Niko Luoma's Line Drawings

By Conor Risch

© Niko Luoma
"Symmetrium #9" by Niko Luoma. To see more of his work, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

Niko Luoma began experimenting with studio-based analogue photography out of an interest in making abstract images with a camera; not images that utilize motion blur or soft focus to push physical subjects into the realm of abstraction, but images that have “no direct reference to the surrounding visible world.” Luoma wanted to know if such an image “was possible at all with photography,” he says.

Luoma drew inspiration from minimalist composers like Eliane Radigue, Steve Reich, Tony Conrad, Alvin Lucier and Philip Glass, whose work he sees as “very sculptural and visual,” and to whom systems and process are important parts of composing. Luoma set out to create an image-making process that would allow him to explore “time, light as material, space and chance,” he says.

A member of the “Helsinki School,” a group of photographers that congregate around the Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture in Helsinki, Finland, Luoma also drew heavily on his dialogue with Timothy Persons and the “artists from different generations” that Persons brought together at the school in order to create “a shared language.” “For me, as for many of my colleagues, it has been a perfect soil for developing conceptual ideas.”

Turning to mathematics and geometry, especially ideas of symmetry, Luoma began to draw works that he could create on a negative, using multiple exposures to record lines of light. “Everything starts from the drawings,” he explains. “Photography is about mathematics and numbers, time and distance. It is also full of spatial standards like: 4 x 5, 8 x 10, 35mm … shapes and geometry. I am just creating equations by using those standards spiced with different ideas of systems and chance, shutter speeds and f-stops. Pure experimentation.”

Working with studio lights, which he shapes with materials like paper, glass, metal and leather, Luoma creates lines of light on a 4 x 5 negative, utilizing multiple exposures—thousands, in some cases—to build an image on his negative. Luoma colors the light or uses filters, and also experiments with different film stocks, which affect the overall look of his images. The resulting pictures visualize Luoma’s image-making process, and space and the passage of time, allowing us to consider photography’s relationship to both.

Luoma’s abstract work is collected in a new book, And Time Is No Longer an Obstacle, which traces its conceptual development over the past six years, culminating in his most recent series, “Symmetrium,” pictures which are “based on spatial ideas of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines,” he says. “This means squares, rectangles, triangles, hexagons and octagons. The starting point is always either some simple geometric idea of creating space, or some systematic order based on the number of lines on the negative.”

While Luoma says that he’s unsure if his work can even be considered photography, analogue film is essential to the work, especially his ability to represent physical space. “By pushing the boundaries of the tolerance of film, very often unexpected things happen to color,” he notes, “which has a huge influence on how the space becomes visible.” Using color and different film stocks brings an element of chance to his compositions. Chance he says, “is the amazing collaborator” in his work. “I also like the different characteristics of different film stocks and the fact that once something is on the negative it stays there, or could be gone in an instant if the film is exposed to the light under the wrong circumstances.”

There have been “moments of horror,” Luoma says, when he’s accidentally opened a film holder and erased a negative with thousands of lines on it. “But that is also the essence of the whole deal and its fascination, the fragility of the process.”

Asked if he considers his work emotionally evocative, Luoma replies, “Of course,” before relating a story of a conversation he had with a woman at the Art Forum fair in Berlin. Looking at one of his “Symmetrium” images, the woman told him she could see all of her life’s key moments in the work. “It was amazing,” he says. Luoma does not, however, expect his work to have any particular effect on viewers. “I like Frank Stella’s statement,” he notes. “‘What you see is what you see.’”

In his essay for Luoma’s book, which discusses photography’s relationship to time among other things, art critic Lyle Rexer compares Luoma’s work to American process painters and conceptual artists of the 1970s, like Jeff Way and Chuck Close, who devised rules for their art-making that would yield unknown results. “The need to reaffirm the fundamentally open-ended character of unfolding time in the context of deep physical regularities are aims that shape Luoma’s esthetic agenda,” Rexer writes.

The book’s title, And Time Is No Longer an Obstacle, which is a reference to Eliane Radigue’s minimal synthesizer composition “Transamorem - Transmortem,” appears to answer the question with which Luoma began his experimentation: Is an image with no direct reference to the visual world possible in photography? “When time is no longer an obstacle, it allows me to do things I am doing with photographic process,” Luoma says. “Abstract photographs.”

Related Article:

Niko Luoma Photo Gallery

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