Ignes Fatui—noun, plural [ig-neez fach-oo-ai]
(Singular: Ignus Fatuus)
1. A flitting phosphorescent light seen at night, mainly over marshy ground. Also called will-o’-the-wisp, friar’s lantern and jack-o’-lantern.
2. Something deluding or misleading that lures a person on.
Most photographers want to make sharp, clear pictures that present a distinct moment—a slice of time made permanent. But in many cases, these pictures could be made again under the right conditions, either by the same photographer or someone else copying the same setup and techniques. Of course, some photographs would be extremely difficult or truly impossible to reproduce, for example, as with photojournalism or documentary images of a specific event. But in the fine art world, many photographs seem to lack a certain immediacy and distinctiveness perceived by the viewer. When someone sees a picture and thinks “I could make that”, it might be true.
With the Ignes Fatui series, I work to make fine art pictures that are truly one-of-a-kind and that could never be captured again by any means, even by myself. At the same time, I want to use the camera not to freeze a moment, but to extend it. I want to impart motion to still objects and make pictures showing something other than what’s actually there. To me, this process is the antithesis of typical photography—although I’m using the same equipment as, say, a landscape photographer or photojournalist, I try to make pictures that look nothing like the thing I pointed my camera at. Instead, the pictures show mysterious combinations of light interplaying with undefined subjects.
To make an Ignus Fatuus picture, I often work for a long time at one location, capturing many images of the scene. I always approach the subject with an image in my mind of the picture I want to make. All my pictures are carefully designed; I strive for precise placement of shadows and solid shapes with clear outlines and I construct each image very deliberately, similar to sketching or laying out a graphic design. Above all, I seek to make each picture entirely in the camera rather than relying on digital post-processing in the computer.
When I find an appropriate subject or scene, I make the photographs using long shutter speeds and moving the camera during each exposure. Sometimes the subject itself is moving. I wield the camera like a brush, waving it in the air around the subject, “painting” the available light onto the camera sensor. This allows the light reflected from the scene to streak across the captured image. I always make sure the subject is in focus before I start the exposure—usually, I want to make abstract pictures that don’t look overly “blurry”. Depth of field is important, too, because I want some elements to be sharper than others in the final composition.
As I make the photographs, I check the results frequently. I find myself “chimping” a lot—looking at each picture after it’s made and sometimes squealing with delight when I make a good one. More often than not, though, making what I think is a good picture is only the beginning. From that moment onward, I work to perfect the composition and make the strongest picture possible, given the subject and current lighting conditions. As a result of this process, most of the pictures I include in the published series are not simply “happy accidents”; they have been deliberately created with much effort and patience and with a clear vision in mind of what the picture should look like.
Pre-visualization has been essential to my developing this method…but there are often wonderful surprises, too! Over many years practicing this technique, I’ve learned to identify the subjects and scenes that can produce the best pictures; still, sometimes I am wrong and can’t quite get the pictures I want. Other times, the pictures look even more fantastic than I thought they would!
In all cases, I look for objects in the real world that could become sources for creating unique, truly abstract, graphic compositions. By allowing the sharp details, blocks of color and pronounced textures to rake across the camera sensor during the long exposure, pictures are created that contain the basic elements from the original scene, but the long exposure creates something entirely new—the resulting image does not actually exist in the real world. I am captivated by the notion that with this technique everything I see has some potential to become raw material for my abstract pictures. Given the right combination of light and subject (and my creative mood) anything can become art.
After a shoot, I usually return to my digital editing studio with hundreds of captures, many of which appear very similar at first glance. The process of editing a shoot to choose the one best image takes a long time. Once I’ve made my final selection, I sometimes make small adjustments to a picture, such as slight cropping or rotation and minor enhancements to color and contrast but, all-in-all, the finished image remains very close to the original capture. I don’t use composite images in the Ignes Fatui series; all these pictures are made from single exposures.
I really enjoy the challenge of this minimalistic approach to photography—although I can manipulate a digital image however I want using the computer, usually I’d rather not. For me, photography is more about exploring the world with my camera, finding opportunities to work on-location, and taking my time to create pictures that match my personal vision as closely as possible at that moment.
Most of the pictures I make this way are utter failures and I don’t show them to anyone. But the few that survive my rigorous editing process seem to take on a life of their own and transcend the definitions of photography, defying distinct classification. The best images are evocative and ethereal, often ghostly. They hint at the essential nature of light and matter, frozen by technology… impossibly captured like the breath of an apparition. Many of these pictures also remind me of a desert mirage, always just out of reach.
My pictures are not finished until they’re printed. For Ignes Fatui, I print all the images on museum-grade canvas using archival inks (aka “giclée”). After several layers of protective coating are applied, I embellish each print by hand, painting with clear acrylics, gels and texturing mediums. It’s amazing how the painting process can bring out aspects of each image. While I’m painting, I follow the contours of the print to match the characteristics of the original image, mimicking them with brush strokes, sponge applications, even scooping paint onto the print with a palette knife. I usually put on thicker layers of clear acrylic over lighter areas of the image; for example a bright highlight might get a thick dollop of acrylic to make it pop out in the final piece. However, the ways the paint is applied are different for every image, and for every print. This is another way in which no two works from Ignes Fatui can ever be the same: even when I’m painting over two prints of the same image, each is unique because the embellishing is always different.
My abstract imagery is inspired by the work of many photographers and painters. The first photographs I saw made using a similar method were by William Neill and Tony Sweet, who used the technique of dragging the shutter and moving the camera during the exposure to make (at the time) very unusual photographs of natural subjects. And even before digital capture, Michael Orton was well known for his “slide sandwich” technique of combining one sharp slide with another blurry one, the resulting pictures taking on a soft, painterly look that has since become known as the Orton Effect. The fine art photography of John Paul Caponigro has been a consistent source of inspiration for me for many years. But more than anything, the Ignes Fatui series has been influenced and informed by the work of painters such as Jackson Pollack, Claude Monet, Mark Rothko and Gerhard Richter. I want to use a camera to make pictures like they did with paint.
In the end, I believe the technique is not nearly as important as the result; I really just want to make beautiful pictures. If my art makes you wonder, or inspires discussion and questioning, that’s great. But even when a piece of art doesn’t really mean anything important, doesn’t ask provocative questions or make controversial statements, if that picture simply strikes your fancy and captivates your attention for a while, I am happy.
# end of artist statement