"Finding shelters in daydreams"
In his 1908 book, A Study of Splashes, the English physicist A. M. Worthington reproduced a series of photographs depicting the ripples and forms produced by dripping fluids. Until this point, slow camera shutters and the resulting long exposure times had presented obstacles to the ‘instantaneous’ capturing of fast-moving objects. The innovation of such work was to recognise that, as it was light that served as nature’s pencil, by interrupting darkness with the briefest of electrically produced flashes, actions that occurred in the smallest fraction of a second might be illuminated and then preserved by photographic means. In the introduction to Harold Edgerton’s 1939 book, Flash! Seeing the Unseen by Ultra High-Speed Photography, James R. Killian described the implications of such innovation: Modern science has taught us strange things about time and described concepts of space startlingly different from that presented in our high-school textbooks. Even in the world as we normally know it, science has called us to see and understand by contracting and expanding not only space but time… Behind the horizon of human vision lies a whole world of such unseen rapid motion.
The German collective, Flash Lab, peaks playfully beyond that same horizon, using flash to reveal to us phenomena that ordinarily elude human vision. The artists play first with photography’s temporal dimension, to achieve the impossible weightlessness of what they describe as ‘temporary sculptures’. To create the pictures, anything up to five people stand holding the various materials, which are dropped into the frame at the count of three. Using a Scoro Generator to produce exposure times of 1/12,000 of a second, the falling or exploding debris are then suspended in space and time by the photographic image. There is something unapologetically formalist about the pictures that result, theatrically deploying light and shade to depict cascading junk as though uncanny installations or tableaux.
Flash Lab also engages with photography’s spatial disruptions, particularly the collapse of three dimensions into two. Shadows serve both to indicate pictorial depth and as graphic components in abstract compositions. Through the flattening of space, balls falling to the floor grow almost indistinguishable from holes cut into the wall behind; pieces of wire appear as though expressive brush strokes upon a black canvas. It is, in essence, a balancing act, as graphic and sculptural, abstract and figurative, intentional and chance elements co-exist within individual images and across the artists’ series.
Flash Lab are among a number of contemporary artists who have opted to aesthetically revisit the legacies of Muybridge, Marey and Edgerton. Although in different ways, Ori Gersht, Martin Klimas, Denis Darzacq and Naoya Hatakeyama—to name just a few—have each explored the artistic possibilities of pseudo-scientific procedures, high-speed photography and the dramatically frozen moment. But to what should we attribute this ‘scientific turn’ in art photography, along with the appeal of these photographs for contemporary audiences?
The culture of late-capitalism has been marked by a dramatic acceleration, to which photography has proven far from immune. The cheapness of producing digital photographs, and the ubiquity of camera phones, means that billions of images are produced quickly and unthinkingly every year. Existing only as data, these photographs can be broadcast and shared almost instantaneously. Flash Lab’s high-speed images bring a high-speed culture to a paradoxical halt, encouraging slower, more contemplative forms of encounter. Like a number of recent artists working with video, they appear to offer a counterpoint to the relentless production and circulation of images in mass culture.
The use of pre-digital means to achieve peculiarly sculptural effects can be counted as a further effect of changes associated with digitization. The fact that these photographs shun the creative processes of digital post-production in favour of elaborate procedures and short exposure times suggests a turning away from our Photoshop culture: reasserting the extraordinary effects that can be achieved through “pure” photographic means. In this way, Flash Lab aims to recapture an earlier sense of modernist wonder and aesthetically rehabilitate machine-age revelations. While the iconic images of science have long familiarised us with the visual appearance of even the smallest fragments of dissected time, through their pseudoscientific playfulness and unashamed visual savvy, Flash Lab go some way to recapturing that thrill.
Ben Burbridge / Curator and Deputy Editor, Photoworks
– These works have been produced in close collaboration with Broncolor AG and with generous support from phase one (camera: 645 DF + digital back: P45+). The new series TS22 and TS23 were kindly supported by Leica AG (camera: S2). –