In 1665, a bubonic plague outbreak in England closed Cambridge University, forcing twenty-three-year-old Isaac Newton to return home. While waiting out the plague back at Woolsthorpe Manor, Newton pondered the nature of color and improvised experiments to test his theories. In one, he hung a prism in his bedroom until a sunbeam struck it at just the right angle, shattering light into a rainbow across his wall. These experiments eventually lead his treatise: Opticks: or, A Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions, and Colours of Light, the earliest basis for our contemporary understanding of color.
Houston photographer and science enthusiast Deborah Bay plays with optics and light in tabletop setups reminiscent of Newton’s early experiments. For her series Traveling Light, she collected prisms and lenses to create abstract compositions comprising immaterial lines and shapes of color. “I’m not a scientist, but I’m intrigued by physical phenomena,” Bay explains. “It’s interesting to see the way that light interacts with these optical objects; a color will appear on one part of a lens, but light angling onto a different side will bring in other hues.”
Bay’s delightful process is akin to an improvised game. “My approach is largely intuitive and not unlike that of a child playing,” she explains. “Sometimes, I go to the studio with an idea, and other times, I go with no particular plan. I create similar or complementary groupings of transparent or translucent objects. Every time I change my lighting, I get a new image.” This approach is reminiscent of Dada and Surrealist darkroom experiments, black and white photographic abstractions made from a love of improvisation and curiosity as well as unselfconscious explorations of the phenomenal world.
A century after Dada’s and Surrealism’s first experimental inquiries, using chance procedures as an artistic investigation strategy remains a crucial element of many photographers’ practices. By working with small, often imperfect optical objects, Bay deliberately opens up her process to chance, allowing her to discover subtle phenomena she might never have seen otherwise.
“Often, when we look, we miss seeing so much. Because my elements are only 1 or 2 inches in diameter, I am never sure exactly how a photograph is going to look until after I have shot it. In my 40-inch prints, I can see subtle details that I never would never observe with my naked eye or take the time to appreciate, like the way light moves around the thin rim of a lens,” says Bay. Traveling Light suggests that we could always see more than our senses will allow. By unlocking these tiny rainbows for the viewers, Bay transforms her experimental impulses into an expansion of our own vision.