Phōtosgraphé, meaning to ‘draw with light’, is the most encompassing definition of photography. However, British photographer Michael Jackson takes alternative photography to a whole new level of mastery with his sculpted luminograms.
Firstly, how do you define luminogram as your personal medium?
For me a luminogram is an image made by directing light onto photo paper in the darkroom. It is about as simple as you can get – light and paper. The actual process that I use to make a luminogram was built up over a period of about a year with a lot of creative play in the darkroom. I was lucky to have been given a very large pile of expired photo paper – which was perfect for experimentation. I would work on ideas, check on results, discard anything that didn’t move me forward.
When anything magical happened I would dive into the process and discover how to control that magic. I soon discovered that photo paper was far more of an individual medium than I had given it credit for. It isn’t just a part of the printing process – it can be at the core of it. The way that it translates light – it is amazing.
Very few practice the art of alternative photography. So, what inspired you behind it?
I spent over eight years obsessively photographing a single beach in Pembrokeshire – Poppit Sands. Basically the best part of my 40’s was spent trying to understand that single beach. I devoted myself to it, and because of that I began to move past the fact that I was photographing the beach and more towards understanding why I was photographing the beach. The fact that the beach renews itself every day gave me limitless possible combinations of shapes and tones to study. No other landscape does that. Eventually I realised that I was looking for the lines and curves on the beach, and the fact that it was a beach didn’t mean anything to me.
I started to photograph compositions that appeared in my viewfinder, no matter how unusual they were – it was the compositions that mattered. And then I discovered that I could get just as much excitement out of moving cut up shapes of black paper around a table – discovering different compositions that way. It was an important point for me – I had in effect rejected nature and was now looking to create compositions that were under my control.
As so often happens, by pure chance I was given a large amount of photo paper and I was spending a long time in the darkroom printing. Any spare time that I had was used playing with old cut up pieces of photo paper – experimenting with them. Eventually I found that I could make marks on the photo paper that were unlike anything that I had seen before – and I then made a switch towards this way of working and devoted my time to it. I feel that I am still using the beach as my main source of inspiration – it is just that I am using my reaction and response to it, rather than its reality.
Basically, playing around the realm of alternative photography is similar to scientific experimentation. Can you tell us how your workflow went when creating a luminogram?
The workflow has many individual steps. I think that when you work on something with nobody influencing you or trying to help you, you find your own way – a way that is as unique as you are. I use standard RC paper, standard chemicals and a number of different light sources. The most important part of the process for me is the chemical temperature and age. That can alter the whole piece completely.
What’s your approach when you’re playing between light and darkness in photography?
My approach is to try to learn from my mistakes and not to cock up too often. I am always trying to move forward, trying something new. I find that the luminogram process is so simple and yet offers limitless possibilities – like the beach.
Did you have any difficulty in creating your series “Light on Paper”?
Yes, I had, and have, terrible difficulty. It makes me shudder when I think of how much paper I had to work through to get to some kind of controllable result. But that time and money has been well invested as I can now take a step back from the process and start the real work which is understanding my reaction to the limitless possibilities of moulding light.
Apart from your luminograms, do you practice other photographic mediums? What are they?
My work on Poppit Sands has stopped – as I feel that I have the beach with me in the darkroom now. I expect that I will go back to studying it one day, but it won’t be with a camera. I also collect and photograph rocks to try to express how a child sees the world. Maybe one day that will merge with the luminograms somehow. Who knows?
Usually, photography is likened to painting. You mentioned in one of your interviews that your images are more like pottery than photography. Can you give us an elaboration with your comparison?
Yes. I feel strongly that the luminograms represent a form of moulded light. You use your process to direct and mould the light and the paper receives it in its own magical way and translates that into a form that seems fantastical but also it has one foot in reality. The piece itself so often seems like a photograph of a sculpture, when it fact it is neither. I imagine that I am taking something that you cannot feel and I am making it appear in a seemingly three dimensional form that is balanced and controlled. Just like sculpting clay
How do you think photography and pottery are in the same level when it comes to art?
I don’t really see photography and pottery or painting or music to really be different to each other. Some are more immediate, some are more subtle. Music seems to be able to control emotions, photography seems to create a satisfying pleasure from just a tonal flat surface. Same with painting. One of the biggest mysteries for me is why all these things manage to control us in some way. It doesn’t seem to make any sense at all to me. I can feel their effect but I don’t understand it. The same way that I don’t understand the concept of a favourite colour. Why don’t people ever talk about a favourite shape in the same way?
What do you usually do when you’re not working?
I work full time in the darkroom – usually 8.45 to 4.00pm. You have to do it full time, well, I have to. I find after a break I spend a long frustrating time getting back to the place that I was. It needs a dedication – a kind of respect for the art of it all. Its the same as any other career – how good a policeman would you end up being if you only did it one day a week?
What’s next for you? Do you have any on-going projects right now?
I don’t really see work as project based any more. I used to – very much so – but now I see it all as one long morphing process of discovery. Everything blends into something new eventually, and the work that you are producing at whatever moment represents where you are in that process. So, really, I have no idea how my current work will develop. It could go anywhere.