Photographer of the Month – Denis Smith
Darwin: Denis, your Ball of Light movie is incredibly inspiring. Many people feel anxious and trapped by the the pressures of society. And for many of us photography and especially nature photography is one of the ways we connect with our spiritual sides. But you chose light-painting and night photography – why? What is it about this particular genre of photography that appeals to you most?
Denis: When I first picked up a camera a couple of years ago I found myself on an incredibly steep learning curve having no formal training at all. I discovered light painting early on and found it stretched me, forcing me to think way outside the square. This was a time in my life when the time alone, exploring at night gave me space to work on myself. The amount of time I spend waiting for the light, the moon, or for the shutter to close is spent relaxing and learning more about myself. I certainly have become a more spiritual person. In the dark, looking up, you learn very quickly how massive everything is, and how small we are.
Light painting is a form of photography that has massive creative scope. But I think the real appeal to light painting was the ability to stretch myself constantly, and it is a pretty niche space too.
Darwin: Your movie documents well how the ball of light came to be and how it is an outgrowth of your inner world. Do you think that symbolically the subjects we photograph, and the types of compositions we make are really just external expressions of our needs, wants and turmoils in life? If so what does the ball of light symbolize for you?
Denis: The Ball of Light has become an extension of my emotions. In so many ways it represents the freedom I now have in my life. The amazing array of locations I visit to shoot the Ball of Light have opened my eyes to the wonderful world we live in. My photography grew from a basic desire to be alone to work on myself as a human. I felt like I just wanted to walk, explore and experience the freedom that offers. The freedom was addictive, I quickly was looking for more extreme and distant places to be. Bringing the Ball of Light into the mix took it to another level. The images I enjoy the most are the open spaces where the Ball of Light seems free to just be!
My wife often remarks how the Ball of Light reflects how I am at the time. If I am in a relaxed mood and feeling chilled, the outcome reflects this. If I am a bit wound up, or feeling a bit crazy we end up with some weird locations surrounded by chaos!
Darwin: What about the practical aspects of the commerce of art? You now sell limited edition prints of your work. Is this endeavour enjoyable to you, or does it drag you away from the creative aspects of your work?
Denis: Selling limited edition prints just seemed a natural progression for me. There was no structured plan to make the Ball of Light a commercial project. I was asked to do a couple of local markets so I prepared some small prints, A3, for this. The reaction form the public was really amazing. I became addicted to watching peoples faces as they realised what they were looking at was real, and not some photoshopped mish mash. Explaining the process of creating the Ball of Light became an automatic part of interaction with people. The quicker people understood the process of creating the Ball of Light they could immediately enjoy the piece.
I made the conscious decision to try and make the Ball of Light available as easily as possible, and priced everything accordingly. So doing the large format prints was easy. I thoroughly enjoy seeing my work large. I now realize that I have not really seen an image until it is printed in large format. On the computer you simply do not see the colours or richness. I sit and stare at them myself, for ages! I now take large format prints to shows with me, and they create a real stir. I just did a 3 day show here in Adelaide and the thrill I get watching people enjoy the work is only amplified having the large prints there.
Managing this side of the business certainly does not detract from the creative side. But I now think a bit more about the shot with printing and size in mind. This has benefited the work considerably though. I think more about composition. I have “learned” more about photography since selling work and am just really excited about people sharing the work. Experiencing and feeling it.
Darwin: You and your work have become ‘famous’. Does this fame and attention risk putting you in the same position that you were in before or does the ‘success’ open more doors for you to do more of what you love?
Denis: Famous? That sounds really strange, but sits pretty easily with me. What I am realising is that in the Ball of Light film we have created a short film that has inspired people to look at themselves and what they are doing. I hope it has inspired others to realise that internal happiness is so much more important than external things. I get constant feedback that my photography has inspired others to stretch themselves creatively and try something outside their comfort zone. If these two things results in some type of “fame” then so be it.
I will never return to the place I was in. One of the biggest changes I have made in my life is living within my means financially. We live a humble, and much happier, life now. What this means is that if my photography really takes off I will simply be able to do more of what I have grown to love. Travel, learn, experiment and share. Any “success” my photography has will not be wasted on the frivolous and excessive things I did on the past.
I still dream of packing a bag and heading to locations outside of Australia.
Darwin: Because your work is fairly well-defined by a unique technique, does it worry you that others will simply learn your technique and replicate your ideas and soon flood the world with clones of the ‘ball of light’?
Denis: Since the Ball of Light project really took off, and especially since the release of the film there has been a massive influx of “orbs” on Flickr. I am also inundated with questions of “the how do you do it” type. In the beginning I was quite protective of the process. I am still a little cagey about the “rig” I use as this is the result of long nights at the end of a soldering iron. But I have really embraced the influx of people having a crack at it. I think it is wonderful that others are making the effort to stretch themselves with the camera. It is interesting though how many people have come back to me after realising how difficult it is to create the “bigger picture” with all of the elements in one shot. A tight orb combined with a killer location and good exposure control takes a bit of practice.
I often think to myself, if I have encouraged one teenager to get of the couch, turn off the playstation and get outside into the air and run around exploring like a fool there is nothing more exciting than that. There are some pretty amazing results coming from some corners of the globe. One of the nice things about the Light Painting community is there is plenty of sharing and recognition. I had a young guy and his mate come and see me at the show I did this weekend. They were so excited showing me an Orb they had created. These guys would have been about 18, and they had their girlfriends out with them, and in the photos. It felt amazing that I might have encouraged them to do this.
From a commercial point of view I do keep an eye on people using the term Ball of Light, but this doesnt come up very often. I also think to myself, Peter Lik makes millions of dollars a year taking photos of trees and water. What make his images special? He just makes water and trees look incredible. I have many projects, and ideas on the boil but The Ball of Light will always be a project close to my heart. And I really want to take it further with more amazing locations.