Where Light Painting Began

A wonderful mistake.

The idea of light painting did not first begin with an artistic mind. In 1914, Frank Gilbreth and wife Lillian used small lights and an open shutter to track the movements of  manufacturing and clerical workers for the sole purpose of studying what they called, “work simplification.” They were developing a way to increase employee output and simplify jobs. Although they did not intend on making art, they produced the first light painting photographs.

Work Simplification Study by Frank Gilbreth                      Cyclegraph by Frank Gilbreth

Light painting as photography.

In 1935, Man Ray was the first to use light painting as an art technique. His contribution to light painting came in his series “Space Writing.” Ray set his camera to an open shutter to produce a self-portrait. Using a small pen light, he created a “series of swirls and lines” in the air. Until 2009, that is all these photos were thought to be until photographer Ellen Carey held a mirror up to his work and discovered the drawing was actually Man Ray’s signature.

Space Writing by Light Painter Man Ray                        Space Writing by Light Painter Man Ray

Gjon Mili: 1930-1940’s

Gjon Mili was born in Albania and moved to the United States in 1923. In the 1930’s, Gjon worked with Harold Eugene Edgerton to pioneer photoflash photography. His photoflash techniques are still used today in light painting photography. Using this, Mili studied the motion of dancers, musicians, and figure skaters. Gjon attached small lights to the boots of ice skaters. He created what would be the inspiration for some of the most famous light painting images ever created

Figure Skater Carol Lynne by Light Painting Photographer Gjon Mili

In 1949, Gjon was sent by Life Magazine to photograph Pablo Picasso at his home in South of France. He showed Picasso some of his light painting photographs of the skaters. This inspired Picasso to take a penlight and draw in the air. Gjon set up his camera and captured what would become known as Pablo Picasso’s Light Drawings.

Picasso Draws a Centaur, Pablo Picasso by Light Painting Photographer Gjon Mili                               Everything is Illuminated, Pablo Picasso by Light Painting Photographer Gjon Mili

Andreas Feininger, 1949

In 1943, Andreas began working for Life Magazine. On an assignment in 1949, Feininger produced light painting photos of helicopters taking off and landing.

Sikorsky by Andreas Feininger

David Lebe, 1976

David began working with pinhole cameras in 1969. His experiments lead to his belief that a photograph could capture entire events. In 1976, Lebe opened the shutter of his camera and began the first of his light drawing series. Small pin lights were used to outline his body.

Eric Staller, 1976

Eric Staller is the most influential light painter of today. He walked the New York City streets, light painting from 1976-1980. Eric’s “Light Drawing” series may be the first to show elements of performance art.

Erci Staller's Ribbon on Hannover Street

Eric Staller's Light Tubes

Eric Staller's Happy Street

Eric Staller's Technicolor Torsos

Vicki DaSilva, 1980

Vicki is the first female light painting artist and the first to create “Text Light Graffiti”. Her husband was an electrician and they began light painting together just as she was searching for ways to use fluorescent bulbs in her art. In 1988, she began attaching the fluorescent lights to a pulley system. Vicki still creates handheld traces that she calls “Light Graffiti”.


~ KStafford

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