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 the winter 2016/2017 a series of works was produced in the Lower Engadin region especially for a site-specific installation in NAIRS Centre of Contemporary Art, Scuol, Switzerland (March – July 2017). Carved by Light (Mapping): Unterengadin brings selected peaks 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.

Spot On 2, NAIRS, Scuol, Switzerland, 2017, installation view

 

Project details

2015 saw the 150th anniversary of the first ascent of Matterhorn, which was famously achieved by a British party and marked the high point of the golden age of alpinism. This period witnessed a dramatic change in perceptions of mountains: from dangerous wastelands and dwelling places of the supernatural, to celebrated sites of beauty and encounter with the sublime. It was also the time of rapid developments in early photographic techniques, with processes such as wet plate collodion allowing the photographer to work outdoors for the first time, albeit burdened with heavy cameras and materials that had to be processed in the field. The desire to observe, measure and record has motivated many who set off for the summits, and they often carried scientific and photographic equipment on their expeditions.

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

 

The project brings attention to those 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 will investigate 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.

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

 

When light-sensitive polymer plates, which are usually used in production of newsprint, packaging etc., are exposed in-camera, those parts that are affected by light harden, while shadow sections of the image are washed away in post-processing, 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. High mountains – a visual patchwork of bright snow and dark rock illuminated by strong light with a large portion of ultra-violet radiation – are the perfect subject for this technique, which requires scenes of maximum contrast, and is sensitive to ultra-violet light only. Each photopolymer plate relief constitutes 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.

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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