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Geometric Abstractions, Made Using Nothing But Light Beams

Photographer James Nizam shares how he managed to manipulate the sun’s rays into shapes.

As a photographer, James Nizam is accustomed to manipulating light for efficacy and effect, but for two of his most recent projects the Vancouver-based artist truly transformed natural illumination. Nizam directed the sun’s beams with laser-like precision into ethereal yet well-defined floating geometric shapes in his studio for his Thought Forms series, and a translucent wall in an abandoned building for Shard of Light.

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Nizam had been experimenting with the concept of these “light sculptures” when he came across a unique venue to develop the idea. In an industrial area just outside of Vancouver, he discovered a dilapidated house up for auction at the low low price of one single dollar bill. “The only catch was that whoever purchased it had to relocate the entire structure,” he tells Co.Design. Rather than round up some loose change and attempt to move the home, Nizam pitched a “very loose proposal” to the city. “I solicited the use of the space to realize a ‘commemorative sculpture’ if no one came through on the property.”

His deal was approved, and he began planning Shard of Light. “I spent months just observing the procession of the sun over the site, trying to understand how light fell on the structure at different times of day and trying to predict the waning light over the course of the summer months when the project would take place,” he says. Architecture was also a factor—only one room was big enough to stage a full frame. “Everything then hinged on the fixed camera position within this room and the orientation of this room in relation to the procession of the sun.” Structural reinforcements were made to ensure the roof wouldn’t collapse, and an entire section was removed before being built back as a precise one-inch slit, which “focused a curtain of light into a perfect shard.”

Thought Forms took place in his own workshop. So how did he do it? “I had four surfaces to bounce light off of: floor, ceiling and two walls. The sun hit the window on the west facing side of my studio at 4pm everyday; an aperture I placed on the window focused sunlight into a beam, giving me a line segment of sorts. Using small mirrors mounted to a ball joint I could redirect this light beam to another point in the room—for example, I could bounce it from a mirror on the floor to a mirror on the wall and back to the aperture, closing a two-dimensional triangle in the camera plane,” he explains.

Nizam had to account for the natural evolution of the sun’s rays—in the beginning of summer the beam fell into the middle of the room, but it traversed right a half-inch per day over the course of the summer months—but that wasn’t the most difficult aspect. “The challenge was building three-dimensional illusions in isometric projection and fitting them into anamorphic perspective from the point of view of the camera.” Or, in other words… “I thumbnailed hundreds of forms in advance of starting the project, chose a few that best pushed the visual illusion of simultaneously receding, projecting, and remaining flat in space, then built the forms off of the sun’s angle of incidence as it shifted from day to day.” As many as seven in-camera, multiple exposures were used for some of the images. “I had to break apart the forms into fragments or line segments of sorts and build them back together in camera on a single frame.” Fog from a smoke machine gave the light lines a bit of clarity and depth, and voila! Light-saber-looking levitations.

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