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Book Review: Light Break


Book Review Light Break By Nicolai Howalt Reviewed by Blake Andrews In order to understand Nicolai Howalt's project Light Break, it helps to first know something about Niels Finsen. Finsen was a Danish scientist who conducted experiments with light therapy on human patients around the turn of the last century. Using concentrated bursts of carefully filtered electromagnetic radiation on skin (visible light as well as non-visible wavelengths), he successfully cured skin lesions created by diseases like smallpox and lupus.

Light Break. By Nicolai Howalt.
Fabrik Books, 2015.
 
Light Break
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Light Break: Photography / Light Therapy
Photographs by Nicolai Howalt. Text by Morten Søndergaard.
Fabrik Books, Copenhagen, Denmark, 2015. In English/ Danish. 256 pp., 79 Color and 45 black & white illustrations (124 total), 10¾x9".


In order to understand Nicolai Howalt's project Light Break, it helps to first know something about Niels Finsen. Finsen was a Danish scientist who conducted experiments with light therapy on human patients around the turn of the last century. Using concentrated bursts of carefully filtered electromagnetic radiation on skin (visible light as well as non-visible wavelengths), he successfully cured skin lesions created by diseases like smallpox and lupus. This was before antibiotics. Light therapy not only worked, it was one of the few treatments available. Finsen's approach proved revolutionary. He won a Nobel Prize and worldwide acclaim. In the modern era his notoriety — at least outside of Denmark — has somewhat faded. But in the late 19th Century Denmark he was the rough equivalent of Pasteur or Salk, a breakout star. If you need a brush up on Finsen, or perhaps never learned about him, don't worry. The book recounts his career in detail.

Light Break. By Nicolai HowaltFabrik Books, 2015.

Finsen invented and implemented a variety of new contraptions for his work. He customized special lenses and lamps to concentrate light on specific skin areas. He created filters that would enhance or eliminate certain wavelengths. Perhaps his most colorful invention was a mulit-armed carbon arc lamp. This odd machine sat like a metal octopus propped above an array of patients on beds, each arm transmitting actinic rays (blue to ultraviolet spectrum) to a patient below. Several photos in the book give a sense of its strange appearance, including a silhouette on the cover. No, it's not the Burning Man statue. It's an Apparatus for Localized Electrotherapy, a medical marvel for its time.

Light Break. By Nicolai HowaltFabrik Books, 2015.

Today many of Finsen's tools are carefully preserved in working order at the Medical Museion in Copenhagen, where they intrigue visitors with quasi-steampunk appeal. But it's not just the tools that fascinate. It's Finsen himself. With one foot planted in history and one reaching into the modern world, he's a captivating subject. In addition to his scientific career, he was a keen amateur photographer, building lenses, lining his office with before/after photographs of patients, and even using his own skin as a sort human film to test filters. For Danish photographer Howalt, sharing nationality, a fetish for before/after effects, and a seasonal deficiency of available light, the appeal was perhaps irresistible. Howalt gained access to Medical Museion's archives, and used Finsen's equipment to produce modern exposures. The resulting project Light Break is a scientific experiment of sorts and a wonderful series of abstract prints. But above all it's an homage to Finsen.

Light Break. By Nicolai HowaltFabrik Books, 2015.

The focus on Finsen comes through strongly in the book. In addition to the photos — plus a series of rather simplistic poems (their power lost in translation?) — it includes two introductory texts, both about Finsen, with many photographs of his life and works. The only mention of Howalt's modern approach is in a very short technical explanation by him. One could almost forget Howalt's involvement if it weren't for the fact that most of the book — after several reproductions of Finsen's photos — is made up of his photographs.

Howalt used Finsen's quartz glass lenses, applied Finsen's various filters, and aimed at the sun, gradually altering wavelengths through the series to produce a rainbow of effects. The results are bizarre and beautiful, reproduced faithfully with carrier frames, rough edges, and development marks intact. Each shows the sun center frame, with occasional flashes of buildings and clouds. The variations in wavelength and focal length create a dramatic range of colorful effects. Nature's sense of color coordination trumps humanity's, and the effect is supported by the book's haphazard edit. In contrast to the orderly, rainbow-scale sequence of colors on Howalt's website, the book's order is jumbled into a colorful mix. The effect is to emphasize each photo's individual characteristics. Each photo is a unique solar accident.

Light Break. By Nicolai HowaltFabrik Books, 2015.

But despite the differences, it's the typology that dominates. Imagine a simple tie-dye of Kenneth Noland crossed with Mark Rothko and you'll be in the visual neighborhood of each image. The use of C-type paper and view camera, both of which may soon be in a museum alongside Finsen if present trends continue, adds an arcane touch. Photography was once a chemical process, a branch of physical science. And if Finsen got his hands dirty out of necessity, well then so would Howalt. But the lineage carries past Finsen, back to Talbot's Calotypes and the origins of photography: Light-Drawing. The simple reaction of silver salts to light is still as magical as it was in 1839.

Light Break. By Nicolai HowaltFabrik Books, 2015.

As I hinted earlier, Howalt's fascination with causation and transformation precedes Light Break. His 2009 series Car Crash Studies explored post-wreck vehicle scenes. His series Slutninger explored the aesthetics of cremation. His series 141 Boxers taken before and after fights probes the nature of superficial alterations. When the book juxtaposes a boxing diptych with a Finsen skin lesion diptych, the similarity is uncanny. The nature of chemical photography itself might be viewed under the same framework. Light enters a dark box. A transformation happens inside the silver salt chrysalis. Afterward a new visual form emerges, sometimes scarred with lightleaks or other unanticipated effects.

Light Break. By Nicolai HowaltFabrik Books, 2015.

Fabrik Books has produced a handsome edition of 1200 copies. The color reproductions are excellent, almost on par with the C-print originals. The book was published in conjunction with a summer exhibit in Germany, with institutional support, and thus carries many of the trappings of a museum catalog. There are multiple introductions with figured captions, a poem, a list of acknowledgments, biographies of the primary players, and finally the photos, all bound nicely in beautiful yellow hardback. The presentation is not particularly inventive, but it's comprehensive and full of information about Finsen. Howalt plays second fiddle, and lets his photographs do most of the talking.—BLAKE ANDREWS

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BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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