If it causes you to dream, then maybe it is…art.
Conversation with Claude Morin, Paris, 1986
While pursuing a BA and MFA in art, I studied drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, and art history. My art historical studies focused on Japanese sculpture and ceramics, modernist painting and sculpture, and photography. In my early work as a sculptor, I strove to translate art historical themes and aesthetic principles, particularly those of ancient Japanese ceramics, into the medium of wood. Later, I began to incorporate themes and techniques from ukiyo-e prints and modern painting into the creation of carved and painted reliefs in wood. All along, I used photography to study form and line, making photos of architectural elements, and forms and designs occurring in nature. When I finally turned to abstract photography as my primary medium for artistic expression, the art historical themes and principles of form and color I had studied for many years would inform my new work.
The greatest influences on my work in nonobjective photography have been experiences that occurred many years before I began making these images. Ideas and mental images gained from encounters with the work of two iconic early 20th century photographers stayed with me for the next thirty to forty years, until the time was right for me to begin exploring abstract photography.
After building my first studio in Henniker, New Hampshire, in 1969, I had the privilege of meeting Lotte Jacobi, the German-American photographer who lived a few miles away in the town of Deering. We frequented the same camera store back then, and I became interested in her experimental approach to photography.
In some of her images, Lotte used an odd technique of “snatching” the camera back towards herself near the end of an exposure to create motion blur. Other images were created without a camera, by sending light through paper onto a sheet of film. She was using a technique that predates the camera, photogenic drawing, invented in 1834, the first photographic process for producing negative images on paper. However, while the photogenic process had originally been developed and used to produce recognizable images of objects, Lotte adopted the process for the creation of abstractions.
The forms created in these photographs fascinated me. It was as if the forms existed in another realm and were revealed by capturing the passage of light through paper. More than forty years later, I was astounded to see some of the same forms revealed when I moved the camera to “draw” with specular highlights.
After college, I began making sculpture in wood. Following the advice of one of my professors to document everything I did, from processes to finished works, I pursued photography with equal seriousness. For years, my main focus in photography was the documentation of my work.
I was always fascinated with the odd images produced by winding film into place at the beginning and end of a roll. Rolling the film involved pressing the shutter button a few times, sometimes resulting in images that were processed along with the intentional shots. The motion of winding often produced blurred panning shots. I was captivated by the melded colors, the odd unrecognizable formations that were these “bad slides.” Mostly those frames went into the trash, but occasionally transcendent images emerged, reminiscent of the abstract images created by Lotte Jacobi.
In 1979, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired two of my pieces for its newly established Twentieth Century Decorative Arts collection, the curator invited me to have a look behind the scenes at the extensive collection that few people ever see. There were Rodin marble sculptures just sitting in the hallways, along with paintings by Renaissance masters, and other classical through recent artworks of all kinds. The curator showed me the work of James Prestini, a Yale-educated engineer who made exquisitely turned plates and forms of exotic woods in Chicago from the 1930s to the 50s. Next to some of his bowls was a portfolio of photographs by Barbara Morgan, a photographer who had a longstanding friendship with Prestini.
I asked if I could look through the portfolio and, among the photos of Martha Graham and other subjects, I found the “light drawings” Morgan had created in the 1940s using a flashlight in a dark room. Leaving the camera lens open, she moved the flashlight, creating light trails on the film. Coincidentally, Barbara Morgan’s son Lloyd and I became friends when he did some excellent work for me at his print shop outside of New York City. Lloyd maintained an archive of his mother’s works and allowed me to look through her photographs, including many light drawings. The experience of viewing Barbara Morgan’s photographic abstracts added to my determination to some day use the camera to “paint with light.”
The Abstract Photos
About ten years ago, after over thirty years of working as a sculptor, I began to slow down and shifted my focus to an exploration of nonobjective photography. Having been fascinated by Man Ray’s, Picasso’s, and Matisse’s experiments with light drawing, as well as the work of Barbara Morgan and Lotte Jacobi, I had always wanted to somehow translate the spontaneity and vitality of abstract expressionism into painterly photos that imply both motion and emotion. On a visit to Vancouver in 2005, I did a series of images I call “The Light Walkers” where people are moving in a blur in front of a panned background made from the trees and the late light of the afternoon sun.
I began experimenting with a variation of the technique of panning. Instead of following a moving subject to keep it in focus against a blurred background, I moved the camera over a static subject, blurring both subject and background, while keeping specular highlights in focus. In this 2005 photograph, Moving Money, I wanted to create blur lines, connoting movement of the Walking Liberty. After shooting hundreds of failed images by hand with the camera, I built a linear motion rail system so that the camera would track parallel to the foreground subject, still powered by hand, but guided on a rail. This manner of working, using a jig for stability, follows the concept stated by the brilliant English professor of the Royal Academy of Art, David Pye, of “the workmanship of certainty vs. the workmanship of risk.” (The Nature and Art of Workmanship, 1968, ISBN 1-871569-76-1)
With the rail system, I was able to control the camera movement with a certainty and achieve the look I wanted in the shot. This use of a mechanical system to regulate linear motion during the photographic process was a precursor to my later and ongoing experiments in automation.
After these early experiments in which the subjects I photographed were basically recognizable though blurred, I devoted my energies to using photographic techniques to create images that transcend physical reality to enter a realm of unseen form and color—using the camera like a paintbrush, with the reflected light taking the place of paint. The rapid development of digital photography gave me the freedom to experiment without the constraints of film and processing.
To produce an image that is not just blurred, but creates new forms or, as it seems to me, reveals existing but unseeable forms, the light, focus, exposure, shutter speed, and movement of the camera must all be right. Over months of practice, and thousands of photos, I developed techniques for selecting a properly lit subject, and moving the camera while shooting, to produce the kind of images I was looking for.
I focus on the specular highlights and color planes, with sufficient depth of field to capture the elements of the subject that I want to work with. Moving the camera as though it has a large float under it and is bobbing gently with the waves, I lock onto the highlights and pull or push them in a rhythmic pattern. I call this technique of reusing specific repetitive movements “robomimical.” Through experimentation, I learn which movements will release the hidden forms in a particular lighting and subject combination, so that I can repeat the action until something special happens, a gift of the process.
Just as the depth of field at low f/stops is often razor thin, so too is the window of opportunity for transcendent images using this approach. Not pushed far enough and the images show their origins (which for this purpose is generally undesirable); pushed too far and they lose definition, or become otherwise unworkable.
Achieving an image that transcends technique and becomes a new reality often involves taking hundreds of shots and wading through them to find just one or two that create an atmosphere or convey an emotion that I find meaningful. These are “happy accidents,” like those that occur to artists in all media, when careful preparation and skill make the serendipitous occurrence possible, and conscious observation identifies and authenticates it.
Breaking Through to the Other Side
The first of my abstract photos that, for me, transcended the ordinary, visible world, revealing an unseen reality, was Antelope Dream. It was shot indoors using an object of no consequence to transform the components of the here and now into the here but unseen.
One day around Thanksgiving 2004, I was shooting a plant indoors. The light was coming in through a pair of French doors, not directly onto the plant, but filling the room with a beautiful glow. I was working the camera with hand and wrist movements, subtle shifts back and forth, adding in some circular motion, and had an enjoyable shoot. When I began looking through the images, one jumped out at me—the composition was dramatic, the exposure and focus correct, and the juxtaposition of line and form created an image that reminded me of something, though I could not tell what. I began working with it, all the while thinking I had seen it before but just didn’t know where.
When I finished minimal processing of the image—adjusting color temperature and cloning out sensor spots—it hit me: it was as though I were somewhere in the slot canyons at Antelope in a dream landscape. So I called the image Antelope Dream and began a re-edit to bring forward the wispy red, white, and light green, while the reddish brown background that is similar to the rock formations of Antelope anchored the photo. With no trace of the original subject appearing, Antelope Dream somehow asserted itself during the moment of shooting, arriving as a happy accident, seemingly the visible manifestation of a pre-existing landscape. I began to think of my abstract photographs as “landscapes of the mind.”
Always amidst a certain degree of frustration, images began to arrive like strange visitors from another planet. Gradually, I assembled a portfolio of images that would become a cohesive body of work, created using the same technique of deliberate and smooth motions with a handheld camera over surfaces that catch and reflect the light—”painting with light.”
In Ascension of the Cones, the specular highlights of an area of objects were clustered together, and with repetitive pulling motions, these identifiable forms emerged. In the stream of images, every image either left or right of this one was close, but not quite right. This is usually the case: if I’m fortunate, one or two images out of many hundreds will meet my criteria for an art piece.
An image that surprised me is Fish Dream – Coy/Koi. I shot gigabytes of images late one afternoon, again at the end of the day when the light is low and the shadows are long. When oncoming darkness halted my shooting, I began sifting through the enormous files. As I was looking, lo and behold, this fish image emerged from the abstract forms, swimming into view with eyes closed, as though it is “dream swimming.”
Often, an image suggests a title to me while I’m processing. I try to find a “hook” with each piece in the form of a title. The right title invites the viewer to try to understand the image, but is not so specific that it limits the viewer’s freedom to experience the image in his or her own way. I like to string words together in short phrases that create word pictures, that add a layer of meaning on top of the image itself. The title doesn’t always describe the work, it sometimes makes a historical reference or pokes fun at the image or the process.
Late one early spring evening in Florida, after a rain storm, I noticed a small puddle had formed outside. I went out with my camera and quickly was on the ground shooting into the puddle catching the grass on the edges and the reflection of the post-storm sky in the water. Always fascinated with ukiyo-e (which translates as “the floating world”), I recognized that the elements of the resulting image, Grass Flies Like Birds, mimic a Japanese woodblock print.
Point and Shoot at Hokusai is a title that pokes fun at the process and the idea of the ukiyo-e woodblock print becoming obfuscated by photography. In this abstract, the image refers to several of Hokusai’s woodblock prints using a particular range of colors and wave formations that he was so well known for. The title achieves a state of pastiche, a “stalemate” between what the audience already understands and is familiar with and the image “quotation” that combines elements of the original, yet retains its separate identity.
The photo entitled Big Night at the Bijou jumped out at me from the rest in the batch, shouting “home town movie theatre.” In this piece, the image conjures up the late night neon lights and marquee of a movie theater in an earlier time, when theaters added glamour and excitement to small towns across the country.
Jet Streamline is a work about speed and the Streamline Era of design, moving at light speed toward the promise of modernism. When I first saw this image among the rest, I felt the smooth gliding of a rail train carry me into the future.
I began printing with an Epson 2200 printer, then an Epson 4800 Pro. Later I got an HP Z3100 after seeing Michael Reichmann’s January 2007 video about the printer. Nine years later, while I still have the Z3100, I mostly use a Z3200ps 44” and a Z3200 24” for my prints. In addition to printing on high quality papers, I print on canvas, often at 44” wide, then send the canvases off to be finished and stretched.
All the time I was printing these images on paper or canvas, I felt that neither was exactly the right medium for large prints. When I first tried having one of my images printed on dye-sub aluminum, I could hardly believe the quality of the result. I now prefer to have my large abstracts printed on Ultra Gloss White Aluminum panels. It’s like it is just made for these images, a perfect marriage of image and material. I have a quality color workflow with custom profiles created in-house, and I make full-size proofs in my studio and send them off along with my files. Working closely with a quality dye-sub printer, who sends proofs printed on Chromaluxe, I’m confident that the final prints will be true to color and faithful to my original.
Having been a Photoshop user since the beginning, actions have been an important aspect of my workflow. As each iteration of Photoshop came out, improvements opened up possibilities for using actions to automate processes. Early breakthroughs in my abstract work done during 2005 through 2007 using Nikon cameras, D2H and D2X, led to a period of further experimentation through flipping and combining images, creating works that I call “Recursions.” Initially, I manually aligned images to be joined, but gradually I developed actions to do that work for me, so I could quickly experiment with smaller files. Eventually, I was using a set of sophisticated actions and combinations of actions to create more complex patterns.
Conga was created through a simple quad flip rotated on a central axis, evoking a feeling of a rhythmic beat, pulsating shards of light and sound. The original subject was a part of the window on a Dodge truck in late afternoon during “low light season” in Florida. I attempt to compress images into forms that are emotive, having connotations beyond graphic arts. Conga responds to the work done by the Fauvists Matisse and Derain in the early 1900s. The design owes much to my sculptural columns, as well.
Oceana/Africana is a complicated “Recursion” that is the result of some fifty iterations created by a series of actions. I began with a single motion blur photograph and kept playing with it until I had created a highly complex image, so complicated that it was difficult to find the final crop. In selecting the crop, I had in mind certain African art pieces that seemed to resonate with the forms in the image. Combining the word pictures “Oceana” and “Africana,” the image seemed to take on its own life or “quasi-iconic status.”
Robotics – Expanding Horizons
Midway in my woodworking career, I built a few robots to help automate certain woodworking processes and to improve ergonomics in work-holding situations. Rather than moving around the work, I let the robots bring the work to me. Additionally, the robots enabled me to do certain repetitive processes that were difficult to accomplish using standard methods.
I began experimenting with using cameras with my woodworking robots early in the 1990s, with mixed results. My simple robots were “dumb robots,” meaning they do not provide feedback to their controllers. Most robots are guided by sophisticated closed loop systems. My simple 90 volt DC motor controllers were unable to repeat specific processes the way CNC controlled stepper or servo motor systems can.
In my photo studio, I built a robot that I call “Photo Astro.” It was an elaborate modified early-generation welding robot that I used as a combination tripod and copy-camera stand. Photo Astro had a vertical lead screw as its z-axis and a y-axis with a rack and pinion driven arm that could hold a camera, a projector, or studio lighting. The only automated part was the z-axis, allowing the carriage holding the arm to travel up and down by means of a gear motor and reversing drum switch. I got a lot of use out of Photo Astro for certain copy camera jobs and while creating composite drawings for carved painted reliefs I was working on at the time.
I used Photo Astro to create Sudden Reign (the carved relief shown below), first to design the montage, then to project the montage on the wood panel. After tracing the design on the panel, I carved and painted it.
For years I thought about having a robot powered by computer numeric control (CNC) but didn’t have the time to delve deeply into the intricacies of stepper motors. After I became fully involved in making nonobjective photographs, I again began experimenting with using the camera on my wood studio robot, and found it to be extremely limiting. Gradually, I began working on a project to create several CNC controlled robots with stepper motors. After a six month long period in 2015 of working intensely on building the robots, in part with the advice and encouragement of a few professionals, I assembled what would be my first CNC robot, which I called RC-ACR I (Remote Controlled Articulating Camera Robot), and a larger more stable robot for studio work called RC-ACR II. At first, I thought I would create images in the manner of my earlier abstracts, but with greater predictability, but found that the robots I created had their own ideas of the images they wanted to make.
Early on in my work as an artist, I developed a philosophy of not fighting the materials, but rather accepting them. The problems I could not overcome in my designs and builds of woodworking machines become integral to the designs of the art work. The irregularities constitute a “gift from the machine” in this philosophy. Just as I accepted sympathetic vibration in some of the lathes I built and incorporated the “defects” into my designs, I am doing the same with my robotically controlled photography, since backlash is heightened by weight, and unavoidable within my budget.
Working with the idiosyncrasies of the robots, I have begun a new series of images, some of which can be seen below. I continue to use hand-held techniques in concert with my new robotic cameras. The process involved in making images is still painstaking and unforgiving, however. My robotic systems are additional tools in the process of making my art, yet they also offer new works that could not be accomplished by any other means.
Videos By Mark
Mark Lindquist is an internationally recognized artist with works in the collections of several of the world’s major museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England. He was given a 25year retrospective exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1995, and his works are in many private and public collections throughout the US and abroad.
Mark has been photographing in small, medium, and large format since 1969 and has spent a lifetime creating fine art photographs of his work and works of other artists, including photographing in the White House Oval Office. He has been a digital camera user since 1999 and an early adopter of Nikon’s cameras ever since. Always an advocate of the fine print, Mark has a dedicated print studio with a goal of creating the highest quality museum archival printing possible with his systems.
Lindquist owns and operates Lindquist Studios in north Florida, a 15,000 sq. foot studio facility that has a full complement of studios in several media, including photography and print studios and galleries. Today, Mark is designing and building robots and is pursuing the creation of abstract photography.
Mark Lindquist’s website regarding his sculpture is lindquiststudios.com.