Light Harmonies – A personal review

Some two weeks ago, I received the latest Hatje Cantz publication (one of the perks of blogging here), ‘Light Harmonies, the Rhtyhmograms of Heinrich Heidersberger‘. I was planning to write a review of the first book I would receive for this blog, but somehow this publication has been lying around and staring at me since I unwrapped it.

True enough, it is not your standard photobook, this. Its contents might to some not even be considered ‘photography’. Because, this book contains forms, shapes, build up by white lines on a perfectly black background. “Outfitted not with a camera but instead with an ingenious, room-sized mechanical apparatus to trace the geometry of delicate waves and oscillations, the machine reproduced the elegant orbit of a single ray of light on a photographic plate. These lines create space, dynamic harmonies, symmetries, and a-symmetries.” A selection of this work or rhythmograms as they are called, is presented in this book in five chapters, with titles as Loops, Waves, or Bodies.

As may be clear after my first posts, I am interested in photography as a medium, as a way to transfer information, and therefore I look for that what the photographer has to say about a certain subject. ‘What is the message’ as the recurring element when I look at photography.

But, in this book, there does not seem to be any message, there is no point that the photographer is trying to make. Does that make this book useless, then? Of course not: this book is impressive, powerful, intruiging, and not in the least: very beautiful. But, how to understand this book, then? What to learn from its images?

To follow-up on my previous post on narratives: Here I think we have an example of a catalogue: a collection of the most powerful images. But, with the 5 chapters, and their order, can we see some kind of logical sequence? Let me try to analyze the book and the order of its images and chapters, to see if I can understand this form, and what I could learn from it.

After an in-depth introduction of the work, indicating its significance and a placement in its historical context, the first rhytmogram we see is a complex one: but contexualized by an image on the same spread by the same of photographer (who was known at his time for his architectural work) of a staircase. We are invited to see the similarities in the spatial treatment of both images. Then, the first real chapter starts with ‘Loops’. Circular shapes of white and grey lines that together create spatial elements with a high degree of symmetry.

Chapter 2 is called ‘Shells’. According to the short introductory text each of these shells ‘outlines a subtly intricate complex of continuous interior chambers (…)’. Indeed, these images are not ‘merely’ spatial images, but they seem to be able to encapsulate something, like shells of a sea creature.

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When then seem to move into those shells, the works become more intimate, as suggested by the title of the next chapter ‘Bodies’. The shapes have less symmetry than the ones in the previous chapters, there seems more to explore in each rhythmogram, and somehow whereas the previous chapters held shapes that felt controlled, these ones seem to almost move by themselves.

Chapter four, the ‘Waves’ has fewer images and takes a different approach, with close-ups or crops of some (or is it the same?) rhythmograms. All images so far where neatly placed in the centre of the page, on a fully deep black background, but now they come to you with much more force: with only a black border, the lines are larger, the shape less figurative, and the viewer is invited to imagine from which kind of shape this detail is a part of.

The final chapter ‘Spirals’ is the shortest of them all, with only 6 images, they are perhaps the least surprising of the entire collection. Not less beautiful, but there seems less left to our imagination. As the introduction states, these are the most architectural of all rhythmograms, and that is I think indeed what we see, specially when thinking back to the very first image in the book of the staircase. The images are almost renditions of objects we know from real life: a vase, and of course, a staircase.

Looking at the book as a whole, indeed this is a catalogue, but its sequence, and how the different rhytmograms are contextualized within their chapters, makes a lot of sense to me. As within a classic narrative, I am introduced to the shapes and forms and how to look at them through the first two chapters of Loops and Shells. The Bodies leaves the more controlled environment of the previous chapters, which seems to prepare me for the more challenging and hard to read forms as contained in the Waves chapter. The Spirals is then the end, which allows me to let go, without much demand on my imagination.

This is a demanding book, it took me several readings and quite some time of thinking and analysis. For better or worse, I have shared here my personal reflection on the work. Did I find a clearly defined message? Did I learn anything form it? I can’t say I learned something in an academic sense, but this book taught me to look close, and to experience an intimacy created by white and grey lines on a black background.

Check out this amazing video to get a sense of how the images where created.