiment taking pictures in the dark. Once, accidentally, he left the shutter open for a long-time exposure. The idea suddenly took form. Though he had no way of previewing his images on the analogue Leica, Jan passed his captive night wielding a light stick through the camera’s darkened field of view, developing in his mind the beginnings of a new career.

“For years, I had a preference for night photography,” Jan says. “No people around, no dust, better weather. I love the night. I began testing the possibilities of long light exposure on a nightly basis. There was a fire in me.”

At the time, He was employed at a major European ticketing agency, where partner-to-be, Joerg Miedza also worked in the finance and bookkeeping department. An inspired hobbyist himself, the early photos of Jan’s luminous vision captured Joerg’s imagination as well. The two began collaborating to puzzle out the logistics of painting with light. “Each day, we met in the office to develop ideas,” Joerg says. “We discussed the possibility of using fire and various different light sources in long time exposures, with endless techniques for experimentation at night. This was my direct theoretical contribution in the early stages.”

By 2008, Jan and Joerg had teamed up to create the seminal Light Art Performance Photography Project, or LAPP Pro (2007-2011). Together, they would help spark the worldwide revival of an art form that had appeared sporadically throughout the 20th century but - ahead of its time - never fully blossomed conceptually into a movement.

The stunning images produced by light artists today awaken a beauty that is hard to situate. While streaks and streams of electric colour signal sharp awareness of our hyper-millennial course, there is also a timeless awe evoked by the natural behaviour of light. Properties invisible to the naked eye are revealed through deliberate performances, creating images that are at once demystifying and illusory, like alluring mental projections.

“This is now a movement that grows every day, inspiring artists to form communities for exchanging creative experience,” says Jan. “Light painting is a trend among young artists but the skills required to turn each idea into a picture preserve the magic of inspiration through learning.”

LAPP techniques follow from ideas dating back to avant-garde artists such as Man Ray and Pablo Picasso, whose work with photographer Gjon Mili incorporated visual light in motion well before the digital revolution. LAPP is decidedly not a marvel of post-processing. It relies entirely on the real-time balance of mediation between photographic technology, human ingenuity and the laws of the physical universe.

“For us, from the first day, LAPP was always about working straight out of the camera,” Joerg explains. “Light art is all about preparation and training, for each and every project. There is a lot of crazy and funny technology to use for light but this is something anyone can learn with dedication, even with a film camera.”

While digital cameras greatly assist the process by enabling speedier evaluations of a performance - each of which takes anywhere from 30 seconds to many minutes start to finish - the basic ingredients, beyond the camera set-up, are creativity, helpful natural conditions and instruments of light. The real challenge is executing planned performances with tremendous choreographic precision. Between the bevy of light tools and camera equipment, Joerg and Jan both promote the benefits of working in small teams and encourage the creative discoveries that are often accidental.

That might give grounds to wondering why the duo split in 2011 but the decision was based on common differences where art and life bump heads. Jan compares it to the parting of German synth-pop stars Modern Talking, while Joerg mentions Peter Gabriel leaving Genesis. In fact, the end of LAPP Pro is consistent with their shared outlook on personal fulfilment through art, expounded in the pair’s 2011 book ‘Painting With Light’.

Jan has gone on to become a full-time light artist, commissioned for major commercial campaigns that enable him to travel the world. He now works directly with the enthusiastic artists who followed and admired LAPP Pro’s accomplishments over the years. He’s even served, recently, as special guest speaker for the first international Night and Light Art Photography Congress in Madrid.

Joerg, a calm and collected family man, has continued to pursue his own projects as a passionate hobby, happy with experimenting on his sizeable property in the country outside Bremen. Together with developer Josh Beckwith in California, Joerg has launched a software program, Light Paint Live, which enables real-time light painting on a 1080p webcam. Through his own travels and tutorials, he too has introduced light painting to a new generation of young, captivated fans.

“Light art has just reached the beginning,” he says. “The technology in digital cameras makes creativity more accessible to beginners. The key is to inspire and to be a spark for others, so they can run with their own ideas.”

Over four years, the duo’s work was just that, a spark, taking root in the most important medium controlling light art’s future growth: the Internet. Through photo-sharing websites such as Flickr and Fotocommunity, LAPP Pro’s spellbinding images may have finally propelled light painting into the future that has so long awaited it.

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