Robert Shults

Presented at Austin VI

Robert  Shults was one of our favorite artists selected to showcase at the sixth Slideluck in Austin. His piece, “The Superlative Light,” is one part art project, one part documentary on the Texas Petawatt Laser, currently the world’s highest-powered laser device. Shults’s high-speed film photos elicit deep, rich blacks and an uncanny contrast with the clinical, high-tech feel of the subject matter. We caught up with Shults to find out a little more about this fascinating collision of art and science.


Slideluck: What is it that drew you to the Texas Petawatt Laser? Do you have any
experience in physics/astrophysics?

Robert Shults: Ever since childhood, I have always had an enduring fascination with science in general and astrophysics in particular. My initial contact with the Texas Petawatt Laser transpired essentially by chance, having struck up a friendship with Dr. Gilliss Dyer, one of the Petawatt’s chief research scientists and the primary “protagonist” of these photos, during the time that I was teaching evening photography workshops at the University of Texas.

Having taken a casual tour of the laboratory with Dr. Dyer, I was resolved to stay and observe as long as I could. The Petawatt laboratory was absolutely the most awe-inspiring place I have ever seen. It took quite some time to secure the necessary permissions and complete a certain amount of lab safety training, but I was ultimately able to spend approximately ten months shadowing the Petawatt scientists.

SL: What led you to use film, a comparatively low-tech medium, to capture such high-tech equipment?

RS: The selection of film capture had both practical and aesthetic origins.

The laser presents a grave risk to digital image sensors. The permanent destruction of photosites is a distinct possibility should a sensor accidentally receive a direct strike from the laser beam. Any damage incurred by a roll of film, however, could be negated by simply advancing to the next frame. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, working unobtrusively was a must in the delicate laboratory environment. A rangefinder camera offered the ideal quiet and compact solution, but at the time these images were made, digital rangefinders were not available at a feasible cost. The use of high-speed film (specifically, Fuji Neopan 1600) in combination with a set of neutral density filters also eased the process of photographing in widely-varying ambient light conditions.

Aesthetically, my strategy from the onset was to co-opt the conventions of grade-B science fiction cinema in my compositions, making the choice of high-contrast monochromatic film virtually a given. I was also keen to preserve the sense of awe and mystery that I, as a layperson, felt while exploring the facility. The Neopan helped achieve this effect by allowing certain portions of the image to roll off into a deep black and by dropping a slightly obfuscating veil of grain over the proceedings.

SL: What role did the interviews play for this project? Was this project for you more about documentation or more about producing a work of art? Is there a difference?

RS: The interviews utilized in my slideshow were initially created for a decidedly pragmatic purpose. Specifically, they were originally part of a promotional video for my recent Kickstarter campaign. In the coming months, I intend to create a longer edit of this presentation for the scientific team to use at conferences and tradeshows. I also hope to incorporate more audio recordings and multimedia elements into future projects.

This body of work deliberately explores the interface between documentary and fictional narratives. In fact, this very conundrum has become my principal concern over the last few years. Photography is primarily a subtractive practice, wherein new relationships are formed within the image by virtue of the contextual information excluded from the frame. It is this aspect which makes photography the most effective propaganda medium ever created; the apparent objective accuracy of a given image can, when recontextualized and used in montage with other images, serve to support almost any fabricated narrative.

This series has appeared both with and without captions in both journalistic and artistic publications. When presented in Smithsonian magazine with thorough expository text, for example, the photos fulfill the role of document or illustration. The New York Times Lens blog, on the other hand, boldly ran these images unexplained and without supplementary captions. A context of this type invites the viewer (assuming they are not themselves expert physicists) to draw upon their own media and literary experiences in imagining the speculative scenarios which might be depicted within the photographs.

This functioning across dual modes is the primary reason the upcoming “Superlative Light” book eschews the traditional art criticism essay in favor of an original science fiction story by Philip K. Dick Award-winning author Rudy Rucker. My publisher, Daylight Books, has always focussed on the intersection of documentary and conceptual photographic practices. Together, we are developing a book presentation that augments this relationship by presenting both fictional and non-fictional texts in a “head to tail” binding reminiscent of the cheap sci-fi double novels of the fifties and sixties.

SL: Can you pinpoint one particular photograph or photographer that
especially inspires you?

RS: In all of my photography, I am guided by a principle espoused by Ralph Gibson in an interview I read many years ago:

“What I wanted to do, is be able to make my perception of anything become the subject itself…I’d like to make something totally insignificant into an object of importance, by virtue of how photography works.”

While the Petawatt laser doesn’t exactly fit the description of a “totally insignificant” object, this quote concisely summarizes the role I feel I played during this project, especially as it relates to the subtractive compositional process I described earlier. I saw myself as something of a layperson-by-proxy, standing in for everyone else who was not privileged to have access to the Petawatt lab. As such, I remained focussed on creating photographs which impart to the viewer not merely the appearance of this massive laser, but, rather, the sensations elicited by interacting with such a device and contemplating its capabilities.

SL: Are you working on any projects currently?

RS: As you might imagine, most of my time is presently occupied with the complicated process of publishing a book. That said, I have a few projects currently in development stages, all with scientific themes.

First, I am working with a group of astronomers to create a method of utilizing planetarium infrastructure to photograph the night sky which preceded seminal events throughout human history.

Additionally, in keeping with the interests I mentioned earlier, I am developing several cinematic projects of varying length which present science-fictional narratives via non-fiction footage. One of these short films will be released concurrently with “The Superlative Light” book this coming fall.

Artist website

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