The Other Face of Light-Painting / Experimental Photography

* This writing, is partially published in

  • “Siyah Beyaz“ daily newspaper dated 25 March 1996,
  • In AD Art Dekor, İstanbul, October 1996, issue 43, pp. 220-224,
  • In Sanat Çevresi, İstanbul, October 1996, issue 216, pp. 30-32,
  • Milliyet Sanat, İstanbul, 15 October 1996, issue 394, pp. 35-37,
  • Fotoğraf Magazine, İstanbul, December 1996 – January 1997, issue 10, pp. 100-103

and published in full, in

  • İFSAK Photograph and Cinema Magazine, İstanbul, May 1997, issue 100, pp. 3-8,
  • YAPI, Monthly Culture, Art and Architecture Magazine, YEM Publications, İstanbul, August 97, issue 189, pp. 121-126.


Of the two types that have lately it has been hypothesized to be separate from each other in so far as use in photographic structure and their perception it is as difficult to define experimental photography as it is easy to define Direct Photography or as it is more commonly known Documentary Photography. Because, the boundaries of experimental photography are still undetermined and one can establish a moment/experimental, documentary/experimental or narrative/experimental associations when it comes to experimental photography. So, what is experimental photography in this complex structure?

We have to start with the question, what is experiment? In spoken language what we understand when we say experiment is changing the existing conditions and observing the effects of these changes. Whereas, the scientific definition of experiment is to prove the truth of the findings that emerge as a result of research based on the objective by a predetermined method. This is to ensure the development of the information within the scope of the research. As experimentation is a trial to show a reality experimental means that which is based on experiment, occurring by means of experimentation. Just as we can talk of experimentalism and experiment in science we can talk of the same concepts in art history and many areas where photography is used. For example; the research of Pointillists (dot art) to find the spectral analysis of visible white light and experimental/analytical solution seeking cubists.

Just as it is in all plastic arts, photography must also attain new means of expression and enrich its own visual language in order to sustain its existence. Experimental photography is a form of expression that goes beyond the predetermined traditional process within the physical and chemical boundaries of photography, and aims to achieve a different internal reality beyond the description of everyday life. Experimental photography attempts to demolish the fear of exclusion, dependence, and obligation, which is in the past/present and future all at once. To give a brief definition, it is nothing but the explosive expression of personality and subjectivity that incorporates every kind of innovation and trial in the field of photography. In fact, while listing all these features, do we not almost draw the frame of art too, in terms of definition? Such a wide range of responses also emphasizes the fact that the work of art is not the documentation of a narrow slice of everyday life that has been frozen at a speed of one hundred and twenty fifth of a second. Because art must have a process, and must also be thought on and present an understanding of a unique internal reality. The texture of art is not only made up of a certain moment that passed but also a future. Whether in documentary or direct photographic work, it is as if a person is forced to look at a visual image from a certain angle. Whereas the experimental photography asserts other ways of looking at that image, even nudges us to discover them. In this context, the observer is offered endless possibilities; apart from the usual horizontal, vertical reading, it has potential for reading from every direction. Moreover, also offering everyone a chance to read according to their own inclination is a freedom in itself. On the other hand, this is also a leap from the singular approach to interpretation to the plural approach. Thus you will be relieved from the troubles you experience in your brain, be free to see how the forms of expression are used and to identify the types of use.

Of course experimental work is not aimed at a broad audience, and it does not aim to create materials for visual perception-based the product of photography. But without such work, I believe that the art of photography will also be trapped in a vicious cycle.

Historical Process of Experimental Photography 

Experimental photography started in America as an artistic movement in the early 19th century and spread to Central Europe, forcing the boundaries of photography. It came out against the traditional attitude, began with photography itself and has been a constant pioneer, always one step ahead. This is why one of the dictionary definitions of the word avant-garde, one of the most common concepts used for experimental arts is pioneer.

The historical process started in 1835 with Henry Fox Talbot’s use of the calotype method and the sun prints, the first examples of the negative/positive process used today, were produced.
Eadveard Muybridge’s experimental studies on the concept of motion realized in the 1850s have accelerated the development process of kinematography. Experimental photography was initially used as a game, without being based on a certain theory. It starts makes itself known and begins to be considered an artistic movement parallel to the developments in technological structure of the photography in the 1920s. Some examples are Christian Schad’s Schadographies, Dadaist Man Ray’s Rayograms, and the unusual semi-abstract, abstract essays that Moholy-Nagy from the Bauhaus school applied in his Photograms. Nagy, a versatile artist and theoretician, argues that the photography that continues to the re-present the multidimensional objective reality in two dimensions should reveal more creative, more innovative works and proves his hypotheses through his work.

The whole of Europe is shaken by the political crisis that brought about the end of the Republic of Weimar and the Second World War. The political and economic instability in Europe often force artists to migrate to America. Thus the new bauhaus starts coming together in many institutes of higher education in America. Post-World War II Germany makes a fresh start under the leadership of Otto Steinert, who introduced the concept of subjective photography. Experimental photography entered art education institutions in the West as an artistic discipline after 1945 and is prevalent at the academy and college level in Europe in 1968. In our country, the introduction of experimental photography into the photographic education program initiated in Mimar Sinan University in 1978, occurred in the 1980s. Today, it is taught as an artistic discipline in the second and third year curriculum at the Photography Department at the Mimar Sinan University Faculty of Fine Arts. Whereas, in the Marmara University Faculty of Fine Arts Department of Photography, it is part of the master’s and proficiency in art program.

Experimental Photography and Turkey

The experimental view of transmitting the logic of re-presentation of superficial visuality and flat-semantic photographic displays and reality to art is inadequate, and that aims to achieve interdisciplinary communication with though based language made its first constructive debut in early 1980s. Post-1980s is the period when an alternative line, breaking traditional patterns in the efforts to connect with the form and tendencies of the contemporary world is formed. This understanding, which connects itself to a certain artistic trend and needs new theories, was born as a reaction to the thought that was trapped in the stereotypes of the socio-realistic photography, which instead of being enriched with the individual differences in the beginning of 1980, entered into a contraction process, and viewed pessimism and misery as a social crime and reflects this to the works. Thus, a wall went up between the documentary photography based on description in the pre-1980s and the experimental photography that scrutinizes the vital dimension in a different way, the presence of which still continues today.

In the last 15 years, in spite of increased interest in the experimental approach at the national level and its acceptance by a wide group of people, shows a development so slow that it cannot catch up to the rapid change of other arts. There are several important reasons for this:

First: Although education is institutionalized it had to be considered primarily as the most important of the prerequisites necessary for the photography to fulfill its social and artistic function and this was delayed. Thus, the educational cadre could not be made compliant with the thought structure of the age.

Second: The insistence of those interested in experimental photography on the storage of technological information rather than theory.

Third: Perhaps the most important reason is that the environment to pave the way for the fruition of artistic personality is not yet established.

As such, it is not possible today and in the short term to talk mainly of the place of experimental photography at the international level. However, some individual achievements may be mentioned.

Experimental Photography and Other Formats

The broad definition of photography is a visual re-presentation of multidimensional objective reality in two dimensions. So, experimentality, driven by both the theory and the viability observed in the practical field from 1980 to the present day, has been realized on two different planes under the conditions of our country.

In the first plane photography surpassed the objectivity of objective image, and used all technical, aesthetic, semantic and pragmatic possibilities at its disposal. This plane is the abstract expressionism plane. Experimental methods both known and unknown can be used if making the visual structure abstract will up its aesthetic quality or even (if possible) add to its meaning.

The second plane is the conceptual plane based on the concept that objective reality is entirely surpassed. Here the aim is not to reach photography, but to use it as a tool in the act of creating it. Researching the third dimension, spatial arrangements, photo-installations are evaluated in this plane. Also, it is not surprising that people who use this plane are outsiders to photography and usually have a background in painting and sculpture.

We can broadly summarize the characteristics of the abstract expressionist post-1980 period under 4 different headings: 1. To utilize the universal cultural heritage, 2. To be dependent on universal common values and using a common expressive language, 3. To remained adhered to the art categories of the West, 4. To prioritize stylistic problems.

These are features that distinguish experimental photography from other forms of photography.

Experimental Photography in the Educational Process

When photography education started at Mimar Sinan University Faculty of Fine Arts, in 1978, the aim of experimental photography, included in the curriculum as of the 1980s ,is to reach the original artistic message by using all the technological and aesthetic possibilities of photography and other plastic arts. Education comprises 5 different features in terms of content:

  1. Research-oriented approaches are given priority.
  2. Precise assessment and judgment are avoided.
  3. A certain plan is not adhered to.
  4. A certain thought or understanding is not attempted to be put across.
  5. The basic principle of the artistic language desired to be reached is creative idea identified as thesis/hypothesis or thought.

When the objective in the education of experimental photography is to go beyond the classical process the examination of light-sensitive materials, as well as of the different effects of the chemicals that affect it also comes up. In this vein, efforts to obtain color solutions resulting from the reaction of the silver salts to the light beams of different wavelengths by empirical methods, without using foreign pigment painters on the light sensitive black/white photograph paper and film material, constitute the researcher aspect of education.

On the Third Exhibition

Perhaps the most important of the experimental photography shows having gained continuity in our country is “Experimental Photography Student Work Exhibition”. It would be correct to consider this activity as one of the key indicators of our intellectual photography culture that is still in its formation phase in our country.

The third of the conventional Experimental Photography Student Work Exhibition, which has been held regularly since 1989, with the efforts of Mimar Sinan University Faculty of Fine Arts Department of Photography Art Photography, was held at the Emlak Bank Beyoğlu / Tunnel Art Gallery between the dates 4-30 October, 1996.

The main theme of the third exhibition of the Experimental Photography Student Work Exhibition is –as in previous exhibitions- self-portrait based on the effort of the image to establish direct relations with the viewer, is organized as directed to such aims as: “in Turkish photography art, to determine the stages of development of experimental photography, to present these to our society, to identify the interaction of experimental photography, to reach contemporary interpretations, to provide and support the formation of contemporary art environment in marginal areas like photography, to help prepare the culture/art environment for tomorrow’s young artists and to provide the opportunity of public appearance by calling on the art platforms outside the education institutions; emphasizing the necessity of art education process for the experimental photography showing a positive development as of the 1980s in our country, and intensifying the interest of the mass in the versatile experimentality having the leading role in the acceptance of the photography as an artistic discipline.” The fact that the use of the space in our culture and forward orientation having direct connection with the spatial arrangement, or the image getting in direct contact with the viewer, emerged as the dominant plastic element in the third exhibition, indicates that this item has started to show continuity in the Experimental Photography Student Works Exhibition.

In this exhibition, as in the past, work with abstract expressive and critical realistic attitudes continue: Evren Güngör refers to analytic cubism in all 3 of his works he put forward by using the sun printing (gum dichromate) method which was used in the 1800s. Arzum Ekşioğlu, reminds us of the fact that photographic reality disappears or that all kinds of depictions in photography are falsities, by burning the three-dimensional mass of 18×13 cm dimension formed from self-portrait prints. Çetin Ergand, processes the difficulty faced by the individual in self-identification, Aytaç Öztürk and Nesrin Kadıoğlu process internal contradictions, and Mehmet Ali Sağbili a life story, with a documentary/experimental synergy.

In the exhibition, the work that remain within a frame presented by light-sensitive material despite all the manipulations, where the boundaries of photography are forced, photography is used as a tool in the action of creation, comprise a large portion of the exhibition. Such work have significance also in terms of involving color analysis results produced by different methods on light sensitive black and white photographic material, as well as in terms of emphasizing the researcher aspect of experimental photography in education. In this context, the work of Günizi Çakılcıoğlu, Temmuz Arşiray, Hamza Hocaoğlu and Nihal Gündüz are remarkable examples.

Naturally, it cannot be expected that all students having their work exhibited in this exhibition become high-level artists. In this case, educating prospective, open-minded, tolerant people enlightened by innovation is one of the other important aims of this exhibition.

December 1996

All articles