Dean Chamberlain is the father of light painting photography and has been capturing photographs since 1967. It was his passion for photography that led him to the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1974 to pursue a fine art degree. During Dean’s time at Rochester in 1977 he discovered light painting photography. Dean was the first person to coin the term “Light Painting” for his open shutter long exposure photographic technique. He has worked with his unique art form ever since in his various works. Dean has created stunning portraits of well known individuals such as David Bowie and Paul McCartney. He has also directed numerous music videos. Chamberlain’s work has appeared in publications such as Esquire, Vanity Fair and the Washington Post. He has received an MTV breakthrough award for directing music videos for Arcadia (Missing), Paul McCartney (This One) and Duran Duran (All She Wants Is). View some of his light painting photographs below and for more information check out Dean’s website DeanChamberlain.com.
Interview with Dean Chamberlain via Electronic Beats
What did you want to be when growing up? I always wanted to be an artist. My beloved grandmother Claire, a painter, set up canvases for me while she painted. When I turned 15, I knew I wanted to be a photographer, and by 23 I knew I was going to be a light painter forever. I’ve been a light painter for 32 years and I’m happier than ever to be what I am.
When and why did you start getting into photography? I got into photography when I was 13 with a ‘60s model Polaroid camera – the one that made 2×3-inch black and white prints that needed to be coated with the fixative. They looked and felt like little gemstones. At 15 I got my first 35mm camera, a Konica S2. I loved that camera because I could trust it to record my love for what I saw. From 15 onwards it was simply a matter of honing my devotion to the medium which I then went on to study at Sheridan College in Toronto, and Rochester Institute of Technology from 1973-77. The day I graduated, I moved to New York City instantly. I knew NYC was the place for a light painter. That is, until 1983, when I knew Paris was the place for a light painter too, so I went there for seven years.
What is your fascination with light? My fascination with light is my fascination with life. They are unified. Light is the source of all life so I have followed the light since I realized this simple truth in 1969 during my early vision quests, wink, wink, nod, nod. I understood that God was in one’s mind and God is light, for me. I saw visions of eternity in the light, hence, my fascination with light.
Of the colors you use, is there a favorite of yours? What I named “Chamberlain Blue” is my favorite color, in addition to “Luminous Green”, and “Golden Earth Tones”. Describing them is another matter. They exist in some of my light paintings.
Is there a connection between the view from night vision goggles and your photography? I am night vision when I work. The goggles would just get in the way. Every light painting I’ve made since 1977 has been made in total darkness. The exposure times vary between some minutes and some hours per sheet of film.
Can you describe the process of the following two photographs?
Anne and Erica: (see above) I made this in NYC in the late ‘80s on a tenth floor loft facing north on 19th street, between Park Ave and Irving Place. This was an unusual scene because I was really focused on making a beautiful light painting of Anne and Erica. As I began, I became kind of overwhelmed with frustration and got emotionally twisted up as I was lighting them. I kind of lost formation and felt like Iggy Pop performing with a flashlight. The resultant light painting really surprised me because I felt it was going to be total chaos when in fact it became quite beautiful.
Timothy Leary was a whole other situation for me psychologically. He was a very important teacher, friend and ally in my life education. I finally met him in early 1996 at his home in Beverly Hills. It’s almost impossible to describe the joy I felt to finally portray him after having him as a teacher, listening to him speak publicly, and reading every one of his books at least once. It’s equally impossible to describe the details of how I photographed him. It took two weeks and five sessions. Each exposure time was three hours, during which time I was moving throughout the composition space with light in hand, painting the light in great detail at close proximity to each and every detail you see illuminated. It is literally a painting of light and it is made in the camera, not in Photoshop. When I close the shutter after the three hours, the light painting is completely finished. I simply send the film to the lab and have it processed normally and then I print it normally. What you see is exactly the light I painted while Tim was sitting there. The same goes for the “Anne and Erica” light painting and every other light painting I’ve made since 1977, some of which are on my website.
Your art involves exposing the scene of desire for a long amount of time – do your models also have to sit through this? In most of my light paintings the people in them are there for the entire length of the exposure. I try to be aware of their physical sensitivities. In the portrait of Alba Clemente she lay there for the entire three hours of the exposure. Younger folks tend to be able to stay put the whole time. Elder folk, well, I try to figure out ways that they don’t have to stay there the whole time.
You are exhibiting at the 99 High Art Collective in Venice, CA under the motto “Elder Psychedelic Pioneers” how did this come to be? I was introduced to Sam and Yvonne by a mutual friend, and we decided a show of these portraits would fit perfectly with what they are trying to do with their business. I am very proud of this series of portraits. I worked for more than five years on them, traveling to Hawaii, the East Coast, and Basel, Switzerland to make some of them. It’s a bit strange to know that seven of the ten people in this exhibition of portraits have passed on. They are all some of the noblest souls I ever hope to meet in this sweet short life.
Do you support the collective’s mission to provide medical cannabis to patients? I support legalizing cannabis completely in the same way as beer, wine, and hard alcohol is legal.
How was it to work with David Bowie and Paul McCartney? How did you get them to model for you? David Bowie is one of the greatest talents ever. I met him in a sushi restaurant near my old loft in Soho in New York City and showed him my portfolio. We hit it off and he wanted to collaborate with me on making some light paintings, which we did. I hope to work with him again in the future. Paul McCartney is a genius. I met him at his office in London, and then visited him and Linda while they were rehearsing near their home with the rest of the band. They hired me to make a video for their beautiful song, “This One,” in the light painting animation style that I’d used for Arcadia for their song “Missing” and for Duran Duran for their song “All She Wants.” Both the McCartneys and Bowie were extraordinarily polite people with no star attitude whatsoever. I’m a lucky guy. Sometimes.
You did some amazing shots in the woods; where and when did this take place? The “forest path” light paintings began officially in the fall of 1989 in Hanover, New Hampshire, while I was serving as an artist-in-residence at Dartmouth College for a few months. I had just done the McCartney “This One” video and the last image in it is of Paul and Linda sitting under a tree and they are embracing and being embraced by nature’s infinite glory. I shined a beam of light up the tree as they point to it. That image touched me deeply, and so when I got to Hanover and all the leaves were so gloriously colored, I knew what I had to do. And since then I have been continuing to make light paintings of forests and forest paths. I also try to include nature in portraits when the situation is right for it. In addition to New Hampshire, I’ve done forest light paintings in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Georgia, Hawaii, the Berkshire Mountains, France, and Sweden.
Whom would you like to photograph? I want to do light paintings of Iggy Pop, James Turrell and Brian Eno.
What are you currently working on? I’ve been preparing my first book for publication. The photographs and light paintings are complete. I’ve been working on the writings for four years non-stop. I’m getting closer.
Are music videos something you´d like to do again in the near future? Yes. I’m really pleased with my light painting animations. So, yes, definitely I want to make more when the right situation comes along. It takes a very sensitive musician and creator to understand what I can do for their music with light painting. There’s a documentary on my work coming out sometime this fall on Ovation TV, directed by Bobby Sheehan. It does justice to the spirit of what I’ve worked my whole career to bring into this plane of existence. I give my all.
Do you have a favorite shot? My favorite light painting is all of them. I kid you not. The reason: I put all of me into every one of them. Sure, some come out shining a bit brighter from one facet or another. Sure, I know which ones are the most popular. But I love them all