Light Painting Artist Peter Solness has started to take his Light Painting in much more public and inclusive direction. Thats not to say that he has moved on from the Illuminated Landscapes he is known for but this light painting work is a long way from the solitary action our art form can sometimes be. Peter has started creating large scale light paintings in public spaces, sharing the art form with people that have little to no experience with Light Painting. The results are pretty amazing! Check out the video and images, and read on to find out all the details in the interview below…
LPP ∇ Hi Peter I am really enjoying with your new Group Light Paintings in Public Spaces but before we get into that can you tell me a little more about yourself, specifically your background with photography and Light Painting?
PS ∇ I bought my first serious camera as a 16 year-old schoolboy way back in 1974. It was a Nikonos II underwater camera and I used to swim out at popular surfing locations and shoot from the water.
Surfing photography was a good teacher. I learnt that getting a good surfing image took a lot of planning, travelling, determination and good luck. At one stage I began to experiment with shooting surfers at night. I attached a waterproof flashgun to my Nikonos II and set up night surfing sessions with local surfers. It was a crazy thing to be doing, floating around in a dark ocean being smashed by inky-black waves, but the reward for such extreme photo sessions was capturing something completely different from your everyday photo (not unlike the pleasure I get when doing my light paintings today).
The results of my night surfing photos were finally published in 1977. It was the first ever feature article about night surfing and there was a real fascination about the photos at the time.
From 1980 to about 2005 I followed my dream of working as a photojournalist. I shot assignments for many magazine, newspaper and corporate annual reports both in Australia and internationally. It was a great experience.
During this time I had a number of opportunities to experiment with long exposure photography and light painting techniques. For example in 1980 I worked at an underground mine in outback Australia. A photographer there showed me how to light-up huge black spaces where ore had been extracted during the mining process. He would walk around with a Metz 60 flashgun and light paint these pitch-black chambers using up to 50 separate flashes during a long exposure. The result of all that accumulated exposure made the space look as bright as daytime. I began using that technique on numerous industrial photography assignments over the years.
Around 2005 I noticed things were really starting to change in the photography business. I realised my livelihood as a photojournalist was coming to an end, as newspapers and magazines started cutting back on budgets and sacking staff photographers. I was frustrated that I had so many skills but was not able to use them anymore. I was in my mid 40’s and I wanted to keep doing interesting photography so I started to dabble more in light painting.
I began using a mini-Maglite to draw outlines of historic Aboriginal engraving sites carved into sandstone rocks near where I live in Sydney. I realised that light painting made it possible to reinterpret a place in a very particular and unique way.
In 2009 I then started applying torchlight to trees and rocks and sought to create mysteriously beautiful images of the Australian landscape by blending torchlight with ambient moonlight. From this series I began to build a new website called Illuminated Landscape www.illuminated-landscape.com which has been very successful.
The photos from the Illuminated Landscape series sold well as fine art prints to both private and public collectors and I won several prestigious landscape photography awards. Through this period I also began to run light-painting workshops. I have since taught hundreds of photographers the art of light painting and it has been a thrill to inspire so many people.
LPP ∇ The group light paintings that you have been creating are absolutely incredible, was the ‘Field or Orbs’ your first Group Light Painting?
PS ∇ The ‘Field of Orbs’ wasn’t my first group light painting event, but it has been my most ambitious and successful.
The Field of Orbs was very special as I conceived the idea from the start and kept total control over how it should be created and what sort of outcomes I wanted to achieve. It is very thrilling to see something that existed in your imagination come to life so publicly and with such energy and enthusiasm. It also allowed me to set a new benchmark for the way light painting can be used for public enjoyment. I especially want to acknowledge the amazing orb images of the East Coast Light Painters and Andrew Wells whose work provided the original inspiration for this event.
Previously in 2009 I did a large-scale light painted image as a global environmental art project to promote the 350.org climate change movement. I directed 150 people holding glowing lanterns to walk around a marked pathway over a 45 second exposure period to create the number 350. The image was very successful and is still used as a key graphic on the 350.org home page seven years later.
LPP ∇ Were the participants of the Field of Orbs project part of a photography club or something like that or were they just random people interested in making art?
PS ∇ The Field of Orbs was created to celebrate the International Year of Light and I received support from government agencies wanting to get the general public involved in the celebrations. I realised that having 100 volunteers spinning orbs would be a great way to get people from all sorts of backgrounds excited about creating public art and experiencing the magic of light painting. So we listed the event with an online booking agency called Eventbrite and within days the event was fully subscribed. The organizers actually had to stop promoting the event, as they were worried about the crowd becoming too big to handle.
LPP ∇ Woah, so how many people were involved?
PS ∇ In the end we had 100 orb spinners, 200 photographers and around another 200 spectators. I think a lot of the photographers came from Meetup website groups and camera clubs who had read about the event in the promotional publicity and realised that it would be a unique event to photograph.
LPP ∇ How did you get that many people to participate let alone actually understand what they were doing?
PS ∇ As this was a public art event I was very interested in the public participation aspects of the event, rather than just getting a great photo, so I decided not to get too fussy about everyone doing a perfect orb. I knew from my previous workshop experiences that orbs always look great in photos anyway and I imagined 100 of them spread across a valley would look awesome, even if they were not as perfect as I would have hoped. Indeed there were a lot of very clumsy orb spinners on the night, but I made sure I arranged some of the neatest orb spinners to stand up in the foreground to help ensure the photo’s success.
LPP ∇ How long did it take to put this project together?
PS ∇ Fortunately I had about 5 months lead time, which meant I had ample time to make up the lights and trial them before the date. I made every light by hand, which was a slow process.
LPP ∇ You created several group light painting images were they all done on the same night, or over a few nights?
PS ∇ Yes I used the opportunity to try other light painted images on the night that I thought might look good. One was the Ring of Fire where I got my 100 ‘orbsters’ to circumambulate a wonderful domed building in the park called the Federation Pavilion. There was an interesting atmosphere in the crowd as they did this. People started to sing and speak to each other expressing a real sense of togetherness. It was like a spontaneous ceremony.
Finally I got everyone to stand for a group photo holding their lights up to their faces like candlelight. The mood in the crowd was wonderful. The whole event took less than an hour but it was really unforgettable.
LPP ∇ This work is very different from the solitary act light painting tends to be, what inspired you to take this direction with your light painting work?
PS ∇ Although my art practice as a light painter requires me to generally work alone, I have been moving away from just doing solitary acts of light painting and looking at ways to bring that ‘magic’ of light painting to new audiences, in areas such as public art performance, child education and art therapy.
It is obvious to anyone reading this interview that light painting is an incredibly magical process. Through my experience as a workshop teacher I have seen how people respond to light painting and how universally appealing it is. From kids to the elderly, there is a joyful intrigue and sense of play when people are introduced to a light painting session. I really feel such positive outcomes should be explored more fully, hence I’ve been exploring participatory projects.
I have also started developing light painting workshops with disadvantaged people who are needing activities to improve their self-esteem and social engagement. Light painting can be a really powerful tool in showing people a different way of seeing themselves and the world around them.
LPP ∇ Absolutely, can you tell me more a little more about these workshops and how the idea was sparked?
PS ∇ I have an 8-year-old son and when you are around kids you get to see how much pleasure they get out of playing with lights. I have been thinking for a while about how to use light painting in schools to develop imagination and creative expression. I did an event at a primary school (kids 5-11years old) annual art show recently. The good thing about it was that the kids love playing with lights but they didn’t really understand what the final image would look like. So it really blew them away when they saw what they had created.
LPP ∇ Is it more difficult to work with the kids or is it more fun because of all the energy they must bring to the work?
PS ∇ No doubt working with kids is much more chaotic. You just need to not expect too much and keep things simple. I’ve found it’s best just to let the kids have some fun and keep firing the shutter, as you are bound to get a few interesting images. The way the kids use their lights creates a unique expression of their chaotic youthful energy.
LPP ∇ The images are just awesome, and it’s just so damn cool that you are inspiring so many people to try light painting. Thank you for the work you are doing and for taking the time to answer some questions!
PS ∇ Thank you.