Sculpting with light in the creation of luminograms

Using light, photo paper and darkroom chemicals, Michael Jackson makes ‘luminograms’ – beautiful one-off images that have as much in common with sculpture as photography

Flock by Michael Jackson

Curved forms are grouped by sharp lines, while spheres appear to sit on different planes of the picture. Greys of various saturations give way to bright whites and blacks. This is not an abstract pencil work, or a painting – nor the work of a digital artist – it’s the result of darkroom chemical processes and the simple act of marking photo paper with light.

According to Michael Jackson, the photographer behind this series of ‘luminograms’, his method is one he prefers to keep vague. When asked about the work that goes into making these pictures, his usual reply is to suggest a list of the materials one needs to construct them – basic silver gelatin photo paper and standard darkroom chemicals – alongside whatever light source the participant wants to try out in the darkroom. By their very nature, these are experimental pieces.

Writing on the Ilford Photo blog earlier this year, Jackson touched on the history of a technique first adopted by László Moholy-Nagy in 1922 and described by the photographer and theorist Gottfried Jäger as “the result of pure light design; the rudimentary expression of an interaction of light and photosensitive material … a kind of self-representation of light.”

Crucifix and Pathways by Michael Jackson

“I have had colleges in America running courses on the process and, after giving them this basic advice, they have produced some unique and interesting results – which, importantly, are nothing like my work at all,” says Jackson. “For me, [this] shows what a wonderful and adaptable process it is – allowing an individual’s true self to show through in their work.”

Jackson regards the act of making the marks on the paper as “a very intuitive and responsive one” and, intriguingly, it’s a process that comes out of the eight years he spent “recording and studying a single beach in Wales, Poppit Sands”.

This period of work, where Jackson was drawn to the natural, undulating forms of the sand and water, is explored in the short film below before charting his luminogram technique.

Created to accompany The Self Representation of Light, Jackson’s 2016 exhibition at the MMX Gallery in south east London, the above film “outlines his development of the luminogram process and the evolution of ideas based around eight years intensive study of a single remote beach in Pembrokeshire”

“That time on the beach gave me an insight as to how I reacted towards certain elements of the beach which gave me positive results,” says Jackson. “Recognising those reactions and responses allows you to apply the same way of making decisions with other work. Which is what I rely on when making luminograms – I make judgements on how the marks need be balanced and arranged based upon my experience of my life.”

Over the course of a year, Jackson says he built up a process that involved several steps and, through trial error, he worked out the various chemical temperatures and processing times “to a point where I can judge how to work with the developer chemical just by the smell and colour of it”.

The luminograms are not random in any way, he says. “They are a record of decisions and reactions made by me over a period of time. Each mark made must relate and balance with the piece as a whole. I did try to design and lay out a luminogram idea on paper but the results were poor and stale.

“The fact is that as the luminogram is being made the marks themselves direct what is to come next,” he continues. “I usually draw initial basic guide lines onto the paper as something to grab hold of and then after a while of working on the piece it directs itself.”

Underpass by Michael Jackson

Watching Jackson at work in the above film, his hand movements make the process look more like sculpture, or a kind of performance. His actions – and his control of the various light sources he uses – directly impact the composition of the image.

“I see the silver gelatin paper itself as an amazing thing – the way that it translates the light that is directed onto it at a chemical level – making the paper itself actually change its form,” he says. “For me, working with the paper in this way has more in common with pottery or sculpture than painting or photography. I think that silver gelatin is as much a medium of its own as paint or stone.”

White Sheet Down by Michael Jackson

Having constructed a luminogram, Jackson washes the print and adds ‘selenium’ tone to it. Each piece is a one-off – “a direct record of my thoughts and ideas,” he says. “I like the idea that they are each unique and that the progression of the work can be seen over the years, much in the same way as painters do over a long period of study. You are always in the present – never reprinting older work from the past.”

Next year will see Jackson exhibit his luminograms at several photo fairs and, he hopes, around the world. “But the most important part for me is that as the luminogram process is such a basic, simple and adaptable process that it can grow to accommodate the ideas that you have. It’s there, just waiting to show you the magic that exists between light and paper.”

More of Michael Jackson’s work can be seen at the MMX Gallery site at (where it is also available to purchase) and at The images shown in this post are photographs of the prints Jackson makes

Underpass 2 by Michael Jackson

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