Most photographers know that light is the key to their artform. But few have likely stopped to ask themselves the question: "What if light itself was the subject?" So, when Michael Taylor considered those words four years ago, it opened up an entirely different dimension within his work.
From his home in Northern Ireland's largest town, Michael shared with me some of the highlights of his work, life and philosophy surrounding what he calls "abstract art with a human presence".
What first drew you to photography?
"Watching light in awe and amazement as a child. I wanted to capture that fleeting energy. Even today I still feel elevated by the power and beauty of light. Around 12 years old, I used my first little box camera (film of course!); at 15 years of age, I used a Praktica (with great lenses); at 17 years old, started exploring darkroom techniques and was hooked on photography for life! I still love the alchemy of the darkroom and will never abandon Classic Photography. My first rolls of film were abstractions via misted windows, people, evening light, shadows, silhouettes, light trails, truncated and off-center composition, etc., so all those things were already in place. I'm constantly learning from light, nature, people and painting."
Any photographic role models? Or those who inspire you?
"A huge question! How may pages have you got?! I have collected or read hundreds of books on the history of art, painting, cinema, lighting, printing/darkroom, digital, and photographers' work. I still love both abstraction (in every form), and black and white (another form of abstraction). The formal unique aspects of photography always attracted me most. That seduced me away from drawing and painting many years ago.
Photographers with abstract visions of the world who have influenced me include: Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, Minor White, Frederick Sommer, Paul Strand, Brett Weston, Aaron Siskind, Coburn's Vortographs, Adam Fuss, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Tokihiro Sato.
Influential photographers taking commercial commissions include: Horst P Horst, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Paolo Roversi, Albert Watson, Sarah Moon, Sheila Metzner and Nick Knight.
Painting, art in general (especially light art), and science are the main drivers. Light is the main inspiration."
How did you first discover this world of light-inspired photography?
"Around 2009 I asked myself the fundamental question: 'What if light itself were the subject?'
Photography is usually defined in terms of the subject matter, less in terms of its own intrinsic properties. I wanted light to take full priority over everything else."
Where you attracted to photography initially, or was it the ability to create optical illusions with light that fascinated you most?
"The formal aspects of photography and light were the initial attractions. Illusions often simply happen – they're the properties of light we usually ignore or cannot see properly."
What are the fundamental differences between Refraction, Wave, Light Trace and Luminescence?
"Each focuses on a different main property of light.
Luminescence: the luminescent light from EL wire (plus the human element).
Wave: light patterns and their projections.
Light Trace: LED light (plus light movements and colors).
Refraction: sunlit refractive patterns of light through glass, projected onto silver gelatin paper.
There are many more studies and ideas in conception/production."
What physical elements do you often incorporate to help create the illusions you’re targeting? Any tricks of the trade?
"Lots of research into light sources. I love acrylic mirrors, EL wire, LEDs, batteries (that work!), darkness/blackout materials... To date, no digital montage; I like to get everything working in reality."
What’s the best shot you’ve taken and why?
Luminescence 62. "Although it was planned, I was learning by doing. While experimenting off tripod, suddenly like a gift of grace, this very pure image emerged. Still human but made of light."
What was the most difficult shot you've taken and why?
"Continually watching the makeup (especially white paint), hair, lights/batteries, three mirrors (and possible reflections of me, the team and the studio), directing movements, painting with light (a torch). Long exposures yet still results (we had a good model). Also, the model was ill but persevered very professionally – so lots of stopping, restarting and resetting!"
What type of camera/lenses do you use?
"The history of photography is linked to technology. Camera systems are Phase One (Medium Format Digital) with Schneider lenses; Canon 22MP cameras/lenses for faster more responsive work. I kept my large format (Mike Walker) and Mamiya RZ systems for film. Film is still great for very long exposures and in-camera multiple exposures.
For the Refraction series, I revisited the Fox Talbot era using direct exposure to paper. I still have my full darkroom. I invested 17 years in the darkroom learning alternative processes, film development and especially silver printing. I'm never throwing that out. In the future, digital and analogue will become increasingly harmonized. This happens already in music recordings where vintage microphones and pre-amps sit beside DAWs. I predict similar things in photography.
Drum scans from medium and large format film (especially black and white, such as Ilford Delta) have resolution and tonal range equal to or better than digital up to 80MP. I'm excited by the re-emergence of professional instant materials via the New55 Film and The Impossible Project."
What's your favorite quote?
"'Photography is light architecture.' (by Moholy-Nagy)"
Anything you want to add?
"Photography is primarily image-making. The most important factor is personal vision. Style emerges organically from following your dreams and visions. The main things are: Always stay open, learn constantly, keep focused on one main area that you love, and never accept that something cannot be achieved."
View more of Michael Taylor's work on his website:
Filed under: Light Photography