Captured light and digital noise:
contemplating Luuk de Haan’s photographs
by Derek Horton
Since the 1960s, photographic processes of all kinds have been increasingly important for contemporary artists and the boundary between photography and other media including painting, sculpture or performance has become increasingly porous. The optical possibilities of digitised, computer-based technologies have only served to further blur these boundaries. Each medium has effectively absorbed the other, leaving the photographic residing almost everywhere, but, arguably, nowhere in particular. Photographers and theorists have thus found themselves in a position of re-examining and redefining its potential for contributing to and defining our visual experience, within and way beyond the sphere of art making.
Although in many ways resembling abstract painting, photographs of the kind made by Luuk de Haan celebrate and delight in exploiting photography’s indexical grounding in a world of chemical and physical reactions to physical phenomena and, more recently, the optical potential inherent in digital screen-based photographic manipulation. They are documents of their own coming into being rather than the recording of a world outside the photograph. Despite their abstract, non-referential appearance, they are as ‘realist’ as photographs can get. Emphasising sequential processes and long durations rather than instantaneous exposure, they return photography to a unique and individualised practice and away from reproductive economies of mass production. Serial production is important in these works, in that visual ideas and themes are intensively investigated, developed and extended to explore their potential, but significantly there is no replication – none of the works are made in editions, so each individual image and print is unique.
The nature of De Haan’s work involves an interrogation of the definition and function of photography and, by making the means of its production essential to the meaning of the resulting object, it invites us to reflect on what ‘photographicness’ might mean and why it might matter. Photography’s traditional emphasis on subjective documentation and the focal perspective provided by both the camera and a centralised referent are abandoned in a way that actively de-centres us as viewers. We cast our eyes across these photographs’ opaque, flattened surfaces because they offer no view into the world, no singular subject as a focal point for our vision, and thus no stable position in space and time. They retain, even insist on, their identity as photographs, but they keep us and the world we inhabit in flux and on the move. Such images break with the received humanist conventions of camera-derived picture making, and place us in an alternative viewing position, with a different kind of subjectivity in relation to the visual world they confront us with. They provide a counter to the photographically saturated environment of our hyper-mediated world and its constant bombardment of rapid-fire imagery, slowing down our perception in the face of that environment and encouraging a more thoughtful consideration of its effects by offering us an alternative, more contemplative visual experience.
The term 'concrete photography' is often used to refer to photographic imagery created without using a camera by directly manipulating film or photographic paper in processes such as the photogram and chemogram, or, more recently, by the manipulation of digitally encoded images. Concrete photographic methods are frequently associated with the rise of abstraction in photography – the creation of non-referential imagery. 'Abstract photography' is a category increasingly used by curators and critics, notably Lyle Rexer who, in his book The Edge of Vision, defines abstraction as “a departure from or the eliding of an immediately apprehensible subject”. This broad definition encompasses many aspects of photographic experience, including the chemistry of traditional photography, the mediation of lenses, the direct capture of light without a camera, very long exposures, radical cropping, and other deliberate destabilising of photography's documentary or referential functions. Once computers and digital photography software became widely available, the boundaries of ‘abstract’ photography were expanded beyond the limits of film and chemistry almost limitlessly.
In some ways though, abstraction is a problematic term when applied to photography. We might reasonably define the abstract as referring to an idea that exists without reference to material reality; something imagined, existing outside our perception of objects in the world around us. But a photographic image, regardless of whether it is produced chemically or digitally, is the ultimate indexical form – the photograph depends on the recording of light, and so cannot come into existence independently of the laws of physics as they apply in our material and optical world. Something is always there, recorded indexically in the photograph, even if it appears completely abstract, apparently of nothing. Concrete photography therefore sets up a complex dialectical relationship of depiction and representation. A photograph of nothing (at least nothing discernible or apparently 'real') represents visual phenomena aesthetically but does not depict a specific object or event, as for example documentary photography does. Yet conversely and simultaneously, it directly depicts the light that entered the lens, the light that was chemically registered or digital encoded – but it does not then represent anything beyond itself.
The issue of what, if anything, is represented in an image is alluded to in the title of De Haan’s series big nothing (2013), implying that we might be looking into the void. How can a photograph of nothing exist? Literally of course, it can't. We are seeing, even in big nothing, visual phenomena recorded photographically and perceived optically, even though what we see might not seem to relate to the 'real' world around us. Another aspect of abstraction comes into play here, the relationship of form and formlessness. De Haan's big nothing series explores the boundaries of form and our capacity to perceive its existence against a background of formlessness. The amorphous shapes in these images exist at the threshold of emergence and disappearance. In terms of the digital construction of the images, intriguingly, the shape itself contains less data than the space surrounding it.
All of this suggests that a proper understanding of de Haan’s work depends on an awareness of the process through which it is made. His particular and individual method exploits the potential of combining digital and analog processes, using screen-based image manipulation together with long exposures to create the eventual static photograph, thereby challenging the metaphorical and actual aspects of instantaneity and fixity that are often applied in our perceptions and understanding of photography. His working process multiplies the recording of light by means of creating on-screen digital images, sometimes including multiple images sequenced through the slideshow function, that are re-photographed from the screen whilst in motion, and then sometimes subjected to further digital manipulation, to create the final, unique photograph. The photographing of the screen usually also involves the movement of the camera during the exposure, sometimes in quite extreme and rapid movements, causing a blurring and re-shaping of the visual forms being photographed. This is the opposite of the blurring effect in conventional photography where any blurring of the image is usually a result of the subject moving in front of a static camera. The fact that the first image in this sequence of events might be digitally produced using computer technology, rather than being a photograph of a pre-existing thing in the world, is one sense in which the eventual image could be said to be of nothing, lending de Haan’s work a magical, alchemical quality in its conjuring of seductive images from the ones and zeros of computer coding.
The title of one series, digital noise through analog eyes (2016), provides a clue to a method that is applied throughout most of de Haan’s work. Noise in this context is a random variation of brightness or colour information in digital images. It can be produced by the sensor and circuitry of a scanner or digital camera and is the digital equivalent of film grain for analog cameras and feedback or static for audio equipment. Digital noise appears as random flaws or glitches that can significantly degrade image quality. Although therefore usually regarded as an undesirable by-product of image capture that adds spurious and extraneous information, for de Haan it is just another valuable visual element to be exploited. He elevates noise to a position of aesthetic significance, enhancing the processes that lead to it and allowing the noise to become an essential medium in the production of his images.
In considering de Haan’s working method and the means of production of his photographs, it is important to bear in mind that photography has long been just one of many processes and media that contemporary artists utilise, and any boundaries that remain between artists and photographers in this context are even further erased by artists who work exclusively in photography but exploit the considerable potential of computer-generated imagery. For de Haan there is no hierarchy in the processes of production; every aspect of the work is equally important, including the aspects of manipulation, rephotographing of on-screen imagery and digital reprocessing that remain unnoticed or invisible in the eventual singular, unique photographic print. This non-hierarchical philosophy of practice is reflected linguistically in his insistence on the use of only lower case type in titling every work. It also extends into the disruption in many of the images of any conventional figure/ground relationship. There is a play between the amorphous and the solid, the geometric and the organic, between linear definition and the planar ‘all-over’ surface, in which all these relationships are kept in tension and no single aspect predominates.
Whilst the systematic process involved in the production of these photographs is important to a meaningful reading of De Haan’s work, these precise technical procedures are counter-balanced by the seductive aesthetic qualities that draw us into his images. Conceptual considerations of photography’s potential and a carefully constructed system of image-making provide the impetus, but what begins in calculated premeditation ends in photographs of unexpected poignancy and beauty. There is a depth of imaginative potential in all the works illustrated here that will reward scrupulous meditation. Metaphorical readings of the work may come to mind for those inclined to look for them, but it can equally well be appreciated solely at the level of visual pleasure. The imagery is suffused with light, its boundaries elude wholeness; sharply divided forms dissolve into a blur; circles about to close open up again into an immensity of space unbounded by the edges of the picture-plane. We are drawn into the no-place of objects that do not exist, into an image-world paradoxically departing from reality whilst remaining firmly in the actual through its optical play with our perceptions.
In the colour field series (2015), and nicht in die laufende trommel greifen [do not get caught up in the running drum] (2016), the surface dissolves and breaks up into bright but cool colour planes that create a dense overall surface animated by rhythmic colour sequences. Without even this planar composition, the series digital noise through analog eyes (2016) generates an overall surface quality that collapses any distinction between figure and ground, with a visual quality reminiscent of subtly patterned fabric, the edges seemingly an arbitrary break within a field of potentially infinite scale rather than a rational frame surrounding a discrete object. By contrast, in other series – big nothing (2013), appliance (2016) or unsealed (2016), for example – we are presented with a more pictorial figure and ground relationship, but even here the mysterious objects seem to float softly, their solidity an illusion that might dissolve into the background again at any moment. In works such as mogelijkheid 069_10_430 [opportunity 069_10_430] (2013), diaphanous dance 4 (2013) and diaphanous dance 9 (2013), the central image slips between interior and exterior like a Möbius strip, twisting the idea of the object inside out and locating it in an ambiguous space that expresses expansiveness rather than interiority.
The seductive aesthetic qualities of the photographs in de Haan’s series ukiyo (2017) involve a sense of drifting movement, floating forms that defy the flatness of the picture plane, appearing to hover somewhere between us and the light, textured background. The Japanese title translates approximately as ‘sad, troublesome world’, adding a melancholy interpretation to the mystery and fragility of the ambiguous space in which these soft shapes appear. An alternative translation is ‘the floating world’, and the title thus both literally describes the floating imagery of this series and refers to the our constantly shifting experience of the visual world and our fleeting impressions of it. The forms are strongly defined in bold colours but their blurred edges, reminiscent of the brushstrokes of Japanese calligraphy, suggest that they are moving within the pictorial space. The combination of bold, clear form with a more uncertain sense of mysteriousness also echoes some aspects of Japanese minimalist typographic posters, another influence on De Haan’s aesthetic sensibility.
As in many other examples of De Haan’s work, there is for the viewer an intriguing uncertainty about how these photographs are made. They rely on the creative experimentation that he brings to his unconventional use of the camera, and his unique combination of digital and analog processes in the way he uses the computer to generate a primary image. This is set in motion through the slide show function and then, as previously described, photographed directly from the screen. Thus, the eventual still photograph results from the movement of and transition between digital images on the screen as well as the manual movement of the camera. The ukiyo images are realised by photographing a slideshow of circles. The relation between the interval of the slideshow and the camera’s shutter speed determines the number of circles captured in one shot. The final shape of the circles is determined by moving the camera and/or using the zoom-function during the exposure. There are other complexities in the production of this work too, resulting from the reversal processes inherent in photography. The deep, rich reds in these images begin on the screen as their opposite, a cool turquoise blue, and the light background is as black as the night sky. The colours we see are only revealed after the screen is photographed, in darkness, and the final, inverted image is then processed. This adds to the experimental and improvisational aspects of De Haan’s production, since he is creating the colours in the original digital image with only an approximate sense of the colour that will be revealed in the final photograph.
This understanding of the technical processes involved in making the images, far from breaking the spell of the mystery, adds another layer of complexity to our perception of the ukiyo series. The vitality of traditional Japanese calligraphy lies in the obvious movement of the brush in streaking, sometimes crude strokes, because the technique dictates that no corrections to each brushstroke can be made, each line instead simply flowing into the next. It is easy to see a parallel between this and the movement of De Haan’s camera, as it transforms the perfect circles on the screen into the diffuse and dynamically shifting shapes of the resulting ukiyo photographs.
In the mother universe series (2016), ghostly black-and-white images of biomorphic forms emerge soft and blurred from darkness, hovering again somewhere between presence and vanishing.
In other monochrome works – desquared (2013), wellicht [perhaps] (2013), light still (2014) and périphérie (2014) – there is a softness, reminiscent of the graininess of analog photographs, that, even when the forms are defined by linear geometries, emphasises a sense of merging and shifting rather than of solidity. Contrasting strongly with the monochromes, in the most recent works, formation (2017), striations of saturated colour swirl across the surface, reading almost as psychedelic, sci-fi landscapes.
The amorphous and floating forms in some of the ukiyo (2017) or mother universe (2016) series contrast intriguingly with the more structural, angular and linear qualities of others such as waarschijnlijkheid (2013). The geometric and planar structures of the latter bring to mind connections with architecture. Formally the images in the waarschijnlijkheid series have similarities with architectural drawings, floor plans or blueprints. In a more metaphorical sense, they can be seen as alluding to portals, doorways or windows (also present in other series such as unsealed, 2016, and périphérie, 2014), adding to our experience of spatial illusions of depth within the picture plane.
Translated to English as ‘probability’, the title waarschijnlijkheid suggests for de Haan the way the images point to what he refers to as a ‘probable truth’. Visual clues lead us to conclusions about a visual reality that is not fully delineated. We make assumptions that a partially revealed line will continue in a certain direction, and about depth or distance based on the relative thickness of lines or density of tones. Complexity is generated by the repetition and subtle shifts of simple forms.
In this series as with many others, the seductive aesthetic derives, at least in part, from a dialectic of stability and movement. Of course these are static images, but their illusion of movement, the shifting sensations created in our perception of them, are, as usual in De Haan’s work, a result of the actual movement involved in his photographic technique – in the animation of screen images (in this case a slideshow of squares), in the physical movement of the camera used to photograph them, and in the digital manipulation of the resulting image.
The allusions to architecture in the waarschijnlijkheid series are particularly relevant to this dialectic of stability and movement. Whilst buildings are solid and stable, our embodied experience of them is always characterised by our movement past, through or within them. The linearity and planar space of architecture is thus experienced in a constantly shifting way, as its static surfaces are seen in a continuously moving relationship to each other because we are in motion. In an opposite way, our stillness when viewing de Haan’s images is counteracted by the movement of his camera in making them.
The origin of these images in De Haan’s method of combining computer screen and camera is central to their aesthetic effects. All the photographs are alive with the seductive energy and glow of light captured as it emanates from the screen. The result is both hypnotic and visceral. The oscillation between material and immaterial states of being complicates the identity of these images as photographs. Illusion and materiality are held in a kind of suspended animation, and photography is revealed to be something always in flux; a continual transmutation of material, form and light, generating uses and meanings that can transform our relation to time and space.