If the sun could paint a self-portrait, it might look like one of the images in Danish photographer Nicolai Howalt’s new series, “Light Break: Wavelength.” Resembling abstracted starbursts, eclipses, or minimalist tie-dye, these gorgeously colored compositions blur the line between photography, science experiment, and visual art.
The series is part of an ongoing project in which Howalt explores the history of light therapy. In 2011, the photographer became infatuated with the work of 19th-century doctor and Nobel Prize-winner Niels Finsen, who treated diseases (most notably, lupus) using special lamps and lenses that filtered sunlight. In “Light Break,” Howalt decided to apply Finsen’s groundbreaking methods to art-making instead of healing.
For this particular installment of the project, “Light Break: Wavelength,” Howalt borrowed from Copenhagen’s Medical Museum some of the original rock crystal lenses that Finsen used for his medical practices. Howalt then used these historical tools to make abstract celestial scenes, using sunlight as his medium. The lens absorbs part of a ray of sun, then beams the remaining selected area of the electromagnetic spectrum onto photosensitive paper (C-print), effectively staining it with light.
Taken out of context of the project’s larger focus on light therapy, some images look like bleeding inkspots or radioactive sunsets over cities. But seen with the backdrop of Finsen’s historical use of light radiation, which saved lives, these become visualizations of healing, a tribute to the doctor’s principal theory that sunlight can effect medical miracles.
"Light Break: Wavelength" is currently on display in the Medical Museion in Copenhagen.