Night People

The Write Stuff: Sergey Churkin and the Light Painting World Alliance

In 2011, Russian photographer Sergey Churkin founded what is now known as the Light Painting World Alliance (LPWA). Its goal is not only to unite artists who practice this niche within a niche within a niche, but also to help light writers around the globe develop their own skills as a way to elevate the quality of the art form as a whole so that it’s more globally recognized in the art world. It’s a lofty goal. And it’s one we applaud.

Since its inception, LPWA has brought light writers together in various ways, including its website, Facebook and Instagram presences, international exhibitions, award presentations, meetups, and meetings and conferences hosted throughout the world.

Fighting in the Rain. Light writing artwork done in collaboration with Nikolay Trebukhin. Olympus E-M1, Olympus M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 lens. 5 minutes, f/22, ISO 500. © Sergey Churkin and Nikolay Trebukhin.

The group has announced its newest venture: International Light Painting Day (ILPD), which will occur on May 16—the date that UNESCO declared as the International Day of Light. “As in any social action, participation is even more important than results,” reads the ILPD website. “International Light Painting Day will attract people to our art, give them a new way of self-expression, and will make friends between participants.”

LPWA encourages night photographers everywhere in the world to participate, whether through official ILPD events, with a local photography group, or even just by sharing the art form with friends and acquaintances at personal gatherings.

Recently we were able to chat with Sergey about his own growth as a light writer, how all of this got started, where it’s going, and what to expect on May 16.

(We should note a terminology difference. What LPWA calls “light painting” is largely what we at National Parks at Night term as “light writing.” We define the former as illuminating a subject with a light source, and the latter as recording the actual light source as part of the composition. For the purposes of being consistent for our audience, we will use our terminology and definitions in this post, except when mentioning the official names of organizations and events.)


Q: Can you tell me about your passion for light writing? How did you start doing it, and how has it affected your development as an artist?

Sergey: In my work I am constantly looking for new visual forms and new technologies. In 2008, when I first saw light graffiti, I thought it was computer graphics, and I wondered how to achieve the same effect. So I tried drawing something like it on my computer, but all my attempts were futile. That upset me. I thought, “How is it someone else can draw this, but not me?” Then I discovered that the picture I was trying to model wasn’t computer graphics—it was photography with patterns of light!

That’s when I discovered a galaxy called Light Writing. Almost at the same time, my eldest son showed me his own drawings with light.

Relax Time. From the series “Real Life of Unreal Person.” Canon 5D Mark II with a 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. 202 seconds, f/8, ISO 200. © Sergey Churkin.

Everything came together for me. I understood this technology. I realized that in my hands was a new, powerful and versatile tool for design.

I spent nearly a year attempting to combine light writing with video, but it turned out that the specialties of drawing light impose fairly strict limits on its use in video projects. I do not like  restrictions in the art process, so I decided that photography would give me more opportunities to express myself. Since then, I paint with light.

I’m a professional video designer, so I know a lot about designing nice images. Light writing for me is another way to express my visual fantasies, with much more effective and natural execution. So, I already was a visual artist before falling into light writing. But light writing taught me to be more patient—to spend more time for planning and preconstruction of my artworks. I started to develop my own techniques and tools, which could give me limitless purposes. Thus, light writing brings the sense into my life.

Q: What are some of your favorite light writing tools?

Sergey: I prefer to use light tools like I would use real paint brushes. And I love handmade tools. Manufacturer’s tools bring comfort in making art, but also limitations of art itself. That is why I also try to develop my own techniques and my own tools.

Portrait of Sergey's friend Vikthor Clarke, part of the series “Friends in Light.” Created with a handmade custom light brush. © Sergey Churkin.

Q: What prompted you to spread this passion by forming LPWA?

Sergey: I realized that our genre had two problems. First was low awareness, both among the ordinary public and among the art business. Most people simply do not know what light writing is. Second was the problem of quality. Too many people were doing light drawing just for funny snapshots.

After some thought, I came to the conclusion that anyone alone does not change anything. By improving my own skill, I can achieve success and recognition, but that wouldn’t resolve those problems. To promote light writing to the masses needed a collective effort. I had a little experience with creative associations for Russian TV designers and promoters in the 2000s, so I saw what a collective mind with an active nucleus can do. I figured, why not do the same for artists writing with light?

But of course, it would be ridiculous to think that all the work of making this huge Alliance since 2011 was done just by one person. It was done mostly by artists themselves. I only help them with ideas, inspiration and courage. I am happy to be friends with dozens, or even hundreds, of artists around the globe. And I am very grateful to all my light friends for their countless support, which really makes LPWA what it is.

Dissected Guitar. Canon 5D Mark II with a 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. 19 seconds, f/13, ISO 160. © Sergey Churkin.

Q: How quickly did LPWA grow?

Sergey: Since 2011, the Alliance has grown to about 650 registered members. In fact, after 2015 I didn’t pursue more members as a goal anymore. What’s most important for me now is to inspire the community to be more active in making and learning art. The things we’ve been doing the last two years have showed me that this goal is very possible.

Now I am concentrating more on organizations, developing relationships between LPWA and museums, galleries, festivals and other cultural institutions.

Q: What’s next for LPWA—how do you hope it evolves?

Sergey: Honestly, right now I am at a crossroads regarding LPWA’s future. Eight years of effort has told me that sometimes I need to take a break, to analyze past experiences. I see how much our community has grown since 2011, I see what is going on in our industry, and I see how new trends are born and die. So I keep that all in mind.

Some of the goals of our starting years were realized successfully, and now the community requires new ones. We’d like to get regular columns in the world's largest magazines about art and photography, and over time would like to publish our own magazine, Light Painted World.

Red Treble Clef. Image made with customized light blades. © Surgey Churkin.

We’re also working to develop close contact with manufacturers of software and light tools, because they are not necessarily light painters and don’t always know what features should be in these devices. We need fine-tuned software and new light tools for professional light writing.

We’d also like to develop close contacts with interior designers, the manufacturers of decoration accessories, and fashion designers. Light writing should be more than only photos or prints—we can use our artworks as a basis for many more goods.

And off course, a major aspiration for the near future is to get official recognition from UNESCO for our art form, in the form of May 16—International Light Painting Day!

Q: you have organized some huge collaborations of photographers working on one image. Can you talk about that?

Sergey: It’s another inspiring and powerful way to involve an audience with the light writing world, to do these massive collaborative artworks.

Our first experience like this was done in 2013 at our second LPWA worldwide exhibition in Paris, when 20 artists all together made a light writing animation on Place Concorde. Next was a massive collaboration on Plaza de la Gesta in 2014, when 34 artists made the IYoL2015 logo; and at the Dorum (Germany) LightHouse Meet-up, 24 artists created the same logo. An outstanding collaboration was made in Longhushan, China, where 13 light painters created a massive image and animation.

This is a very, very cool activity for all our artists.

Collaboration light writing made during the LPWA Roma Meet-up 2017. Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II, Olympus M.Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8 lens. 1.3 minutes, f/6.3, ISO 200. Click here to see all credited artists.

Q: Why do you think light writing is such an intriguing part of night photography?

Sergey: For me, all parts of night photography are intriguing. Choosing a location, waiting for the proper time, finding particular details of a scene that can make this place magic, testing camera settings and tools.

But light writing itself is an endless experience with an indeterminate end. Mostly I know what I want to draw, but I always pray for a lucky chance that could give me a moment of something incredible. Experiences like that are what really intrigue me.

Q: What is your advice for someone who wants to get started in light writing, or someone who wants to learn more about it?

Sergey: The only good advice is to start with regular tutorials, regular tools and then just copy the masters. Get your first experience—try to feel the light. Make a lot of senseless images just to understand how you can use light.

Then forget all of it. Throw everything away and start to make your own light art. That is when you start following your own way, and when you no longer copy others.

Lion and His Guest. Made with light brush by Bernhard Rauscher. Canon 5D Mark II with a 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. 116 seconds, f/8, ISO 250. © Sergey Churkin.

Q: Tell us about Light Painting Day. What is the goal, and how can people get involved?

Sergey: International Light Painting Day is intended to give anyone—not only light artists—more motivation to learn about light painting and light writing. I really think that light writing is a much more inspiring art than more traditional drawing and painting. I would love to see light writing become a “family art.” Whole families could make this kind of art as a good and kind collaboration of father, mother and children! The best gratification for me could be if International Light Painting Day became a widely observed family celebration.

Of course, light painting is not just for May 16—we can celebrate this art form 365 days a year. So, International Light Painting Day is not for only professional photographers, but also for their friends, mates, family or even neighbors.

For more information about attending an International Light Painting Day gathering, see the official Event Programme. Sergey encourages individuals, camera clubs, and other groups and organizations to coordinate their own ILPD events as part of the global celebration. More more information, visit the ILPD webpage.

Chris Nicholson is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night, and author of Photographing National Parks (Sidelight Books, 2015). Learn more about national parks as photography destinations, subscribe to Chris' free e-newsletter, and more at www.PhotographingNationalParks.com.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT

A Giant Sleeps Tonight: The Night Photography World Loses a Pioneer

On August 19, the night photography community lost one of its true greats. Steve Harper was a pioneer of night photography and light painting, and taught what is thought to be the first college-level course on the subject at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco.

Despite slowly losing his sight over the last ten years, and battling cancer for the last two, Steve never stopped photographing and never gave in to his illness. I was fortunate enough to spend some time with him last January, and we talked extensively about his work and how he came to night photography.

"Self—Keif’s Blanket," Sutro Bath ruins, San Francisco, 1979. This was one of Steve’s personal favorites. He held his dog’s blanket over his head in the whipping wind coming off of the Pacific and marveled at how everything in the image was made of the same stuff—the ocean, the air, the blanket, and the ghost image of Steve himself merged together, and as he said, the image “shows the universality of all things.”

"Self—Keif’s Blanket," Sutro Bath ruins, San Francisco, 1979. This was one of Steve’s personal favorites. He held his dog’s blanket over his head in the whipping wind coming off of the Pacific and marveled at how everything in the image was made of the same stuff—the ocean, the air, the blanket, and the ghost image of Steve himself merged together, and as he said, the image “shows the universality of all things.”

For those who are unfamiliar with Steve and his work, he was one of a number of Bay Area photographers responsible for the explosion of interest in night photography in the 1970s, along with Richard Misrach, Arthur Ollman, Paul Radeke, Jerry Burchard, Hank Wessel and Steve Fitch.

Harper felt that it was important to study and learn about what other photographers had done before us. He diligently researched the history of night photography, in an era when information was much harder to come by. He taught his students about Stieglitz’s early forays into night photography at the dawn of the 20th century, along with the work of Brassai, Bill Brandt and O.Winston Link.

He also made sure to share the work and story of Jessie Tarbox Beals, a woman whose life paralleled Stieglitz’s in many regards, but who was far less fortunate and privileged. In a field with so few women, he made sure to highlight her contributions to the genre.

Over many years, Steve worked to devise exposure guidelines for different types of film, and modified black and white film development to deal with reciprocity failure and extreme scene contrast. He also experimented with different color transparency films, and color-correcting gels to better control the odd colors from the panoply of light sources in the industrial areas where we worked and took his classes. Steve was a master Cibachrome printer, and often made prints for his students.

Although Steve’s work was included in a ground-breaking exhibit of night photography at San Francisco’s Focus Gallery in 1979, and he created many iconic night images of California, he will be best remembered as a teacher and mentor. It is not an exaggeration to say that Steve Harper is single-handedly responsible for inspiring an entire generation of night photographers (myself included), who have in turn taken the torch from him and are now teaching a new generation of night photographers.

"1,2,3,4,5,9,7," Sutro Bath ruins, San Francisco, 1982. Another image from the Sutro Bath ruins near Ocean Beach in San Francisco. This was one of Steve’s favorite locations to photograph, and a place that he made sure every class visited, despite the often terrible weather. This image was made with light painting from one of his students, Kyoshi Sato.

"1,2,3,4,5,9,7," Sutro Bath ruins, San Francisco, 1982. Another image from the Sutro Bath ruins near Ocean Beach in San Francisco. This was one of Steve’s favorite locations to photograph, and a place that he made sure every class visited, despite the often terrible weather. This image was made with light painting from one of his students, Kyoshi Sato.

Steve had a natural gift for teaching. His critiques were honest, straightforward and insightful. His lectures were never boring, and in the field he encouraged collaboration, camaraderie and community rather than competition. Many of his own images were made in collaboration with his students, whom he considered friends.

I was fortunate to be among the students in last few classes Steve taught before retiring in 1990. In 1988, after exhausting all of the photography courses I could find in Baltimore, one of my teachers suggested that I consider Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara (which has sadly just shuttered its doors). I ordered a catalog, but was disappointed that they did not offer a class in night photography, so I began to look elsewhere. Eventually I came across Steve’s class at the Academy of Art College, and my course was set. I moved to San Francisco and enrolled at AAC, where I took Steve’s class for three semesters in a row.

Steve took his summer classes in night and figure photography on camping trips to the Eastern Sierra, where he introduced me and many of his other students to Mono Lake and Yosemite National Park. High on Tioga Pass, a granite boulder balances precariously on a hillside above Olmsted Point that is the subject of one of his most famous photographs.

That boulder has come to be known as Steve’s Rock to legions of night photographers.  It now stands as a memorial to Steve and his work. If you happen to be passing over Tioga Pass, stop at Olmsted point, and look up the hill from the parking area. You can’t miss it.

"Steve’s Rock," Tioga Pass, Yosemite National Park, 1981. Perhaps Steve’s most iconic image, this granite boulder has forever become known as Steve’s Rock, and it has even become a pilgrimage of sorts for night photographers who travel to Yosemite.

"Steve’s Rock," Tioga Pass, Yosemite National Park, 1981. Perhaps Steve’s most iconic image, this granite boulder has forever become known as Steve’s Rock, and it has even become a pilgrimage of sorts for night photographers who travel to Yosemite.

I was also part of the last summer class that Steve took to the Eastern Sierra, and memories of that trip stayed with me over the years.

Eventually, I began to teach my own workshops there, and have done so every year since 2003. I know that Steve was proud to have inspired photographers such as Tom Paiva, Tim Baskerville and myself to take up his calling, and we all feel fortunate to have known and studied with him. Steve’s teaching and mentoring left an indelible mark on the lives of so many of his students, and he will be sorely missed.

Tim Baskerville is organizing an exhibit of Steve’s work and that of some of his students at Rayko Photo Center in San Francisco, to be scheduled sometime next year. I’ll post about it in this space when the show is announced, and hope to see you there.

"Self Asleep," 4.5 hours, 1984. Good night, Steve. You will be missed, but not forgotten.

"Self Asleep," 4.5 hours, 1984. Good night, Steve. You will be missed, but not forgotten.

 
Lance Keimig has been photographing at night for 30 years, and is the author of Night Photography and Light Painting: Finding Your Way in the Dark (Focal Press, 2015). Learn more about his images and workshops at www.thenightskye.com.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT

Park Ranger and Photographer Jacob W. Frank Takes On The Night

If you’re any kind of national park fan, you have almost certainly seen the work of Jacob W. Frank. It is ubiquitous—and excellent.

Part of Jacob’s not-so-secret approach is that he has one of the best tools a photographer can possess: constant access. His intimate knowledge of his subject comes from having what many of us would consider a dream job—he’s a photographer who works as a park ranger, currently at Montana's Glacier National Park.

Moreover, some of Jacob’s best-known photos were shot at night, including a superb series of work he created under the pristine skies of Arches National Park and other red-rock hot spots on the Colorado Plateau. Perhaps his most famous image is of Delicate Arch being lit by a headlamp under a stunning Milky Way sky, a photograph that exquisitely portrays the night experience of the western national parks.

Delicate Arch, Arches National Park. NPS Photo by Jacob W. Frank.

Delicate Arch, Arches National Park. NPS Photo by Jacob W. Frank.

Jacob's photo work spans many gems of the park system, including Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Death Valley, Carlsbad Caverns, Hawaii Volcanoes, Olympic, Kenai Fjords, Mesa Verde, Saguaro, Rocky Mountain, Black Canyon of the Gunnison ... and the list goes on, and on, and on.... Some of this work has been exhibited, most notably in the Smithsonian.

I spoke recently with Jacob about how he got his amazing job, his favorite photography gear, and his thoughts about doing night photography in our national parks.


Chris: How did you become a national park photographer?

Jacob: In college I got an internship at Grand Teton National Park. My mom was into photography, and she said, “If you’re going to live and work in a national park, you should probably have a camera to take pictures.”

I would get lots of visitor questions: “What is this thing that we’re looking at?”—“What is that bird?”—“What mountain is that?” I didn’t have any idea, so I would take a picture, figure out the answers and e-mail people—and that’s how I learned and what got me interested in nature.

Then after a while, I was thinking things like, “Oh, I already have a picture of that bird but I want to try to get a better one.” Once I started knowing what things were, I didn’t need to take pictures to figure them out, but rather I found myself trying to get better photos.

Now I really enjoy photography. It pushes me to go out sometimes when I wouldn’t otherwise. I’m not about hiking just for the fun of hiking—hiking is what you have to do to get good photos or to get to the top of the mountain. I just really love capturing photos. There’s an intrinsic value for me of just getting really good photos, and then it just happens to be that other people enjoy the work that I do.

Chris: What cameras do you use?

Jacob: I have a Canon 5D Mark III, which is pretty much my main camera now. I just recently got rid of a 7D that I had been using for wildlife photography.

Chris: What’s your favorite piece of non-camera photography gear?

Jacob: My Peak Design camera clip for my backpack has been a game-changer. Backpacking, hiking and climbing with a camera can be challenging. You want to have your camera accessible but putting a strap over your shoulder or neck isn’t comfortable or secure. Their Capture clip solved that problem. I find myself taking more photos and capturing better photos because I always have my camera at the ready.

Owachomo Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument. NPS Photo by Jacob W. Frank.

Owachomo Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument. NPS Photo by Jacob W. Frank.

Chris: What’s your favorite lens for night photography?

Jacob: I’ve used a variety of them. Right now I have the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, and I mainly use that. Probably down the road I’ll get the 24mm f/1.4. I’ve used that one also and I really like it.

Also, I had the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8, and the Sigma 20mm f/1.4. I’ve gotten great photos from all of them, but when you’re doing night photography, I find my lens setup changes based on what park I’m in.

For some parks you need just a superwide angle, and don’t really need a lot of zoom. For example, in Glacier the 16-35mm was too wide for most times, unless you were on top of a mountain. Often I felt like I wanted a little bit more reach, so now I shoot with the 24-105mm a lot. But that’s not fast enough for night photography, so I sold my 16-35mm and got the Rokinon.

I try to not have specialty lenses, like a one-trick pony, but I really like that Rokinon for night photography, and the 14mm is super sharp.

Chris: What is it about a park that changes the type of lenses you’re using?

Jacob: In some parks, you’re really in the park. For instance, when you’re in Arches National Park, you’re in tight spots—you’re either inside an arch or the arch is really close to you. You’re maneuvering through a squeeze or you’re hiking on some sort of a slick rock. Whatever it is, you’re in the resource and the landscape almost becomes the foreground because you’re so close to it—you’re in it. So having a superwide angle is really helpful.

Turret Arch, Arches National Park. NPS Photo by Jacob W. Frank.

Turret Arch, Arches National Park. NPS Photo by Jacob W. Frank.

On the other hand, when you’re in a big mountain park, with huge mountains far away, you can be on the mountains but there’s still a lot to see for a long distance. Having too wide of an angle diminishes the grandeur of where you are; it doesn’t portray how big and how vast everything is. You can still get those shots—I still use a superwide angle—but a lot of times you need to zoom in and capture the detail of how big a park is. Telephoto is also good for when you’re hiking around on the trails, for having the ability to zoom in and add a person to give the photo some scale.

I decided to switch from the 16-36mm to the 24-105mm after I did a detail to Alaska last summer. I went to Wrangell St. Elias National Park, and that is the ultimate park of grandeur. Everything was so big and I found myself wanting to zoom in on details, but was unable to without having to have carry separate setup.

I really like the style and the ability to zoom in on particular mountains. I’ve been doing a portrait series of mountains this summer during sunrise or sunset. There are a lot of cool peaks that you can focus on using the 100mm and 150mm range. I’ve been calling it a “Mountain Portrait Project”—just taking lots of cool pictures of individual mountains in the portrait orientation. It’s been fun and people seem to like it.

Chris: Do you have a favorite night photography technique?

Jacob: I got into night photography because of the aurora in Alaska. When I lived up there I shot a ton of aurora. It’s the coolest natural phenomenon there is, no matter how many times you see it.

Aurora Borealis at Glacier National Park. NPS Photo by Jacob W. Frank.

Aurora Borealis at Glacier National Park. NPS Photo by Jacob W. Frank.

The Milky Way is cool because you can see it with your eyes, and you can take a picture of it. You can do time lapses because it’s moving. But when you’re looking at the aurora, it makes me laugh out loud because it’s so amazing. People always ask me, “I heard that the aurora makes noise if it’s a really good storm.” And I have to say, “Maybe, but I don’t know because I’m too busy laughing the entire time.”

I got into Milky Way photography because of how much fun I had at night shooting the aurora. When I came down to the Lower 48, I moved to the Colorado Plateau, which is known for its night sky. I already knew how to shoot night stuff from Alaska, so it was a natural progression to start shooting the Milky Way.

I do like shooting the Milky Way, but a lot of it requires good camera technique. The majority of what people see nowadays aren’t even single images—they’re blended multiple images. Your average everyday person can’t take a photo like that without studying and really upping their post-processing skills.

Good aurora photos require the same technique, but the average everyday person can point their camera, push a button, the aurora is going to pop out and they are going to be amazed with it.

Chris: What are your favorite national parks for night photography?

Jacob: Alaska parks for aurora, but aurora works only in the spring, fall and winter. In the summertime, the sky doesn’t get dark enough.

Aurora, Denali National Park. NPS Photo by Jacob W. Frank.

Aurora, Denali National Park. NPS Photo by Jacob W. Frank.

For dark sky parks for shooting the Milky Way, I’ve had a blast shooting in Arches, and I’ve had a blast shooting in Capitol Reef National Park and in Natural Bridges National Monument. Hovenweep National Monument and Dinosaur National Monument have really dark skies, as does Great Sand Dunes National Park. I actually I saw northern lights when I was in Great Sand Dunes. They have really cool dark night skies.

Chris: You saw northern lights that far south?

Jacob: In May 2013 we went out to shoot the Milky Way in the dunes at midnight. I was going to stack an image of the stars rotating over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, so I was looking north. I had taken my first exposure and there was something like sky glow in the frame. I thought, “What happened to this being a dark sky park?”

Then I’m looking at the image and I said, “Wait a second, those mountains are 14,000 feet tall and I don’t think there’s anything north of them nearby."

I thought that was kind of weird, so I started time-lapsing and I noticed that the sky glow started moving and started getting pillars in it. I realized, “Oh, this is northern lights!” When we went back to the car, we got cell service and looked it up on Spaceweather.com—and it was a geomagnetic storm of like 7! So we were getting the southern end of the aurora storm.

Chris: What’s next for you? Are you working on any other specific projects?

Jacob: I had two photos in the Smithsonian’s “Wilderness Forever” exhibit that they put on for its 50th anniversary. They just took that exhibit out and are putting up a new one, and I have a couple of photos in there too. Also, my work will be one among the entrance photos for their new exhibit “100 Years of America’s National Park Service: Preserve, Enjoy, Inspire.”

In December, the plan is to go out and speak about the Centennial. Other than that, I’m just working in the park. Then when I’m not working, I’m traveling to other parks, just being outdoors.
 

To see more of Jacob's photography, and to read about his adventures photographing the national parks, visit www.jwfrank.com. He is also on Flickr and Instagram.


For more information about the gear mentioned in this post:

Chris Nicholson is the author of Photographing National Parks (Sidelight Books, 2015). Learn more about national parks as photography destinations, subscribe to Chris' free e-newsletter, and more at www.PhotographingNationalParks.com.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT