Available Light #3
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
Eyedrum, Atlanta, GA

still from "Metronome" by Guy Sherwin, from the Short Film Series

Lynn Marie Kirby, selections from Latent Light Excavations (2004):
Pyramid Lake Piaute Reservation Exposure: As Long as the Rivers Flow
Chapel of the Bells Wedding Chapel Exposure: To Have and To Hold
Black Belt Test Exposure: Senpai James Finds His Line

screened on miniDV, color, silent, 16 minutes total
Saul Levine, Light Licks - Get It While You Can (2000), super-8, color, silent, 10 minutes
Guy Sherwin, Short Film Series, (1975-1998), 16mm, black & white, silent, 35 minutes
consisting of: Maya, Barn, Tap, Cycle, Cat, Breathing, Tree Reflection, Portrait with Parents, Chimney, Metronome, and Eye
Luis Recoder, Available Light - Yellow-Red (2001), 16mm, color, silent, 12 minutes

What the Light Series artists have in common is that they have all used short works in series format to explore the essence of cinematic light. Guy Sherwin’s Short Film Series, to which the filmmaker continues to add, was started in the mid-1970s; Kirby, Levine, and Recoder began their series in the late 1990s or later.

The three most recent works on the program explore the sometimes mystical properties of light and color on screen, using alternative and sometimes completely cameraless methods. By contrast, Sherwin’s work shows a master of black and white filmmaking stretching traditional photography techniques to the fullest.

The works in Latent Light Excavations begin with a visit by Lynn Marie Kirby to the sites named in the titles of the works (for instance the Pyramid Lake Piaute Reservation). At the site, Kirby, in a performative gesture, exposes a roll of film directly to the light. The film is processed, then transferred to a digital editing deck. Kirby then improvises on the deck with the transferred footage. She writes, “The resulting work is the ‘residue’ of a real-time performance on the film to digital transfer deck.” Icons in the digital deck – shapes such as circles and pyramids which are used to help filmmakers in the editing process – are here prominently featured on screen as visual motifs, “articulating the machine realm between the realms of film and digital.”

Kirby’s on-site gesture of exposing the film to light, her real-time improvisation on the editing deck, the outrageously vibrant color in constantly surprising juxtapositions, and the iconographic shapes that suddenly appear, enlarge, disappear, leave faint traces of color, then come back to once again swallow the screen – all of these elements in combination create not only an amazing visual energy but also a strong sense of ritual in the digital realm. (The recurring circles and pyramids are reminiscent of occult symbols such as those found in the films of Kenneth Anger.)

A similar sense of iconography pervades several other selections on tonight’s program, including some of Guy Sherwin’s short films, and Saul Levine’s Light Licks: Get It While You Can. According to Levine, the Light Licks series is “made frame by frame often by flooding the camera with enough light to spill beyond the gate into the frame left unexposed.” Specifically, he points the camera at a bright light source, opens the aperture and “unfocuses” the lens. In Get It While You Can this flooding of the camera creates subtle hues of red and purple coming out of the darkness or alternating rapidly with the light. Eventually a mysterious circle appears on the screen, an echo not only of the camera’s wide-open lens but of the viewer’s eye as well the sun – an occurrence that supports Levine’s characterization of the films as “ecstatic” and inspired in part by “mystic visionary practice.” In a recent email, Levine explained that the Light Licks films are concerned with “using the camera as a light gatherer and the film in the projector as a means of inflecting the projectors light.”

Guy Sherwin’s Short Film Series was begun in 1975, and continues to the present day. The series format is very important in Sherwin’s creating. In addition to the Short Film Series, he has made a Train Series, a group of Animal Studies and a small group of Sound Films, which exploit the mechanism of optical sound.

All of Sherwin’s film series interact with each other. Some of the Short Films (such as Cat and Tree Reflection) also belong to the Animal Studies. A Train Film, Chimney, changes its title to Canon and becomes part of the Sound Films upon the addition of a soundtrack (we will see the silent version tonight). Sherwin notes that the films in a series can be shown in different configurations, to bring out new connections among them.

There are eleven films in tonight’s version of the Short Film Series. Like all the films in the series, each lasts approximately three minutes, or the length of a one hundred-foot roll of film. The films act as studies of light, as well as demonstrations of a wide variety of creative filming techniques. Some are shot in real time, resulting in a single three-minute take. At the other extreme, the three minutes of Barn took two hours to shoot, two frames at a time.

The uniform duration of the films, the overriding concern with light, time and corporeality, the relentless three-minute focus on a single subject or event, are common to all the films and provide a powerful cumulative effect for the viewer. But on a deeper level, what binds these films together and gives them their enduring fascination is the deeply human connection which Sherwin makes between his formal filmmaking concerns and the subjects of his films. These films are all about relationships – between light and darkness, light and camera, camera and subject, subject and filmmaker and viewer, all at once and played out not only on the screen but also in the mysterious conjunction between the projected film and the viewer.

For example, in Maya, Sherwin turns his camera for three minutes on the eyes of his infant daughter. But crucially, as Sherwin notes, “it was shot with the camera in one hand and the lens, which gathers the light, held separate from the body of the camera in the other hand. Thus equipped with this uncertain means of vision I try to maintain focus on Maya’s eyes.” This “uncertain means of vision” is a perfect metaphor for the uncertain, yet questing sight of Maya herself.

This human connection extends to the viewing audience as well. For example, Breathing is a single shot of a pregnant woman’s stomach moving up and down with the woman’s breaths. Sherwin adjusts by hand the lens aperture in the same rhythm as the breathing. There is a connection, both physiological and metaphysical, made here between the subject of the film (the breathing woman), the filmmaker (Sherwin matching his own movements to the woman’s breathing), and on to the audience (since, as Sherwin points out, some viewers will reflexively adjust their breathing pattern to that of the pregnant woman on screen.)

Another reflexive response in the viewer happens in Eye. In this film, consisting of a tight closeup on the eye of a woman, Sherwin manipulates both the lamp and the lens aperture. As the light in the film grows brighter, the subject’s pupils dilate; so do the audience’s.

Among the Short Films, Eye is a characteristic but particularly exquisite example of a subtle and complex film which arises from a simple idea. By manipulating both light and aperture, Sherwin sets up a complex interaction on screen between the light level (which lightens or darkens the onscreen face, as well as dilating or contracting the pupil), the aperture (which if widened while the lamp is dimmed allows the brightness of the image to be constant, while at the same time changing the “depth” of the image), and the resulting reflection of the light in the eye of the subject. And, as with Breathing, this complex interaction is reflected in the relationship which Eye sets up between the subject, the filmmaker, and the audience.

Elsewhere in the series, the filmmaker plays with a longstanding interest in forms – for instance the exact palindrome of Tree Reflection. Sherwin describes Barn as having “a wave pattern, or [being] cyclical in the sense of a bicycle wheel turning with the ground moving underneath.” The film starts by alternating two frames of extreme low exposure with two frames of extreme high exposure. (This allows for high detail of both the dark interior, in which the camera sits, and the bright exterior, toward which the camera points.) As Sherwin writes, “As the film progresses, the extremes are gradually evened out to a midpoint...where the image is calmer, yet the landscape appears washed out, while the barn is in deep shadow.” After this midpoint, Sherwin gradually goes back to the exposure extremes, until the film’s end.

The rest of the Short Films showcase a plethora of alternative film techniques – unusual film stocks, long exposure times, and time-lapse photography – most spectacularly in Cat, a condensed catnap which, in its brevity and fast motion, is an opposite to Andy Warhol’s film Sleep; and in Metronome, where the clock-like regularity of the metronome is completely upended by stop-motion.

Like Kirby’s Latent Light Excavations, Luis Recoder’s Available Light series of films is made without cameras. In a note on Recoder’s work, for the occasion of its inclusion in the 2002 Whitney Biennial, Chrissie Iles wrote, “The narrative space of the film screen is replaced by a painterly surface of subtle hues, engaging the viewer in a perceptual experience of light and rendering West Coast sculptors such as James Turrell and Robert Irwin’s sculptural use of light in cinematic form.”

Available Light: Yellow-Red is indeed a remarkable use of cinematic light and color. It consists of a single shape – well described by Iles as “a central core of red light diffus[ing] gently outwards toward an aurora of yellow light.” There are two types of movement in the film. First, there is perceptible movement within this shape, a visible vibration that continually reminds us of the linear, frame-by-frame nature of film projection. Second, as the film progresses, we begin to see gradual and ever more subtle variations in the red – changing between various species of orange and purple and other less nameable colors. As with Saul Levine’s film, Yellow-Red provides an occasion for meditation on the nature of filmed and projected light, through the invocation of color. Finally, the end of the film shows the image flare out and disappear, a poignant reminder of the transience of the film image, or what William Wees calls “light moving in time.”

Program notes 2005 Andy Ditzler

Curator’s note: I am grateful to each of the filmmakers on tonight’s program, who answered my questions, providing details of the making of their films and the thinking behind them. Thanks also to Anne Dennington and Atlanta Celebrates Photography, Eyedrum, Nicky Hamlyn, Robbie Land, Oliver Smith, and Shana Wood, as well as to Konrad Steiner, whose comments inspired the idea of a screening devoted to work in series.

Available Light is cosponsored by Atlanta Celebrates Photography and Frequent Small Meals and is part of The Reincarnation of Switch at Eyedrum.

still from "Tree Reflection" by Guy Sherwin, from the Short Film Series  

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