Light and the Sublime Experience in Contemporary Photography


This paper aims to investigate how light contributes towards a sublime experience for both artist and audience within contemporary photographic works.

Through researching the phenomenology of light and the sublime, from a scientific, historical and aesthetic perspective, and from investigating into how we use contemporary photography from technological communication, to the everyday, to works of art, this dissertation will theorise that the phenomenology of photography and light has the ability to combine those practices within the viewers subconscious to create an ephemeral sublime moment of transcendence.

Jeremy Gilbert Rolfe argues in Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime that although the sublime is an 18th century concept, it is still relevant today, just as gravity is a 17th century concept and is still relevant today (Gilbert Rolfe, p1). I will argue that the sublime is more pertinent than ever in contemporary photography through how we use and make photographs.

The content of this essay will follow a structure of laying the foundation of basic definitions and discourse around the subject of the sublime, light and photography, and go on to disseminate and theorise the relationship between the three before establishing a conclusion. It will also discuss relevant art works and photographic works by photographers Wolfgang Tilmans, Rinko Kawauchi and Owen Kydd and a colour plate illustration plate can be found at the end of the essay.

Chapter One

This chapter will regard the definitions and discussions around the sublime, photography and light, to set a basic foundation for the further discussion in later chapters.

The Sublime has been a subject of aesthetics since the 18th century, when the first major work discussed the origins and distinction of the sublime in Edmund Burke’s, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.  Burke describes the sublime as being a feeling of terror, or imminent threat together with an underlying knowledge of our safety. Jon Thompson writes in, The Sublime Moment, the Rise of The Critical Watchmen,

‘A Feeling of physical danger, fully grasped and understood, yet apprehended from a position of safety’ (Thompson, 1999, P22),

meaning we are faced with something powerful, awesome and beyond our comprehension, but have the knowledge we are safe; this terror gives way to a feeling of pleasure, a sort of perverse delight, or the sublime moment.  The sublime, according to Burke, is centred in feelings of fear and subsequent pleasure of ‘the strongest passion’ (Burke, 2008, P36) and has the power to transform the self and strengthen ourselves through this fearful experience. Burke’s text laid the foundation for further discourse of the sublime up to the present day, with major philosophical thinkers contributing to the subject and challenging how the sublime is defined.

Kant critiqued Burke and argued that the sublime is separated from beauty in that it is limitless, whereas beauty is measurable.  In Critique of Judgement, (1790) he furthered the thinking on the sublime to reason that the sublime was not induced by natural phenomena, but is a subjective conception which all happens in the mind. He argued that the sublime is our reaction to the perception of something beyond our capacity for control and understanding, and our inability to comprehend leaves a gap in our imagination.  As Morley states in The Contemporary Sublime (p16), ‘We are made aware, Kant observed, that sometimes we cannot present to ourselves an account of an experience that is any way coherent. We cannot encompass it by thinking, and so it remains indiscernible or unnameable, undecidable, indeterminable, and unpresentable.’

Whilst Burke began an investigation into the nature of the sublime Kant explored how we interpret the sublime on a philosophical and psychological level, and concluded that the effect of the sublime is based around the limitations of human perception and understanding. Further contributions were made to the theory of the sublime, by Friederich Hegel, with a religious interpretation of the sublime in, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion (1827). He saw the sublime as a moment of a personal connection to God, and was ‘the way in which the divine manifested itself in the natural world’ (Morley p16). This religious interpretation takes the burden of the sublime experience off the shoulders of the individual and makes them a receiver of this divine experience. This definition is closer to Burke’s interpretation where he suggests we passively experience the sublime – where Kant would argue the sublime arises from our perception.

Contemporary discourse surrounding the sublime has concentrated on the notion of the unknowable, unthinkable and unspeakable, (Morley p20),   the experience that disconnects us from the world and makes us spectators. The sublime defines the moment when conscious thought comes to an end, and we encounter that which is ‘other’ (Morley p18). The sublime is what happens to us, psychologically at this moment of transcendence or heightened experience and this paper will later go on to discuss how the transcendent sublime is found in photography.

Jean-Francois Lyotard, the post-modern theorist, has rationalised the sublime further stating that the feeling of being overwhelmed is a crisis of communication brought on by that which exists outside of human parameters of description. He was interested in the idea of the uncommunicable when translated by the creative process. The representation of the sublime in art becomes about presenting the unpresentable in presentation itself. It is at once the motivation to create, and the desired effect on the viewer. This paper will discuss the sublime as a moment of transcendence delivered through the vehicle of light in the medium of photography.

The sublime was a theme found in art in the Romanticism of the 19th century, with artists such as Joseph.W.M.Turner and James Whistler depicting scenes of the awe inspiring power of nature, and the insignificance of the human in relation to his surroundings. This theme is found in photography given the phenomenological nature of the development of the medium and its use in documenting the world around us as we constantly discover our environment in new ways. Practitioners push the boundaries of perception through how we record images and this consistent evolution into the unfamiliar means the sublime has always been a prevalent theme in photography, by showing us the unknown. Ansel Adams’ documented the incredible vast American landscape with his view camera, showing people scenes they had not accessed before, which helped to create National Parks and conserve nature. Andreas Gursky’s huge scale works depict contemporary globalism through clever digital manipulation, to show us how we live in the modern world, in a unique way. Wolfgang Tillman’s’ Lux (Fig 1) shows the vastness of the sky, implying both religious and scientific themes that dwarf our human existence and turns the atmosphere of our planet in to a landscape, challenging how we perceive our world. Michael Light takes this one step further in his series, Full Moon which ‘offers a single composite journey to the Moon and back comprised of imagery from the 9 actual Apollo missions, along with Earth orbital imagery from the Gemini missions’, (Moon, 2014). This collection of appropriated photographs shows us the landscape in a completely unfamiliar way. In fig 2 our planet is upside down according to our familiar notions of our home, and the sun shines on the landscape as planet from the bottom of the frame, not the top, completely subverting the traditional landscape. The light penetrates through to our planet, as we look upon this vista, of our home, planet Earth in the midst of the actual largely unknown, space. Photography proves to be the perfect medium to capture this series, and ­­provides a direct link, through light, to the gap in our understanding, the sublime.

In order to understand the sublime experience in photography as discussed here, it is necessary to make explicit the importance of understanding the phenomenon of light. Light, which is an essential component of photography, is both a natural and artificial source that is essential for life on earth, from providing fuel to organisms, to revealing the world and allowing us to see the planet we live on, to having profound effects on our existence through psychological, physiological and philosophical routes. Light not only has the power to reveal and conceal, it has a transformative power over a subject, as the sublime has the power to transform the self.

Professor Jim Al-Khalili explains in Light and Dark (2013) that light is the substance that allows us to see and understand our universe and shapes our perception. Electromagnetic particles called photons, which originally appeared ten seconds after the big bang (UCLA, 2004), travel in waves from the light source and reflect off a subject and into our eyes, which our brain then interprets. This is visible light to humans and is only a very small part of the entire light spectrum. Light enables us to see, and studying its behaviour has enabled humanity to discover the way the universe works throughout our history and into our future. A photon is a unit of energy and therefore does not die, but converts, or decays and lasts for around a billion billion years, as it is massless and travels at the speed of light. (Scientific American, 2013)

The human eye has a limited visible spectrum, (appendix 1), but light helps us to see and answer questions about our universe and darkness poses questions that we have difficulty answering and so hinders our understanding. It would seem that light and dark are in a delicate balance when it comes to our perception, and the gap in our ability to see opens us up to the sublime experience. Where there is so much unknown to the human eye, there is greater potential for a sublime experience as the sublime is defined as a connection with a moment of the unknown, a gap in our understanding or an overwhelming sense of awe from the unknown. Light allows us glimpses of this unknown, and can deliver the overwhelming unknown itself.

‘Extreme light, by overcoming the organs of sight, obliterates all objects, so as in its effect exactly to resemble darkness…Thus are two ideas as opposite as can be imagined reconciled in the extremes of both; and both, in spite of their opposite nature, brought to concur in producing the sublime.’ (Burke, p73)

Light is imperative to our own vision, our understanding of the world and universe and perception of life and the cosmos and affects how we live and develop as human beings (appendix 2). Knowledge is seeing. Sir Isaac Newton, through experimenting with a prism, discovered that white light contains the colour spectrum. We see colours when objects absorb light waves and reflect back the light wave they cannot absorb and our brain interprets this as colour.  The eye contains cones and rods for high and low illumination, which transmit light waves into electrical signals that the brain interprets and we can then comprehend. The perceptual experience is dependent on a light source, light particles, the eye, and the brain, therefore the experience is physical, biological, neurological, psychological and philosophical. We can, to some extent, control light by using glass, lenses and artificial light and photography has allowed us a glimpse of the world beyond our own biological restrictions with devices such as the infrared camera and ultraviolet photography. The camera also is at the forefront of space exploration, as recently demonstrated by ESA’s ten year mission to land a probe on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, and send back images of its new home (fig 3). Interestingly the whole operation on the comet relies on sunlight to fuel the solar powered probe, and camera relies on the light of the sun to send us back these ground-breaking images we have waited ten years for, however because the probe landed in a shadow it has become dormant and the mission is suspended until it sees sunlight.  Whilst we can master light to a degree, on the whole, light is a powerful, albeit omnipresent, force beyond the control of most of the human experience. The awesome character of light is itself sublime. (Rosetta Mission, Guardian, 2014)

This paper aims to investigate the way light and photography interact; from concept, to process, to subject, through to presentation stages there is interdependency between the two. The word photograph means light picture or painting in Latin; a photograph is a picture made with light and the very existence of photography depends on light, including the present photographic methods.

From its invention in the early 19th century, the continual renewal and revolution of photographic technology has led photography from being an artistic device such as the Camera Obscura or Lucida, to an elitist invention that only the wealthy could afford, to the Kodak Box Brownie that made the camera more useable due to its affordability, and therefore more democratic as a medium, to the digital revolution and the present day smart phone revolution, where considerably more people own a camera they use every day to take, make and share/show images.

The smartphone camera has seen photography evolve through another huge change in how images are taken, the frequency with which they are taken, and the purpose for which they are taken and used. Because of the availability of the device, nearly one quarter of the population of the planet has a smart phone – all of which have cameras built in8, which enables the user to take instant images which can be seen and shared on to social media sites immediately. The smart phone combines all the best features of previous modes models of image making and the rapidity of the cycle of renewal means that older models lose value quickly and so are more affordable.  The smart phone is portable, fast, convenient, user friendly and has not only revolutionised photography but democratised it in a way the digital market and the film market never quite managed to do, because of all the things they are not (fast, affordable, instantaneous etc.). ‘We reproduce the world and ourselves on a screen, and technology replaces our vision of nature’ (Gilbert Rolfe).

The sublime as discussed in this paper is the positive power of the sublime and its ability to reconnect the person to the world through a moment of transcendence. This paper will go on in Chapter Two to discuss how light plays an important role in photography and allows that to happen.

Chapter Two

‘Mere light is too common a thing to make a strong impression on the mind, and without a strong impression nothing can be sublime. But such a light as that of the sun, immediately exerted on the eye, as it overpowers the sense, is a very great idea.’ (Burke, 1997, p73)

This chapter discusses and investigates why profound experiences of light can be such a powerful force, and how it can be considered to be a force of the sublime.

The first light in the universe is recorded as photons forming ten seconds after the Big Bang, the scientific description of the start of the universe and thus, all life thereafter. Particles of light from the Cosmic Microwave Background, (or Relic Radiation), the oldest light in the universe, are emitted through space travelling in wavelengths as photons, which are all around us and can be seen through TV static.

‘The cosmic microwave background blankets the universe and is responsible for a sizeable amount of static on your television set–well, before the days of cable. Turn your television to an “in between” channel, and part of the static you’ll see is the afterglow of the big bang.’ (NASA, 2006)

As described in scientific terms, light is a connection to the origins of the universe. Light allows for observational cosmology to see the beginnings of the universe through thermal radiation that exists all around us. Light allows us to see our world and function, it allows life.

In a spiritual sense, light has been used as a connection to deity from ancient Egyptian worshipping to relatively recent organised religious practices and houses of worship from Paganism, Islam, Chrisitianity to Hiduism and Judaism. The Pharaoh Akhenaten who ruled ancient Egypt from around 1353 to 1334 BC changed the traditional Egyptian practices of polytheism to a monotheistic practice of only worshipping Aten, the Sun Disc because he was drawn strongly to the power of light and changed an entire religious system for it in a drastic way, which could either be seen as visionary or mad (appendix 3).

Light pervades most of the major faiths. Diwali is a festival of light celebrated by Sikhs and Hindus that celebrates the triumph of light over dark, good over evil and knowledge over ignorance. It is marked at the end of the summer harvest and lights or lamps are used to symbolically represent the sun as the giver of life. Judaism celebrates Hannukah where a candelabra is kept lit for eight days, and light is celebrated in the Pagan festival called Yule where the longest night is marked as a celebration for the return of longer days, light and renewal of nature.

In examples of early creative practice such as houses of worship like churches for Christianity and mosques for Islam, the buildings are designed specifically to play on the delicate balance between light and dark and to connect the worshipper with God. Dr Marwan F Abu Alkhalaf, the director of the Institute of Islamic Archaeology in Jerusalem states in Art of Faith (2008) that Islamic buildings depend on light and the structures use natural light through windows within the architecture to reveal and conceal and induce awe and inspiration within the worshipper; a sense of the overwhelming, or the sublime, and a reminder of the power of the almighty deity. This is a Hegelian description of the sublime experience as the sublime being a divine intervention that we are passive in receiving.

In Christianity, light is symbolic and used frequently to indicate godliness (V&A, 2012). Jesus is often depicted with a halo of light to indicate his holiness and divinity, or his sublimity. Churches were built as houses of God, to connect the worshipper with the Almighty, so they were designed to be big, awe inspiring and to dwarf the visitor with the awesome to remind them that God is much greater than them. Light was a major part of this within the architecture, from the stained glass windows to the depictions of Jesus and God swathed in holy light, to the gold used to reflect light and its transcendental qualities. This creative and considered use of light in architecture and worship practices helped build up the worshipper’s experience to be one of the sublime. In the modern age, artist Henri Mattisse  designed the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, (The Rosary Chapel), to work with long large windows and everyday light, and sunlight is also depicted on the windows as a life giving force (Vence, 2014). Stephen Holl designed the Chapel of St Ignatius at Seattle University around the concept of ‘a gathering of different lights’ (Seattle University, 2014) to reflect the university motto and the spirituality of St Ignatius. During the day as the sun moves in the sky, it lights the different coloured windows making them glow and reflect light in to the chapel, transforming the aesthetics and atmosphere of the building throughout the day. At night the interior lights illuminate the chapel to the rest of the university campus, making this in effect a modern version of stained glass windows. This whole religious building has been dedicated to the divinity and sublime power of light because Holl understood the presence and power of light in the space upon the worshipper’s experience. These examples of artistic and creative practice in architecture convey the importance of light to our spiritual selves, in linking the everyday individual to the deity through light. This explains how light has been a part of humanity’s sublime experience and transcendence for as far back as we can trace, through religion, science and art.

The sublime is described as being something that is beyond our understanding, and through depicting the sublime in art there is a tension between how you can represent the non-representable. Man’s spiritual connection to light has been documented in art over the history of civilization from primitive cave paintings, to the hieroglyphs of Egypt, through to the ages of painting and contemporary art including photography. Light is one way that humanity has symbolically represented the sublime in art (Quash, Tate, 2013), as a force that is a reminder of the power of nature and the connection to the universe that exists outside most of our vision and understanding.

In the modern increasingly secular world, the rituals and processes of religion have, for many, become redundant or remote from daily life. The development of technology has manifested itself in to our daily lives in the modern world for people of faith, or not, and it forms part of our new daily rituals and practices. The internet, computers and the recent advances of the telephone to combine telecommunications with technology over internet based connectivity have seen a seismic shift not only in the way people communicate with each other but with how we go about our daily lives.

Over half the world’s population uses a mobile phone potentially on a daily basis (appendix 4). All smartphones have cameras built in to them along with various methods of editing and communicating images through social media apps like Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. In fact the smart phone has become so popular for taking images, because it is so easy and accessible, that the word ‘selfie’ has been adopted from a photographic term, self-portrait, and added to the Oxford English Dictionary. An estimated 880 billion pictures were taken in 2013 and that number is expected to rise to 1 trillion in 2014, (BGR, 2013). Photography has evolved once more. This evolution in photographic practice has been explored by photographic artist Erik Kessels, whose installation at FOAM in Amsterdam, entitled What’s Next?, is a room full of printed images, uploaded within a 24 hour period to the photo sharing site Flickr, (Fig 4). He says he aims to provoke the debate about how photography has become democratised as an art form and whether the abundance of photographic images can be seen as a positive or negative, and what will be the future of this practice?

“By printing all the images uploaded in a 24-hour period, I visualise the feeling of drowning in representations of other peoples’ experiences.” (Williams, Creative Review, 2011).

This piece cleverly merges the photographic image with installation to force the viewer to confront the reality of the scale of contemporary democratic photographic practice. Instead of being an abstract conception of photography somewhere in the intangible internet, the images are real and are overwhelming in amount. This raises questions about how we store images, how we share them in public and how we will continue to use photography to document our existence.

It could be argued that the selfie has become the new form of worship, turning the light literally on the self instead of strategic light directed toward religious icons in houses of worship. Increasing the popularity of selfies and images made with phones is the prolific high profile use by famous people (guardian, 2014), from the infamous Ellen Degenres selfie taken at the Oscar Awards Ceremony in March 2014 (Oscars, 2014), to world leaders such as President Obama and Andrea Merkell, to the Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide taking a selfie in space (Fig 5), which exist amongst a plethora of celebrity selfies. These images go viral and are seen globally by a huge audience over social media sites, which indicate an increase in the trend for taking mobile phone images in general (appendix 5). 

This information, along with the predictions it implies, all point to the implication that as a society we are heavily involved with using photographic practices in an everyday, somewhat banal, capacity. Photographic artists and photojournalists are increasingly using smart phones to make their work, as technology develops and the way we use photography changes. Most practitioners use digital cameras, but a mini revival of the film and medium format market has been seen in recent years.

In Video Games and the Technological Sublime, Dr Eugenie Shinkle discusses how the video game can be a sublime experience through technology and the aesthetic experience.

‘Technological artefacts have evolved alongside the human brain, and have been ‘enrolled’ into cognition by human subjects throughout history, contributing in an active way to the processes of consciousness. Latour views technology as a mode of existence, a ‘particular form of the exploration of being.’ Nonetheless, we live in a time when the boundaries between the human and the technological are becoming less and less distinct.’ (Shinkle, Tate, 2013)

Shinkle argues that technology has become so common place that it is now an extension of human existence, and an immersive experience. I would argue that the smart phone has become an extension of human existence and photography has revolutionised the way we communicate on an everyday basis. Humans see this communication through the technology, and the light that transmits the information goes from screen to eye, to brain. Human beings, more than ever before, are engaging with light, through natural daylight omnipresence, to artificial light that helps us see in the dark, to crafted architectural light, to the contemporary technological light we are surrounded by from televisions, computers, cameras and the smartphone. The backlit screens of this technology use blue LED light which  affects the brain by stimulating it and telling it to ‘get up’, much like the natural blue light found most plentifully in the morning time. (Cajochen, p116). This is an obvious link to our biological programming of how we interpret types of natural light through years of evolution and how the light in technology can affect our being.

‘With the “second industrial revolution,” alienated consumption has become as much a duty for the masses as alienated production’, (Debord, 42-52).

The ever renewing technological market means that technology is itself ephemeral, and as an engrossed buyer, we are continuously told we need to buy the latest and best model. Having the very best is often unachievable and compounds the desire for more. We are sold the perfect version of ourselves, and what we can have and achieve. The life cycle of technology is short and once it is obsolete it is discarded, due to the ever renewing market and mass production. This banality contributes towards the repetitive results produced by this technology, such as the selfie.

Shinkle argues that this detachment from reality, into a moment of immersive technological transcendence, this gap between reality and transcendence, could be described as a sublime experience. As we enter the immersion of technology we lose the sense of self and enter the sublime. Through the Kantian model of the sublime it can be argued that the immersive smart phone experience provides human beings with an increased opportunity to engage with the sublime.

The photograph is a reproduction of a sublime moment, in a surface. It is taken with light, made of light and can be shown on a screen using light. It is a liminal representation of transcendence and the depiction of light in photographic images. There is an element of the unknown in the photographic process, which is increasingly true as technology becomes more accessible and the user needs to know less to be able to successfully operate it. The photographic process is often described as magic, as it combines mysterious elements to capture the real world, in a seemingly life like 2D rendering, all through the medium of light. This is now transmitted through digital signals, where previously light reacted with silver halides in film and chemicals to produce an image. This mystery and awe of the unknown further demonstrates the sublime experience for the photographic user and viewer. As technology changes, and improves it enhances what we can see, and pushes the boundaries of what the sublime is. As people are seeing new things they are not used to seeing, I would argue that this could enhance the perceptive experience and contribute towards a sublime experience which will be discussed further in chapter three. The photographic process has now advanced to making images with light, processing them on a lit screen and viewing them through a lit screen, in an everyday sense.

For the photograph as art, light also plays an important part in the making and viewing and I would argue, also creates a sublime experience. The photograph is now more than ever accepted as a credible art form, and is not as regarded as merely a tool for representing the world around literally. The process of photography can be experimented with through aesthetics, light, and technology to create a version of the world that engages and challenges the viewer’s perception.

This paper will now investigate examples of creative practitioners who use light as subject in their work, and how this could be interpreted as sublime. Rinko Kawauchi’s series Illuminance (fig 6/7), celebrates the life cycle and cleverly uses light to inform the work that life is light. She documents moments of light that interplay with the human existence to remind us of our reliance on light and how overpowering and overwhelmingly transcendent it can be. Kawauchi’s subject matter is often of the very small or large which adds the sense of minute and vast which Burke argues are inherent attributes of the sublime experience (Burke, p66) and Gaston Bachelard argues is an important part of spiritual contemplation (Bachelard p154). These images show the viewer moments of Kawauchi’s own transcendence in the artist process, which she has communicated through symbolism. The power of the light that transfixes the viewer through these images is from both natural and artificial sources and connects us to, and reminds us of, our life support system – light.

Owen Kydd makes what he calls durational photographs, creating fluidity between the decisive moment in photography and the continuity of video. He describes his interest in how technology has advanced to feature both still photograph capture with decent video recording capabilities (Aperture, 2014). These ephemeral ‘durational’ moments are carefully orchestrated and recorded and backlit on display screens. There is an obvious reference to the digital process and apps like Snapchat, a social media application for the smartphone that allows the user to record brief videos to send to other users which then disappear.

Kydd’s work (Fig 8) is an interesting play on the idea of high and low applications of photography and creating permanent records of the passing moment.  It is also part of a very current wave of contemporary photography that is seeking to re-examine how photography is seen and perceived. The use of the backlit display is an obvious link to the video screen, the LCD display of computers, laptops and smartphones and tablet devices. Light as method of presenting photography is a fascinating link in art photography to referencing the digital technological democratic use of photography, which it must be acknowledged has determined and helped to shape the progression of the medium.

Another contemporary photographer working with light as subject is Yuji Hamada, who holds the fascination with light as a life giving force that can leave us mesmerized.

‘I often find myself pondering the light that shines unnoticed, whether it be somewhere on this planet, or in outer space. Seeing light sometimes gives me a peace of mind; other times, it leaves me awestruck. It was these moments that led to a desire to capture, through photography, the light that exists in our everyday lives. ’ (Hamda, 2014).

Hamada uses smoke to help bring out the light for the camera, and make it visible, where usually it is ubiquitous and unseen, taken for granted, which ties in to the idea that most of our universe is unseen to us because our eyes are not able to see it. Through photography, Hamada is showing us the material that allows us to see, which we cannot normally perceive. He is forcing us to acknowledge the material that allows us life, by turning it in to a kind of structure, almost making it a solid instead of a wave particle. The images themselves show light in everyday environments, homes, streets and parks, to show us that this incredible and beautiful material is all around us, and its power is sublime.

I would argue that light is a vital part of the sublime experience, not just for allowing us vision but as an overwhelming force that connects us to a much bigger experience (the universe). It allows us to form a perception of the world around us, which indicates to us what is out of our experience and sublime. It connects us to the origins of the universe as a force of energy that is a self-renewing constant. Light, being an essential component of photography, can connect us through aesthetics to the sense of other, with its overpowering and primordial qualities.

The next chapter will examine more closely how light connects the viewer of photography to the sublime through perception, existentiality and the human experience.

Chapter Three

This chapter will examine and discuss how artists have created the sublime experience, and how a sublime experience of a photographic image might be created by how light is registered, rendered and worked with as part of the creative process.

Wolfgang Tillmans explores the link between digital photographic technology and light in his images of the night sky. In Flight Astro (II) (2010),(fig 9 ) shows how digital technology at its current stage of evolution allows us to take pictures in low light, and exploits the glitches that the technology provides.

‘… random noise still happens in digital photography, in which a photo sensor translates what it sees or doesn’t see into zeros and ones. In extreme low light, cameras generate random information. I used this effect in photographs of the night sky, where at great enlargement a star is no longer distinguishable from a pixel that just displays a random charge.’ (Kuo, Step in to Liquid, 2012)

Through this exploitation of the medium, Tillmans pushes the boundaries of photography and sight and what we consider to be sublime. Rather than discounting these anomalies, he explores how glitches still operating in the current evolutionary stage of digital photographic technology can be exploited to provide a link between the camera, light and the human experience. This image demonstrates how the camera allows us to see beyond our limited scope, and forges an aesthetic connection for the viewer to make between light and the camera, and our universe.  The light depicted could be photons travelling millions of miles from a star, or an anomalous digital signal from the camera. The result is a brilliant display of countless dazzling lights in the sky, symbolising the vastness of the universe in connection with our experience and providing an example of how light contributes towards a sublime experience for both artist and audience within contemporary photographic imagery. Much as J M W Turner’s controversial and progressive paintings ‘of light’ (Turner Biog. 2014) pushed the notion of what was considered acceptable in art in the 19th century, and what is perceived as sublime, Tillman’s exploration of light and technology evolves how the audience experiences the sublime once more through by pushing the boundary of the photographic medium through how it records light.

How light is recorded through a device (camera) or type of medium (such as film or digital sensor) will determine how it looks at output stage. Light is recorded at different colour temperatures depending on the type of light and the strength of the light, and each device handles this differently. Humans interpret light with the brain, which accommodates colour temperature variations; however, neither film nor digital photography does this, so it is up to the user to use the right type of film or set the white balance correctly to make sure the light recorded in the image is the right temperature. As previously discussed, in digital photography light is recorded and played back via an LCD screen, and digital screens are calibrated according to the manufacturer’s standards of colour, tone brightness and contrast. Different manufacturers’ sensors record light to different standards (appendix 6). Film manufacturers’ produce film to accommodate the type of light found where it is produced, because light is recorded at different colour temperatures around the world due to the location of the planet in relation to the sun (Burgess, 2009). This evidences that light is recorded through an interpretation set by technology, and received through individual human perception.

From 1925 -1931 Alfred Stieglitz made a body of work of images of clouds called Equivalents (Fig 10) which dealt with pushing the familiar boundaries of experience, and the equivalence of lines, colours and shapes to emotions, feelings or a representation of a state of mind. He sought to progress the perception of photography from a figurative or documentary medium, away from pictorial imagery, to an abstract artistic approach (Equivalent, American Art, 2014). He had difficulty recording the light on the materials at the time, which were very sensitive to blue light and so his cloud scenes would often disappear in the resulting image (Appendix 7). Through using a series of filters and experimenting with light and subject, Stieglitz produced a body of work that pushed the notion of what photography was, changing the way people perceived the photograph. This was a new and unfamiliar way of interpreting the world, as abstract, huge, overwhelming and sublime.

A contemporary practitioner whose work investigates light and colour is Richard Misrach in his series for The Sky Book (Fig 11) with his images of different coloured light in the sky in American landscapes. Misrach made these images at different times of the day, under different weather conditions and these abstract images of the planet’s atmosphere, reminiscent of Rothko’s paintings, record the powerful effect light has on its environment as it changes throughout the day and season. This is a reminder once more of our relationship with the sun, showing how our very atmosphere changes as the earth revolves around it, giving off a kind of ethereal planetary aura. The work is minimal, but invokes a response in the viewer that is a connection to human surroundings and ultimately our existence.

In Sky Series, Eric Cahan seeks to manipulate the complex nature of light by using handmade resin filters which alter the colour of the sky, to exploit how light is a unique interpretation of sight, and technology. Cahan works at sunrise and sunset and explores how capturing light’s constantly changing qualities and ephemeral nature can be manipulated through technology to give an individual perception of his vision in a photograph (Fig12).

“My work is meant to capture a moment in nature, asking and empowering the viewer to be fully present, involved, and uplifted. I want the viewer to be drawn in, and be completely absorbed by, rather than separate from, that fleeting moment in time.” (About, Cahan, 2014)

These practitioners have all experimented with how light is recorded through photographic technology, whilst pushing the medium forward into unfamiliar territory, thus giving us the viewer unique and uncharted imagery to engage with. This foray into the unknown provides a photographic vehicle for a gap in our perception, creating a sublime experience through the use of unique and powerful instances of light.

The phenomenology of the contemporary digital photograph begins with light being converted into digital output in the camera which the technology then displays as an image using a backlit screen using short-wavelength blue light, which is the type of light that is most melatonin-suppressive. Melatonin is the hormone that affects our sleep cycle, and it is well established that our health is dependent on sleep. This is the type of light typically emitted by devices such as televisions, computers, and mobile phones.

‘Light stimulates higher cognitive brain activity, independently of vision, and engages supplemental brain areas to perform an ongoing cognitive process’ (MIT, 2014).

This information from a study researching the effects of light beyond its primary image-forming capacity, on blind individuals, shows that light, particularly blue light, raises our cognitive function. Researchers at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University investigated the effects on cognitive performance from exposure to blue light and concluded that daytime exposure can significantly increase alertness. ‘EEG tests showed alterations to brain activity that indicated heightened alertness among people exposed to blue light during the day’, (MIT, 2014). This research indicates that light can stimulate our cognitive function and in this heightened state of brain function I would argue the brain becomes more alert and is therefore more susceptible to receive experience. This concludes that light alters the state of brain function at lower levels of exposure, and it could be argued that overpowering light alters the cerebral function further.

I would argue that the journey of a photon allows for an incredible link between human beings and the vast unknown universe and when we experience a photon from the Cosmic Microwave Background (JPL NASA, 2014) we are experiencing a connection with the origins of the universe. Natural light is made of photons that travel from the sun through our atmosphere and reflect off our surroundings. Starlight travels in photons from distant galaxies, through space, and reaches us through our atmosphere. Photons are then absorbed into the eye through our light sensors called rods. The photon expends its energy and causes a complex photochemical reaction and signals are sent via nerves behind the retina to the brain. As this information is being sent the brain is interpreting it (Perkowitz, p15). The photon provides us not only with the ability to see, but it arguably is a connection for the human experience with our largely unknown cosmos, and our place within it.

These examples illuminate how characteristics of light on humans make it a natural agent for the sublime experience and an obvious vehicle for transcendence. When we observe light and experience the sublime we are undergoing a link with a primordial connection to our existence. This connection is a major investigation of my practice. My work demonstrates moments of the sublime that are created by light and recorded in a photograph. I intend for the audience to experience the work through light to create a sublime photographic experience in an installation format. Mark Rothko believed he could move another human being through a piece of art (Rothko’s Rooms, 06:43) and I aim for this in my practice.  I also hope to challenge perceptions of photography as well as how we view light, by using light as a means of presenting the work.

My work (Fig 14, 15) investigates the phenomenological and ephemeral instances of light that transform mundane subject matter into transcendental moments of the sublime. The work uses light as material, subject matter and as a means of presentation. Light not only has the power to reveal and conceal surroundings, it has a transformative power over a subject. My work is concerned with how images of light can create the sublime experience for the viewer by using installation pieces of backlit photographs in a non-lit environment. As Burke mentions, light on its own as an omnipresent force is not enough to cause the sublime, it must be overpowering or an individual instance. There is interdependence between light and dark within the sublime experience, as Junichiro Tanizaki states in In Praise of Shadows; darkness (or shadow) is necessary for the magic of light to exist (p33, 46, 52). This is echoed in our limited visual ability, which is made possible by the light we can see, within the vast darkness of the unknown universe. What we cannot see resonates the idea of light as a sublime force alongside darkness.

It is this notion that I aim to exploit in my own practical work through using a structure of the sublime with ideas synthesised from the Burke, Kant, Hegel, Gilbert Rolfe and Shinkle models. By using the overpowering force of nature (light and how it is interpreted and affects humans (Kant) through contemporary photographic technology (Gilbert Rolfe and Shinkle), I am interested in how the sublime experience in photography connects the viewer to the higher power (Hegel).  The viewer of the work is connected through a moment of transcendence which then reconnects us to our own existence (reality) through making us conscious of our unconscious. I would argue that this is possible through creating photographic installations that use the right type of light which stimulates the human brain, making the viewer more susceptible to experience and creating careful interplay with light and dark to produce the right conditions for the sublime.

This paper will now discuss how creative practitioners use the notion of representing the sublime, and how they have felt compelled to do so through connection to the experience of the other. Julian Bell describes the artists’ experience as one of encountering the sublime and seeking to replicate it in their work.

‘Dazzling light is the type of overpowering optical impact his, (Wright of Derby), views of Vesuvius seek to ‘exert’ – an impulse also followed by John Martin and indeed myself.’ (Contemporary Art and the Sublime. 27/11/14)

Bell discusses here how he visited a site in Turkmenistan in the middle of the Karakum Desert and then created a painting of what he saw. He describes the artistic need to recreate the visions and experiences of the sublime through the artistic process, as though latently seeking the same ‘rush’ the artist initially felt when at the site. This process of artistic recreation of an experience is what I am exploring in my work after my own experience of the sublime when looking over a lake in Israel from the Jordanian border and feeling completely overwhelmed as the sun set, to the point that I could not speak. The whole landscape transformed from dry bush and the sky turned from a pallid blue to a golden atmosphere of powerful otherness that I could not explain.  The light from this incredible vista undoubtedly impacted my artistic vision, and I have subsequently been making work to communicate the feeling of light.

Creative practice has evidenced and attempted to translate our fascination with light as sublime from the building of Stonehenge in 4000BC, which is interpreted as a ritualistic prehistoric temple that aligns with the sun, to James Turrell who has been creating a natural observatory called Roden Crater in an extinct volcanic mound since 1975 in the Arizona Desert. Turrell says he is interested in bringing astrological events in to a space, and he likes places that have a powerful quality that is not explainable (James Turrell’s Roden Crater. 27/11/2014). Roden Crater allows light to flow through a series of dark tunnels to align with ‘image stones’ much like a Camera Obscura. This, he says, helps us to see how we see and gets us past our prejudiced perception of how the sky and sun look and work.

Lyn M Herbert discusses in Spirit and Light and the Immensity Within (The Sublime, p96) how artists such as James Turrell connect us to the infinite universe through using light as their medium. Turrell says of his work ‘I want to create an atmosphere, like the wordless thought that comes from looking in a fire’ (The Sublime, p96). The majority of light we see is from the sun, and the Earth revolves around the sun; we are drawn to it as life force and light is used as a religious experience, religious in the sense of recognising a higher power. By creating work using light and presenting it with light I aim to enable a sublime experience.

Turrell works with light but no images or points of focus as he wants us to investigate light itself. My work aims to use photographic images with light to investigate how these two things combine to create the sublime, and to challenge the perception of photography. Each of these works investigates our primordial connection to light and the sublime experience this gives us.  I would argue that light is present in our everyday existence emanating from the beginning of the universe via the Cosmic Microwave Background. All energy is renewed or transformed and photons live for at least six billion billion years; therefore photons are a link to history and existentiality. Seeing light is not just the sublime; light is the sublime. It is a connection to the history of everything and our very existence and therefore a perfect material to use to investigate the sublime connection in photography.#


In summary I would reason that this paper concludes that powerful instances of natural light and experience of modern light used in technology can have a tangible effect on humans, as a force that alters our being and connects us to our primordial beginnings of existence and to our place in our wider home of the universe. Light has a transformative power over a subject, changing the overlooked into a moment of magic, beauty and reverence. Our feeling of the sublime takes us from our normal state to a higher transcended state, and momentarily into the unknown where we then reconnect with reality.  Light can be used in creative practice to relate these feelings and questions to audiences and can combine scientific and philosophical enquiries in an artwork. The sublime through light has long been evidenced and documented through creative practice as far back as Stonehenge and the Egyptian hieroglyphics to contemporary practitioners making work based on light’s sublime qualities through representation and materials.

Contemporary photography is a particularly appropriate medium for this due to its dependent relationship with light and how photographic technology records and displays light, therefore light is an authentic agent for the sublime in photography. The ‘un-representable’ sublime is represented in photography in an abstract way through light’s effects on the viewer. Contemporary practice is investigating photography’s ability to go beyond representation, using its intrinsic relationship with light, to present audiences with the feeling of the sublime, through technology.

There is an obvious opportunity with this current evolution of technology, and how it is used as an extension of our existence, to explore the sublime within creative realms. My practice seeks to exploit this power of light within photography to recreate the feeling of sublime I initially felt looking at the light in Jordan, by creating instances of sublime within my work for others to experience. My intention is for audiences to momentarily transcend their current reality and connect with this powerful otherness, which I have identified as the sublime using ideas from models of the sublime to create my own. The model of the sublime in photography made possible by light, that I have defined in this paper and intend to work with in my practice questions our connection to spirituality, the universe and our existence. Although the audience may feel individual interpretations based on their own semiotics, underlying themes of cosmological connections are tangible within the work through the use of light.

Technology depends on light just as humans and photography do. Both Shinkle and Gilbert Rolfe argue that technology has become a natural extension of human existence and how we view the world, which Guy Debord would call the ‘Spectacle’ (Debord, Ch1), and the camera is the perfect embodiment of this process. We are immersed in this meta-relationship and we view it on screens via light. We are immersed in ourselves, we are bathing in light.



Adrian Davies, Leeds College of Art

Karen Tobias Green, Leeds College of Art

Dr Eugénie Shinkle, School of Media, Art and Design, University of Westminster.


Book with single author:

Bachelard Gaston, 1994. The Poetics of Space. Reprint Edition. Beacon Press

Burke Edmund, 2008. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (Oxford World’s Classics). 1 Edition. Oxford University Press

DEBORD Guy, 2000. Society Of The Spectacle. Edition. Black & Red.

Tanizaki Jun’ichiro, 2006. In Praise of Shadows. Edition. Vintage Books

Edited texts (books):

Böhme, Hartmut, 2014. The Absolute Metaphor; Light: Essays on the Cultural history of Light; Vitra Design Museum; Slp edition

Cajochen ,Christian; 2014; Beyond Our Eyes, The Invisible Impact of Light;  Light: Essays on the Cultural history of Light; Vitra Design Museum; Slp edition

Cajochen Christian ; 2014. In The eye of The Beholder, The Nature of Light and Colour; Light: Essays on the Cultural history of Light; Vitra Design Museum; Slp edition

Herbert, M Lynn, 2010. Sublime (Documents of Contemporary Art). Edition. Whitechapel Art Gallery.

Morley Simon, 2010. Sublime (Documents of Contemporary Art). Edition. Whitechapel Art Gallery.

Thompson Jon, 1999. Sublime: The Darkness and the Light. First Edition, Works from the Arts Council Collection Edition. University of California Press.



Art of Faith, 2008. [DVD] John McArthy, UK: Sky Arts.

Light And Dark Al Khalili, 2013. UK. BBC4. 12.05.2014

Rothko’s Rooms, (2008) [DVD] David Thompson. UK.

The Dark Ages: An Age Of Light. 2014. [DVD] Waldemar Januszczak. UK.


Online sources:

Web site

Equivalents, American Art, 2014 [Online] Found at:    Last Accessed 10/12/2014

Moon, 2014. Full Moon, Michael Light, info. [Online] Found at:  Last Accessed 10/12/2014

NASA, Background on the Background Explorer and the Science of John Mather [Online] (updated November 30, 2007) Available at: (Last accessed 27.11.2014)

Oscars, 2014. Ellen Selfie [Online] (Last Accessed 09/12/2014)

Seattle University. Chapel of St. Ignatius [Online] Available at: (Last accessed 27.11.2014)

Stonehenge, History of Stonehenge [Online] Available at: (Last accessed 27.11.2014)

Turner, Biog, Online] Available at: (Last accessed 09.12.2014)

UCLA, 2004. Brief History of the Universe [Online] (updated 15 July 2004) Available at: (Last accessed 27.11.2014)

Vence, The Rosary Chapel, Sacred Art Piece by Matisse. [Online] Available at: (Last accessed 27.11.2014)

V&A, Christian Symbols of Light [Online] Available at: (Last accessed 27.11.2014)

Web Document:

MIT, Journal of cognitive Neuroscience, Blue Light Stimulates Cognitive Brain Activity in Visually Blind Individuals [Online] Available at: (Last accessed 27.11.2014)

Burgess, Paul,  2009. Variation in Light Intensity at Different Latitudes and

Seasons, Effects of Cloud Cover, and the Amounts of Direct and Diffused Light [Online] Available at:  (Last Accessed 10/12/2014)

Article on the www:

Guardian, 2014, Addley, Esther ] Available at: (Last accessed 09/12/2014)

Aperture, 2014. Cotton, Charlotte.  Nine Years, A Million Conceptual Miles [Online] Available at: (Last accessed 27.11.2014)

Ely Claire, Scientific American. Big Bang Light Reveals Minimum Lifetime of Photons. [Online] Available at: (Last accessed 27.11.2014)

Rosetta Mission, Guardian, 13 November 2014  [Online] Available at:  (Last accessed 09/12/2014)

Spence Dr Kate, BBC., 2011 Akhenaten and the Amarna Period (Last accessed 27.11.2014)

Tate. Bell Julian, ‘Contemporary Art and the Sublime’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, January 2013, accessed 27 November 2014.

Tate. Quash, Ben. ‘The De-sublimations of Christian Art’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, January 2013, accessed 27 November 2014.

Tate. Shinkle, Eugénie. ‘Video Games and the Technological Sublime’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, January 2013, (accessed 27 November 2014).

Williams, Eliza, 11 November 2011, Available at: (accessed 9th December 2014).

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Kuo, Michelle, September 2012, Step into Liquid, [Online] Available at:  Last viewed (09/12/2014)

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Cotton, Charlotte.  Nine Years, A Million Conceptual Miles [Online] Available at: (Last accessed 27.11.2014)

Hamada Yuji, 2005-6 Photographs [Online] Available at:  (Last accessed 27.11.2014)

Kawauchi, Rinko. Illuminance, 2011. [Online] Available at: (Last accessed 27.11.2014)

Kydd, Owen. Two Curves, Pico Boulevard, 2012. Aperture, 2014.

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Fig.1  Wolfgang Tillmans Lux 2009 Wolfgang Tillmans.

Fig 2. Michael Light, Full Moon, 1999

Fig 3, Comet 67P, November 2014, Philae Lander Camera


Fig 4, Erik Kessels, What’s Next?

Fig 5. Akihiko Hoshide, Space Selfie, 2012.


Fig 6. Rinko Kawauchi Illuminance.

Fig 7. Rinko Kawauchi Illuminance. 2011



Fig 8.Two Curves, Pico Boulevard, Owen Kydd, 2012



Fig 9. Yuji Hamada Photograph 2005-6



Fig 10. Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalents, 1922-1931

Fig 11. Richard Misrach, Sky Book, 2000


Fig 12. Eric Cahan, St Barts, 2013

Fig 13. Wolfgang Tilmans, In Flight Astro (ii), 2010


Fig 14. Untitled, Verity Harr, 2013

Fig 15. Untitled, Verity Harr, 2013















  1. Werner Jordan’s article, In The Eye of The Beholder, states that the foetus in the womb begins to react to sun and light and once we are born, light allows us to learn through seeing in our formative years (p84). To recognise the world around us we must be able to see, and this happens in the first six years of life.
  2. The human eye cannot detect UV, Gamma, Infrared or X-ray light, and because of the narrow band of light we actually can see on the visible spectrum, Al- Khalili states that only 4% of the universe is visible to us, a fact acknowledged in physics. The universe is full of light particles we simply cannot see but can only try to perceive. The universe also contains black holes and dark matter where light is not emitted or reflected so we cannot see them and can only theorise their existence and purpose.
  3. According to recent research, 71% of the UK population currently owns a smartphone, there are 1.5 billion of them globally and one in five people are reported to own a smartphone. This is a global growth rate increasing from 5% to 22% from 2009 to the end of 2013 and it is predicted that 4.5 billion mobile phone users from 2013 to 2017 with markets rising in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Tablet devices have seen a large exponential growth in the global market, at a faster rate than smartphone adoption. From these statistics various theories can be formed. The world population is 7.3 billion, and the mobile phone user population is 4.5 billion and rapidly growing as new markets are penetrated and developing countries gain economic advancement.


  1. Instagram is a social media site dedicated to images and communicating through pictures, allowing users to post images they have taken and edited, usually with their mobile phones. According to their statistics they have 100 million active monthly users, sharing 60 million images a day, and 20 billion to date, 65% of which are outside of the United States, since the launch in October 201018. Facebook, a social network launched in 2004, has as of September 2014, 1.3 billion monthly active users.


  1. He believed the Sun Disc was the one true God and the giver of all life. He changed his name from Amenhotep III to Akhenaten meaning, ‘Effective for Aten’ and as he was Pharoah, he was the sole connection between worshippers and Aten (BBC, 2011). This radical shift in established religious practice was not popular with the population at the time, and after his death he was disregarded as an enemy of Ancient Egypt. Significantly however, what is interesting is his absolute belief in the power of the sun, giving life to all living things on earth in a time way before modern scientific determinations.




  1. Until the 1920s most photographic emulsions wereorthochromatic, which meant they were primarily sensitive to light on the blue end of the spectrum. This made photographing clouds particularly difficult because unless special filters were used the sky would appear very light and the clouds would be lost against it.­­