Carved by light

Experimental relief photographs of major Alpine peaks 150 years from their first ascents

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the golden age of alpinism, since 2015 I am traversing the Alps and climbing up to locations overlooking selected peaks that were ascended for the first time in that period (1854-1865). Using a heretofore unexplored photographic technique, for each summit I am producing a relief in a light-sensitive polymer plate exposed directly in a self-constructed camera for several hours.

The project has been selected at the Forecast Forum in Berlin in August 2015 and developed with the guidance of Bas Princen. It’s first outcomes were shown at the Forecast Festival in Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin in February 2016, followed by a solo exhibition in Kunsthaus Zug, Switzerland (June-August 2016). In 2017, a site-specific installation Carved by Light (Mapping): Unterengadin was produced for NAIRS Centre of Contemporary Art, Scuol, Switzerland.

 

Spot On 2, NAIRS, Scuol, Switzerland, 2017, the installation brought selected peaks from the region into the architectural space of the historic bath house, positioning them exactly according to their location in the landscape and the angle from which they were photographed.

 

Project details

Mid-19th century was not only the time of a dramatic change in perceptions of mountains, but also the time of rapid developments in early photographic techniques. Explored for the first time with curiosity rather than fear, mountains could now also be photographed using processes such as wet plate collodion, which allowed the photographer to work outdoors, albeit burdened with heavy cameras and materials that had to be processed in the field. The project brings attention to the early mountaineering achievements while exploring a heretofore unused photographic technique that, in the slowness of the process and the cumbersomeness of materials and equipment, recalls the working methods of early photographers.

Building on my doctoral practice-led research, the work investigates the possibilities of a three dimensional photographic artefact communicating embodied experience of remote landscapes in ways that go beyond purely visual apprehension of an image. Through an analogy between the mountainous environment sculpted out of rock by geological forces on one hand, and the action of light carving a relief in a photosensitive polymer plate on the other, the process is intended to convey the solidity and spatial dimension of such a landscape as it is experienced by a walker physically immersed in it.

Light-sensitive 20x25cm polymer plates used in the printing industry are placed in a self-constructed camera, which is carried on foot up a mountain (often a climb of over a thousand meters in altitude) to make a single exposure lasting several hours. Where more UV light reaches the plate, the emulsion hardens, while the shadow sections of the image are washed away afterwards, forming indentations. The expanse of snow and rock in front of the lens is no longer translated into a two-dimensional set of tonal differences, but rather into a three-dimensional relief, which becomes visible when light illuminates the plate at a certain angle. Purposefully time-consuming, cumbersome, labour-intensive and prone to failure, this method prioritizes physical immersion in the environment – each work begins with carefully planning the walk and ends with making the photographic exposure. The plate taken out of the camera and washed is the final artwork, to be encountered by the viewer as an authentic having-been-there object formed by the light reflected off the scene in front of the lens.

 

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Carved by Light, Kunsthaus Zug, Switzerland, 2016, installation views

 

The project has been generously supported by Arts Council England, Polish Institute in BerlinCulture.pl, Forecast Platform, Kunsthaus ZugAKKU Uster and Via Alpina.

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