On Light Painting Petty John’s Cave: An Essay

Chandelier Photo 1

I am looking at the print of the Chandelier that John Paul framed for me.

In the photo the formation has a ghostly air about it. Stripped of context it tells you nothing about where or what it is. It reminds me a bit of spirit photography, a sort of ectoplasmic excrescence, which I suppose it is, at least geologically speaking.

Yet I was present for this clicking of the shutter. I witnessed the history of its taking and recorded it myself albeit in complementary media, i.e. audio and writing.

The image is cropped and framed. John Paul has matted it beautifully. His signature and the date of its printing sit at the lower right-hand corner, asking us to contemplate its constructedness and its authorship.

JP signature 1

I was there for its making, physically present. But my signature, although invisible, resides elsewhere. It is woven instead into the texture of the process of its capture.

We call it the Chandelier because that is its closest analog in the normal aboveground world. But it is not a chandelier. We are playing a word game, synonymizing this alien thing with an unrecoverable history because it has pierced our imaginations.

The framed print was a birthday present. I unwrapped it at the triangular kitchen table under a weak halo of light. The table was flecked with chipped paint. It was a salvage from an art show. We feared eating directly off it. The possibility of lead poisoning or some such concern. The wrapping was coarse brown paper.

The table is gone now and the living room sofa. John Paul moved out and took the furniture with him. My remaining roommate and I are thinking of turning John Paul’s room into a study of some kind, a place to screen films.

Everything changes.

Either the photograph marks the conclusion of an experience or it inaugurates a new and different one.

Something that troubles me: When I look at John Paul’s black and white print of the Chandelier I am aware of the moment in time in which this image was arrested. It reminds me of an event, or rather a series of events, a process, for which I was bodily present. Where memory sputters, fishtails out of control, the photo itself chugs right along with nothing to impede it. My experience of the photo is enhanced by my having been present for its taking.

But for the viewer who was not present, which is to say for everyone but me and John Paul, it signifies something else entirely.

We had familiarized ourselves to it, the Chandelier, gazed at it through the course of taking several long exposures. I saw it in dim and brighter light. I lit it with flashlight and headlamp. I watched our breath curl out of our mouths like smoke as we waited for the the film to be exposed. I sat on sharp rock and listened for the sound of the cable release, the rhythmic clicking of the clunky flashlight with the bulb that kept crapping out on us.

The technique we would be using was called painting with light. We subjected ourselves to this process over the next several hours.

I don’t understand everything about it. I’m not a gearhead nor am I photonerd. The camera John Paul used was a vintage Japanese model from the 1970s. And the tripod was a flimsy silver piece of junk we bought at Walmart that barely supported the weight of the machine.

I am not going to get into the nitty-gritty of this painting with light business. I am not going to play digital Bob Ross for you, dear Readers. I am not a photographer. I know nothing whatever about cameras or exposure times or film or any of that razzmatazz. All I know is what I remember about what John Paul told me and the little I’ve read about the topic here and there.

I am an amalgamated artist. I have never been all-the-way this or that. Writer, musician, experimenter. I am a canopy they all reside under and bicker with each other beneath. I say this to emphasize that to me the light painting experience was pure music. It possessed a cadence. It was candy for the ear.

Broadly, I gather there are two main methods of light painting. The first produces images using light trails that are provided by the photo’s subject. Do you remember this famous Sprint commercial? I didn’t either, but it illustrates the technique perfectly.

John Paul has been taking similar photos of the Speleogen Team since our very first excursion, using our headlamps like light pens.


The other method demands that the photographer himself “brushes” the surfaces of the photographic subject with flashlight. The technique allows the photographer more control over how to develop different features of his subject, how to cultivate interplay between shadow and light, than would be possible with the brashness of a flashbulb or the smooth evenness of lamplighting. This latter technique is how we photographed the Chandelier and other formations that day.

If you seek the due diligence of a reluctant researcher, I direct interested readers to the following sources for more info on light painting.

John Paul had also bought a number of disposable cameras. I was not aware that any one manufactured these things anymore. I instinctively thought about taking pictures of my friends in high school. The way the winding mechanism sounded when you primed the little plastic thing for the next shot. My mother used these devices incessantly. She was the family’s primary archivist. My father claims never to have taken a photo in his entire life. This might be an exaggeration.

I recall asking John Paul to explain to me his experience of the difference between taking pictures with disposable cameras versus the sleeker, fancier, more mysterious machine. We were driving in his green Subaru station wagon down a stretch of highway. Yellowish grasses zipped by on either side of the road. The occasional gutted barn passed in a blur of brown and ochre. The color the exact manifestation of rot. It looked precisely how I imagined it smelled. The moment was weirdly synaesthetic. He grimaced like some sharp odor had struck his nose. Time, he told me. It all had to do with time. And mobility. Restriction versus freedom.

Everything I say here is a remembered thing. It is therefore utterly sincere. Yet in the telling, in the choosing of words and the sequencing of events, I hyperbolize a little perhaps. Our ride turns into a caricature of itself. But John Paul might actually have said that. He might have grimaced like he smelled a dead skunk when I asked him that boneheaded question. He might have philosophized to me about Time and I might have listened to him silently, feeling the wind slapping my arm from where it rested on the window sill. It might well have actually happened that way. Really. It might.

I must back up and provide some context. This hopscotching about in time is no doubt confusing. The trip I am describing was our second official jaunt to Petty John’s Cave. We had attempted to schedule another weekend excursion in the interest of convening the entire Speleogen Team. But all our obligations were misaligned and our plans fell through. It was then that John Paul broached the subject of the two of us traveling to Lafayette alone and during the workweek. Our task to realize the very goal that set Speleogen spinning in to motion in the first place: To take old-fashioned fine art photos in the depths of a cave.

I remind you that Speleogen’s theme of caving was John Paul’s idea. He derived this notion from the experience of taking pictures of boulders at a site called Boat Rock at night, using only flash- and moonlight to expose the film. John Paul is a man taken with extremes. He recently rode his mountain bike, whose wheels were thick and black like tank tread, essentially from our front door in Cabbagetown to Alabama, a distance of roughly 200 miles. He camps in the most rotten, rain-soaked, bug-infested conditions. At the campfire he is a culinary wizard, whipping up pizzas and scrambles that make for terrific food porn pics. (I reiterate that it is he who constructs the legendary cave taco when we are mucking about underground while the rest of us sad saps are munching on pre-made sandwiches and power bars.) His thinking is geared in this direction, taking ideas to their logical endpoints. Aside from outer space perhaps, caves are the darkest places conceivable to take photographs. So it is really no wonder John Paul jonesed to do just this.

What are two able-bodied grown men doing riding two hours out of town on a muggy Wednesday morning to take pictures inside of a sacrifice cave that’s mostly been overrun and graffiti tagged and pilfered and plundered anyhow?

We were playing hooky from real life. Or real life was playing hooky from us. Let me explain. John Paul was on one of his periodic hiatuses from freelance gigs transporting and hanging art around town.

And I, sweet Jesus, was unemployed, unencumbered, residing in the interstices and crawlspaces of life.

I had resigned from a PhD program and lost my job at the university. I had only recently returned from the UK to play a festival curated by our buddies in Deerhunter where I performed with Mason and David on the same stage that hosted Lonnie Holley and Kim Gordon and William Basinski. I met Tina Weymouth. I saw a guy snort Special K on a kitchen countertop. During my performance I wore a woman’s black blouse with the sleeves lopped off, which exposed and accentuated my wiry white arms. And I kissed a girl in a tractor beam of moonlight on the glittering beaches of Camber Sands, fairly levitating through all the jetlag and the geographic dislocation and the feeling as if you’re somebody, you have arrived, but knowing it’s merely the latest station stop and is nothing close to a permanent condition.

Upon returning to ATL I started hunting for work, that most thankless of modernday activities. And as months passed and no word from employers was forthcoming I began to deteriorate physically and spiritually to such an extent that John Paul reckoned it. The trip was planned to take cave photos. But it was also a surge of electricity to jolt me from my stupor, a feedback loop that ran the circuit of bed and laptop to kitchen table and cereal bowl to front porch and cigarettes and back again.

Yes, it was a Wednesday. And, yes, under any other circumstances we ought to have been on the clock busting hump someplace. But instead we’d donned our rough cave clothes, our boots caked with guano, and were zipping up the interstate to the soporific, bucolic town of Lafayette in order to take impossible pictures in an impossible environment.

John Paul was a consummate narrator. (Even when he was not speaking but only miming through the act of making photos. For an example see this short documentary film, which features John Paul in action.) I wasn’t expecting this. He spoke candidly and patiently. While explaining to me how we were going to expose film basically in pitch dark with nothing to light the objects we aimed to capture but a crappy flashlight and the LED bulbs from our headlamps his voice modulated into the breathy baritone of the pedagogue.

John Paul is handy. On numerous occasions I have watched him build and tinker, replace fuses, repair bicycles. I on the other hand am and always have been all thumbs. I was worried this might have caused tension between us. But the opposite seemed to be the case. My role became to act as a diffuser. I was the ear. A witness to a sort of weird testimony of rock and light and the two men who so foolishly traveled so far to try and trap it with their clumsy tools.

There was something classical about the story. But what lesson were we to take away?

I do not want the picture to possess this cleavage that my mind does when it is trying to conjure the past. There is always this point of friction between remembering a thing that has occurred and being in a moment that still unfurls and is engaging in the process of becoming. This awareness of an impinging present that comes in the forms of little irritants that remind you that attempting to capture an experience for some unknown other is an exercise in the construction of a fantasy that both parties willingly participate in.

To do right by the experience, to embody it properly, you must deny where the body currently is and what it currently feels.

But my room now is like a meat locker and the coils from the electric blanket fairly throb and I’m trying for the life of me to remember what it felt like to set out from here with John Paul way back in the summertime when the tethers to what passes for regular life had been severed.

For it isn’t summer any longer and I’m not unemployed and John Paul doesn’t even live here anymore and the whole notion of making a weekday excursion like this one is so much more absurd to contemplate now than it was then, seeming as it did like the most natural thing in the world we might do.

Is this the reason we take photographs? Because it’s impossible to inseminate the past perfectly and so is better to have this flimsy proxy?

As we park at the designated spot clouds descend. Rain drizzles down. We undress and suit up in the lot. The gravel digs into my sockfeet. There are no other cars. John Paul asks if I have mentioned to anyone what we are doing today, where we are. In case something happens to us.

I have. I mentioned it to the girl I kissed in the moonbeam at Camber Sands who is now back stateside. I tell John Paul this. He texts his girlfriend our whereabouts. I send her a picture of us moments before we descend.

Devin and JP Before the Descent

The developed print of the Chandelier inaugurates the ending of a certain form of looking and initiates the beginning of another.

Later, when John Paul exhibits these photographs at Kibbee Gallery, including the shot of the Chandelier he framed and wrapped for me and whose capture I witnessed in the flesh, I ride to the show with Mason and David. David is preparing to leave for India in a few short weeks to shoot a documentary about the Anchal Project. He brings with him his brand new camera.

When we arrive David takes pictures and shoots video of John Paul the photographer. His photographs might have been hanging on the wall in the background. John Paul demurs. He doesn’t like the attention. I look at the photos John Paul made and that I helped him make with David and Mason who were not present for their making but who are materially invested in their production and who have seen the Chandelier in its unadulterated shattered glory.

Are what we see congruent images?

John Paul is an acrobat. I watch him straddle rocks, hop from precarious landing to precarious landing, do rock star splits to get the shots he wants.

The process is physical. The camera and the tripod and the film and my digital recorder are prostheses. For a few hours we are transhumans, subject to mechanical processes outside ourselves and the whims of capricious machines.

Later, I tally the score. I record mathematically the events of the day in an index I model after the Harper’s Index. It seems important to leave records like these behind, to make the experiences quantifiable. The sensory data and my self-reflexive interpretations overwhelm me if they are not somehow constrained.

It is good to accept at least temporarily the cold solace only numbers provide. It is good sometimes for film rolls and pieces of metal and plastic to direct your looking, to create the very opportunities of seeing.

When we emerge it is a few hours til dusk. We are not hungry and we do not want to leave yet. John Paul suggests a hike down the Chamberlain Trail. It is overrun with briars and branches, waist- and head-high weeds and grasses. The vegetable spears and barbs tear my flesh and leave red glimmering blood trails where they’ve clung at the skin.

We talk about our lives. We are done looking at things and taking pictures now. John Paul tells me instead about a recent trip to Cumberland Island. About the hog jawbones he found and the boars that rumbled and snorted in the bushes and the wild horses that trotted on the dunes and the stench of beached sharks.

When we return to the car we realize we are crawling with ticks. We strip to our skivvies and pluck the many-legged critters from our skin, beat them out of our shoes and shake them from our pants. We agree never again to take the Chamberlain Trail.

At Jed’s on the way back home the platinum blond informs us that the egg rolls sold out hours ago. If we’d wanted them we should have pre-ordered like everybody else does. Typically, they sell out by mid-morning. We are slightly dejected. After the Chamberlain Trail tick fiasco an egg roll would have served nicely.

I quote myself, an excerpt from a longer piece about light painting I abandoned and then turned into a sound piece. Perhaps the experience is altered when it is read in place of being broadcast like the voice of an anchor on the nightly news:

In the Jam Hole I was assisting, manning the flashlight, but later when JP was getting shots of the chandelier, which had been so made after the former stalactites had been snapped off, I sat at a distance and watched him juggle the whole setup solo. The process worked at certain intervals and developed a musical rhythm. With headlamp lit he would adjust the camera, shining the flashlight in the direction of the shot. After all was prepared he would cut off lamp and light and we’d be plunged into darkness of the deepest and most enveloping variety. Water droplets would fall from the ceiling, plinking into pools below. All else would be silent but for this and then the sound of the shutter opening. Then the click of the flashlight, the sound approaching a split second before the bulb flashed to life. And the headlamp after that, obscuring the photographer’s face. Light beams of slightly different colors arced through the darkness, catching motes and particles skipping in midair. Then the slow brushlike strokes with the flashlight until the image was (hopefully) completely exposed. At which point the lamp and the light would die yet again and all would be returned to the sort of darkness we have tricked ourselves into believing is impossible, the kind of absence we understand metaphorically but from which we recoil violently when we encounter it in actual life.

Are these types of repetitions annoying? Frustrating? Isn’t the whole idea of taking a photograph like this or recording documentary audio of this kind a vain attempt to create some sort of perfect and infinite repetition, one we can bottle and re-experience whenever we like?

The print of the Chandelier has been exhibited. Some consumers of the photographic arts in our city have interacted with it. The primary experience has been extracted. It has been frozen and manipulated and chemically treated. It has been transmitted and consumed by other bodies. A circuit of sorts has been completed, if we take a rosy conception of the relationship between artist and spectator.

But what is the afterlife of an experience that in a sense cannot perish? That has been so thoroughly documented that the very notion of its forgetting is absurd?

A framed copy of the photograph of the Chandelier lies on the floor in my bedroom waiting for me to tack it up.

Something I cannot put into words prevents me from hanging it.

One Thought on “On Light Painting Petty John’s Cave: An Essay

  1. mj on 12/17/13 at 6:41 pm said:


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