Light-Bender

When talking or writing about art, I always get hung up on the word “medium” – the plural of which is “media” – which of course means lots of different things in the world today. So whenever medium comes up in a conversation about moving image art there’s always a lot of explaining to do.

In painting, the medium is paint – fairly straightforward. In sculpting it’s iron or clay or marble or whatever materials are actually used in the sculpture. In the most literal sense, in moving images the term medium usually refers to celluloid (the actual plastic strip of film) or pixels or digital bytes.

In a film camera, light passes through a lens and strikes a plane of celluloid, leaving an invisible mark – an exposure, a chemical reaction in silver halide molecules.

In digital video, the same light passes through a lens, through a prism, and hits a sensor, where individual pixels register the intensity and color of the light and record it to a memory card.

Then on the other end of the process, light is thrown by a bulb back through the plane of celluloid, through a lens, and onto a screen, where an audience can see it.

So the medium, maybe, is the place where the image lives, where the passing of the light leaves a mark and a record on its way from the object (which is the source of the image) to the eye of the audience.

In the classical approach to the moving image, there’s a necessary temporal shift that goes on in this process – once the film is exposed it needs to be developed before it can be projected. But with live projection of video a nearly unimpeded, instantaneous digital “passing through” is possible – in which case, the medium is, I guess, the actual flow of information through the circuits, from sensor to screen.

In either situation, the phenomenon of light “passing-through” the apparatus – from camera to projector to screen – is of particular interest to me.

In order for there to be any kind of image on the medium, the celluloid for example, “focusing” is necessary. A camera without a lens (even a simple pinhole will do) registers no image at all, because light strikes the celluloid plane from every-which-way. What you get isn’t merely blurry, it’s a field of white.

The lens causes the light to refract – to basically bend and change direction, so that the rays are parallel. This happens because light moves through different materials at different speeds – so if it strikes a piece of glass perfectly perpendicularly, it doesn’t bend. But if the glass is at an angle or curved, it changes the direction of the light, making it possible to focus those rays onto the film plane or sensor.

Interestingly, the word refractory mainly means stubborn – resistant to change. So the refracting of the light happens due to the stubbornness of the lens material which forces it to bend.

This refracting happens very literally in the lens, but there are other layers to this idea as well – just as the images are altered in their passage through the lenses (of camera and projector), they are also altered by the agency and intention of the person articulating the camera and editing and manipulating the resulting footage on the way to the audience.

So in a way, that’s where I’m located, as an artist – I am a part of the refractory process. I receive the light with willful and obdurate stubbornness, and bend and shape it as it passes through me. That’s my job, that’s what I do – I’m a light-bender.

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