Optica: Playing With Light

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Visual Arts sit down with the organisers of Optica to hear more about the motivation, thought and process behind this exciting showcase of long-exposure photography.

Prompted by their art-loving college chaplain Andrew Tinkler, this exhibition is a collaboration between Josephine Butler College Arts Society, their Artist in Residence, Alexandra Carr, and Outstanding Art Gallery, who are generously hosting the pop-up over the weekend at the end of November. 

But Optica won’t end there. Butler’s Art Society presidents Stella Wood and Caitlin Kinney, along with Optica curator Eden Szymura, aim to incorporate this eye-catching, experimental work into their college’s permanent art collection with the support of Butler’s college trust fund. This is a fantastic opportunity to not only inject a dose of culture into a relatively young college, but also to capture and document the talents of Durham’s students for future generations to appreciate. 

Optica will offer a tangible sense of the skill and artistic ability sizzling under the surface of Durham’s student body

This is very much a student led, student run exhibition: from its key players, Wood, Kinney and Szymura, to its exhibitors, Optica will offer a tangible sense of the skill and artistic ability sizzling under the surface of Durham’s student body. Despite this being the work of young creatives and organisers just starting out, the final pieces are by no means amateur. There is a high level of quality amongst the work to be displayed, both in terms of the visual effects and the technical prowess of these photographers, playing with the fickle beast of long-exposure photography and light painting. 

Kinney herself was struck by the sophistication of certain pieces, given the scope for the form to tip into excessive or crude imagery, and she’s spot on. Of the final works for exhibition, selected from almost 100 submissions, attendees will be delighted by the diversity, breadth and powerful simplicity of this playful idea. 

The concept for Optica came from the light painting workshops delivered by Carr at Butler over the past academic year, experimenting with colour and composition through long-exposure photography. At its most basic, these images are the result of extending a camera’s shutter-speed far longer than usual (perhaps 15 seconds as opposed to the typical 1/60th of a second) so as to capture movement in a blur. The outcome is always surprising and often tricky to manipulate, leaving adventurous photographers with fluid, hazy images that carry huge impact.

The outcome is always surprising and often tricky to manipulate

The ‘light painting’ method comes into play when a light source is manipulated in front of the lens or, vice versa, when the camera is moved around in front of a light source. Through quick movements alone, you can ‘paint’ an image in the blink of an eye — think writing your name with a sparkler! Picasso even played with this technique in the 1950s, creating huge, voluptuous figures with his own indistinct outline just visible in the dark behind them. 

The possibilities are endless and these student artists have exploited their medium to a breathtaking extent. From fibre optics to stained glass windows, passing cars, stars and even Lumiere exhibits, Optica offers a whole spectrum of visual delights.

The possibilities are endless

Most admirable is the sheer effort and energy invested in Optica by the small, passionate team of people at work both in front of and behind the camera. Although the University might lack a formal Fine Arts programme, its students still harbour a great deal of talent. This exhibition is an earnest attempt at channelling this creativity through an accessible subject matter that we all share: light. 

Optica will be on display at Outstanding Art Gallery, 6 North Rd, Durham DH1 4SQ, on the 30th November, 10am to 11pm and 1st December, 10am to 6pm. 

Photograph by Sam Winder

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