Orchestrated Single Exposures with Geoff Robertson

As a fashion designer, I've had the pleasure to collaborate over these past few years with this inspiring couple: classical violinist Audrey Wright and her husband, artist and engineer Geoff Robertson. The two together are also constantly challenging themselves in many creative experiments, and for this blog post, I wanted to shine a light on their most recent artwork.


Let's begin by appreciating the artwork that Geoff created for Audrey and her duo partner, pianist Yundu Wang, for the release of their debut album Things in Pairs. Next, we'll dive into all the nitty gritty details of how it was created, hearing from Geoff himself. 

Photograph of musical duo Audrey Wright and Yundu Wang by Geoff Robertson

Audrey Wright and Yundu Wang, dressed in NOT, photograph by Geoff Robertson

A photo like this, at first glance, seems to owe itself to the trickery of digital editing tools and special effects. However, what if I were to tell you that this photo was all created in the camera frame, in a single long-exposure shot, with no editing at all? That the twinkling stars in the back were made from LED lights hidden in ping pong balls, extruding from the wall wrapped by black duct tape? Let's hear Geoff speak.

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Geoff Robertson: I took the title of the album, Things in Pairs, as the brief for the shot itself. Here, my goal was to generate a single-exposure photograph that abstractly encapsulated this concept in conjunction with other symbolic nods and references to my wife’s vocation (i.e. a musical staff, notes / octaves, and, of course, her violin).

If you think of light as paint and the camera’s sensor as a canvas, what I do as an artist is basically open the camera’s shutter, present light in a very controlled, choreographed way, and then close the shutter. The resulting image is an aggregate of all that was presented during that time. Hence, why I call my work “orchestrated single-exposures”. The driving challenge in this for me is coming up with elaborate ways to present that light so as to push the boundaries of what a single exposure photograph can contain compositionally. To help me with this, I build devices and systems that aid in how light is applied in specific ways. Think of them as custom paint brushes. For example, the Halo Machine affords me control over the spin, state, and position of lights as they rotate around a subject.


Now, almost serendipitously, around the time Audrey and I began discussing the possibilities of the album art for 'Things in Pairs', I had been toying with the notion of using The Halo Machine as the lighting source in stroboscopic photographs. Stroboscopic photography is essentially when multiple flashes are used to “stamp” the content of a desired image onto the camera’s sensor or film. Typically this is done with an actual camera flash dispersing multiple bursts of light milliseconds in duration. This is ideal in situations where the content is moving and you don’t want blur in the resulting image. However, in a controlled setting where the content is stationary, this flash could be much longer in duration - thus allowing it to be generated by a light-painting device such as The Halo Machine. 

This particular image was created via three of these aforementioned stroboscopic “stamps” (one for each pair of faces that you see). Here, the light for each stamp was generated by The Halo Machine in tandem with other lighting apparatuses. The challenge in constructing the resulting composition was controlling the placement, duration, and intensity of the light applied with each stamp. This is important because light is additive in nature. Meaning, if you repeatedly stamp it, the areas where the stamps overlap will become brighter and brighter - thus causing the content in the resulting image to appear unevenly illuminated. However, this can be avoided by devising mechanisms to control what light is applied (and where) with each stamp. The infrastructure alone to do this took ~5 months to develop (note, this is on top of the year I spent developing The Halo Machine) and included both the physical set (i.e. the stage, seat, foot placement guides, violin light / mount, star lights / mounting panel, etc.) as well as the aforementioned mechanisms of stamp control. 

In order to help me convey how this all worked, I have created an accompanying schematic that breaks the infrastructure down into five areas of focus: Spin Triggers, Microcontroller, Relay Modules, Lighting Apparatus, and Operation. You can also check out this behind the scenes video clip showing the actual creation of this photo.

TIP BTS.mp4 from chockablock on Vimeo.

schematic of spin triggers

 

schematic of microcontroller

schematic of relay modules

schematic of lighting apparatus

schematic of lighting apparatus

schematic of operation

To learn more about Geoff and Audrey:

https://www.geoffrobertson.me/photography

http://audreywrightviolin.com/

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