Light Art, Abstract Photography and Multi-Sensory Experience

In the early-twentieth century, many artists were exploring light’s potential as a plastic and creative medium, establishing it as a crucial component of media as varied as dance, theatre, painting, photography and film. Moreover, light was valued for its metaphysical and philosophical attributes, and was regarded as holding redemptive and healing powers for a populace traumatised by the First War. Light’s artistic and spiritual strands converged in intermedial art forms such as the various manifestations of “light art,” which combined machine technology with the frameworks of visual art, theatre and music to create trans-sensory art experiences that engaged an embodied and emotional spectator. My presentation focuses on the intersection between Thomas Wilfred’s (1889-1968) “light organ” (the “clavilux”), and Francis Bruguière’s (1879-1945) light-based abstract photographs.

Utilizing primary source materials, I will illustrate the ways in which Wilfred’s light art provided a template for viewing the technological, artistic and metaphysical characteristics of abstract photography. Both Wilfred and Bruguière abandoned figuration and, in some cases, material subject matter in their works, yet neither expunged narrative from their artistic practice. And while vision was the sense most obviously engaged in their work, both artists regarded light as a catalyst for other non-visual sensory, emotional and psychological experiences. I argue that new conceptions of light were present across medium specific boundaries, uniting on common philosophical ground a diverse array of creative endeavours. By transposing onto the photographic medium theories about light advocated by Wilfred and modernist theatre designers, Bruguière altered the terms of debate surrounding the nature of photography, and removed vision from the pinnacle of the hierarchy of the senses. By shifting the viewer’s experience outside the realm of the purely visual, these abstract photographs challenge modernist interpretations of the medium as essentially objective and true to nature.

Kristen Adlhoch

Kristen A. Adlhoch is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, where she is the recipient of the Wilhelmina Barns-­‐Graham Doctoral Award. Her dissertation investigates abstract photography practice in the early-­‐twentieth century as interconnected with intermedial experiments that utilized light as a creative medium in order to precipitate multi-­‐sensory experiences. Kristen holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography Studies (Ryerson University, 2000) and a Master of Letters in the History of Photography (University of St Andrews, 2009). Kristen was the recipient of the Josef Breitenbach Fellowship at the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, in 2013; and a fellow of the Terra Foundation for American Art Summer Residency Program, Giverny, in 2014. Her article “The Synaesthetic Experience of Light” will be published in the forthcoming issue of the journal Interfaces Most recently, she presented her research at the workshop “Temporary Architectures: Performance, Theatre and Ephemerality” at the University of St Andrews in February 2015.