First Light

Robert A. Haller

The invention of cinema in the 1890s opened more than the prospect of a new medium for telling stories. With the advent of cinema came the possibility–realized in many countries by the mid-1930s–of a new art that used light not just for its illumination of actors or landscapes, but as a subject in itself.

This art–the Germans called it lichtspiel–presented opportunities to engage images and ideas beyond the reach of static painting, photography, literature and narrative movies. Pure light in motion, whether 1) in geometric or biomorphic forms, 2) as multiplied on the surface of water or through crystals, or 3) as panels of light consuming the whole screen, held a unique power for spectators. They encountered pure energy, and sensed parallels with music (another art of movement across time).

By 1935, German film-makers Oskar Fischinger, Walther Ruttmann, and Hans Richter; Henri Chomette and Man Ray in France; and the Americans Ralph Steiner and Mary Ellen Bute had all made films that treated light abstractly and musically.

Relatively early, while writing in Germany in 1931, Fritz Böhme described the films of Ruttmann, Richter, and Fischinger as creating a new harmony and a new kind of motion picture. Böhme wrote that Fischinger’s films "belong to, surpass the cinematic art by far, which means these realizations on film belong to the endeavors which could be described as an attempt to create an art of living, acting light." He adds that what Fischinger "does are original transformations of musical rhythms to linear light forms." Böhme, in his essay titled "The Art of the Living Light" grouped Fischinger with Viking Eggeling

who made his first–and probably in general the first–attempt to make (how it was called at that time) an ‘absolute’ movie. With him and after him were Hans Richter, Fernand Leger, Francis Picabia, Walther Ruttmann and others....

Böhme, however, distinguishes Eggeling and Fischinger from Leger and Picabia who use:

abstract forms but also images of every day reality: but undress them from their natural relation and connect them in their own, movable and composition-dictated relation...

Böhme’s notion of "undressing" images from "every-day reality" was an idea Lotte Eisner aligned herself with in the Film-Kurier of 1932. In "Dance of Lights" she praises Oskar and Hans Fischinger for avoiding the montage of Eisenstein in Romance Sentimentale and prior conventions. They go, she says of the Fischingers,

the other way; associations of forms, not impressions of images determine their work...they push forward to an absolute expression–without evoking the outdated term of expressionism again.

Aesthetic concerns were joined with scientific ones for these artists. Ever since the Michelson-Morley experiments had measured the speed of light at the end of the 19th century, the nature of light had intrigued each succeeding generation. As a form of energy; constituted of waves and/or particles; shifting to the red and revealing the expansion of the universe–light was symbolic of the new physics and a key component of the universe.

Jim Davis was a member of the post-war generation that came to film and light in the "new world of the dynamic which we are now entering." In a 1957 paper presented at the Museum of Modern Art, he proposed parallels with science in discussing his abstract films:

New inventions which utilize light are revolutionizing the visual arts...The camera–the film–television–electric signs and artificial illumination of all kinds now influence everyone, everywhere.

Like modern science–the film adds the element of time as the fourth dimension of space. Its fundamental problem is–as Panofsky says–"The dynamization of space–and the spatialization of time"–its basic content is the expression of reality as a dynamic process of becoming–in contrast to the static, fixed state of being which underlies the approach in traditional static visual media. This dynamic content demands a dynamic form...

Davis in this paper is illuminating not only his own work, but also anticipating aspects of Stan Brakhage’s 1960s films as well as Bruce Elder’s in the 1980s. What was intriguing Davis in l957–light, space, time, memory–continued to intrigue this kind of filmmaker for the remainder of the century.

"The basis of cinema’s appeal is emotional. Music’s appeal is to a great extent emotional too." Alfred Hitchcock said this in the 1930s, not about abstract cinema, but about all movies. Thirty years later Michelangelo Antonioni would speak in a similar vein: "The cinema is not, in essence, moral. It is emotional." Emotion, musical visuality, and rhythm are difficult-to-verbalize qualities of these films: they are present in all of them.

After l945 these films about light increased in number and kind, but also revealed, in some cases, more overt human values. Jordan Belson made his first film in 1947, looking inward as well as into space with such films as Allures in 1961, and Re-entry in 1964:

I’m involved with the kind of imagery that has been dealt with in Tibetan art and in some Christian art of the Middle Ages. Such circular and symmetrical shapes have always been associated with the quest for spirituality.

Bruce Baillie, in 1970 at the time he was completing his Quick Billy, wrote this diary passage, which is very close to what we see in Reel II of the film:

Frightening brilliance, the sun, the ocean, the stars, the flame, the green jewels emanating rainbow, the parade of deities ....

For Baillie this imagery was more than a dream:

I consider Quick Billy a kind of interior documentary. The main theme is the time or space between, when the rug’s pulled out from underneath you....I found myself in the middle of my life, like Dante or any human (who) comes to a time when what was before is no longer....

Light becomes a metaphor for health, transcendence, and self-knowledge for Baillie, Kenneth Anger, Andrew Noren and Stan Brakhage, all of whom eschew the geometric patterns of Mary Ellen Bute, Fischinger and Belson.

In Brakhage’s breakthrough light abstraction, Anticipation of the Night, the narrative breaks up and disappears for most viewers–and is replaced by bursts and streaks of light. Brakhage alludes to this in his elliptical notes on the film:

....A rose bowl held in hand reflects both sun and moon like illumination. The opening of a doorway onto trees anticipates the twilight into the night....Lights of the night become young children playing a circular game. The moon moves over pillared temple to which all lights return.

These words were written in 1958; eleven years later, on January 15, 1969, Brakhage would praise Baillie’s footage for Quick Billy with the observation that "You, as I, seem to be taking strong advantage of film’s most unique possibility–preservation of the track of light in the field of vision...."

The point about "film’s most unique possibility" bears repeating. Through cinema we can see moving images from one unique standpoint and spectators can join with each other on the very potent level of moving visual imagery. This singular perspective allows us to enter into the light-transformed garden of Kenneth Anger’s Eaux d’Artifice, the light-drenched terrain of Andrew Noren’s Adventures of the Exquisite Corpse, to "see" the color afterimages of Paul Sharits, to penetrate the otherworld of Davis’ Death and Transfiguration and Brakhage’s Text of Light, to recover consciousness and memory in Bruce Elder’s The Book of All The Dead.


An interest in light as a subject did not begin with film-makers, or photographers. For the American film-makers discussed in this catalog the example of the nineteenth-century luminist painters was something most were aware of, and in some cases it was an important factor in who they became. Stan Brakhage is the most obvious case, with his open discussions of the importance of the Hudson River School and especially Frederick Church. Peter Hutton’s film In Titan’s Goblet is a direct reference to another luminist, Thomas Cole, who in l833 painted "The Titan’s Goblet."

For Jonas Mekas the bases of Cassis were Seurat and Cézanne. Babette Mangolte herself draws comparisons with J.M.W. Turner. Hollis Frampton uses Georgia O’Keefe as a reference in his Magellan film.

The networks of friendship and admiration among these film-makers invites further exploration. Fritz Lang commissioned both Walter Ruttmann and Oskar Fischinger to make sequences for his films in the l920s. Viking Eggeling was a friend of both Hans Richter and Ruttmann. After they moved to Hollywood, Elfriede and Oskar Fischinger’s home became a central meeting point for the west coast avant-garde for decades, including Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren, the Whitney brothers, Curtis Harrington, and others. After Oskar’s death the role devolved upon Elfriede alone. It was through her suggestions that Larry Cuba and Jordan Belson’s new work were included in this series. Elfrieda and Stan Brakhage are close. Brakhage cites both Jim Davis and Ian Hugo in opening his eyes. Bruce Elder studied with Ed Emshwiller, and recently completed a major study of Brakhage. Jordan Belson, Dwinell Grant and Harry Smith acknowledged Hilla Rebay as a positive force, while Oskar Fischinger found her to be most difficult.


The epigraph to Chapter Eight of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum reads "Having come from the light and from the gods, here I am in exile, separated from them." Eco’s epigraph catches the sense of wonder that light can call forth, the sense that it also comes from a realm beyond us, that apart from it we are exiles, and that cinema is a path back to that primal spark