April 11: Heliography

Date #11April 11: The Sun illuminates the majority of photographs and yet is the subject of so few.

SIT DOWN gallery at 4 rue Sainte Anastase, Paris opens an exhibition Atmospheric Observations by Jean-Gabriel Lopez, continuing until 19 May.

The gallery website gives no details of the work to be shown (their links currently don’t work for me). It seems from the show’s title that Jean-Gabriel Lopez’ Heliographs will be included and possibly his Cloud Atlas.

Heliography was the term, derived from the Greek helios (sun) and graphien (writing). used initially by the pioneer of photography Nicephore Niepce in 1825 to describe the process in which he was able to make the first permanent photographic images. In astronomical terms, it refers to the sun, and it is also the name for devices with which signals can be sent by reflecting sunlight.

For Lopez, the Sun is the only star that can be photographed in daylight.  He thus regards his ‘heliographs’ as astronomical photographs, and counterintuitively, he uses a pinhole and 4″x5″ Fuji colour film to make these images. Associations between the Sun and the pinhole have long been made; Chinese philosopher Mo-Ti in around 400B.C. was amongst the first to note the image-forming properties of a small opening, then Aristotle (384–322 BC) both took note of the way light filtering between the leaves of trees  projected crescent shaped images of the eclipsed sun on the ground, and also how the smaller the hole, the sharper the image appeared. Other historical references to the pinhole were made by Egyptian scholar Hassan ibn Hassan (c. 1000AD) who describes the use of  pinhole device to observe an eclipse of the sun, and later also Francis Bacon (c. 1267), and Leonardo Da Vinci (1452–1519).

We cannot look directly at the Sun without protection, and that expedient will of course affect our view of it; for example, a sufficiently dark neutral density filter like the exposed and developed piece of film once recommended for would-be spectators of solar eclipses (what can people use now?), will cause the rest of the scene to be too dark to observe, which is not so in the case of Lopez’ landscapes.

Jean Gabriel Lopez (2016) Heliographie #09

The sun is physically much larger than the earth (by a factor of almost 40 times), but from our vantage point on earth it is a relatively small light source that projects nearly parallel rays and sharp shadows, both useful to photographers. Lopez includes in almost every one of this series both the sun and the earth on which it shines. It does indeed appear like a star with a very small disc, since these are wide-angle pinhole views.

A pinhole is an imperfect ‘lens’ that causes diffraction and this is what Lopez’ dazzling skyscapes exploit. His quiet cultivated landscapes are showered with diamantine rays that spill across sky and earth in spectral shards. They are like an explosion, and reminiscent of the actual pain we suffer when we attempt to squint into the Sun between our eyelids and eyelashes. The colour effects are prismatic and vary in hue depending on the angle of incidence of the Sun’s rays with the pinhole.

Jean-Gabriel-Lopez-Heliographie-c-61Appropriately, these photographs were produced as part of a residence at the Centre for Art and Photography, Lectoure and in collaboration with the laboratory LUTIN Living Lab in the city of sciences and industry partner of the residency. While they may not advance scientific knowledge, Lopez’ pictures do remind us that we owe our environment and lives to the energy of an ever-present star that stands at just the right distance above our heads. He presents us with a real heaven, of light, clouds, the vagaries of light rays, and the fact of the atmosphere, an atomic substance made visible in these vivid images.

His series Cloud Atlas is not dissimilar to Australian Todd McMillan‘s 2014 Equivalent series which also employs the cyanotype process in images of clouds, but in that case as a reference to the images of clouds in photographic history, specifically Alfred Steiglitz’s mystical Equivalents. Lopez’ cyanotypes were exhibited in 2013 and I am sure McMillan made his without the slightest knowledge of Lopez’ work, as often happens. Lopez has produced the more saturated blue that I associate with the technique (Yves Klein eat your heart out!), while McMillan’s are a softer hue.

Cloud Atlas connects, in being a an effort to catalogue clouds, with Anna Atkins’ project to record all the seaweeds and sea plants of her coast in Britain, in self-published cyanotype photograms in the first installment of her Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions of October 1843.

Lopez includes the Sun in many images for this series too, sometimes behind the cloud or directly exposing the film. The idea of a ‘cloud atlas’ reminds us that the sky over our heads is home to the passage of clouds which have developed from weather systems far away, so as an ‘atlas’ it offers an unexpected view, one that looks away from the surface of the earth into the heavens.


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