Work and statement by AnnieLaurie Erickson with an essay by Abby Sun

Slow Light (2012-present) is a series of photographs addressing the phenomenon of afterimages – the latent imagery that remains on our retinas after we look at the sun or at bright objects in the dark. Using handmade artificial retinas that register the remains of light, I am able to simulate an essentially unphotographable visual experience.

Afterimages have a transgressive quality that appeals to me. They appear when we use our eyes in ways that we shouldn’t – by staring at something too bright or holding our gaze for too long. When I first moved to Louisiana, I was struck by the appearance of oil refineries at night, which looked like strange forbidden cities. Soon after I started to photograph them, I was stopped by the police and told that refineries are indeed “unphotographable” according to post-9/11 regulations. This experience heightened my interest in them as photographic subjects.

Keeping a low profile, I began to systematically document refineries up and down the Mississippi River, using the afterimaging camera to render them as ghostly, mysterious constellations of light marked by unearthly color shifts. For me, these images evoke both a presence and an absence. They are points along a continuum between strict representation and subjective abstraction, or between our immediate visual reality and the decaying, remembered imagery that subconsciously shapes our perception.

—AnnieLaurie Erickson

30°28'5.88"N, 91°12'37.73"W (Port Allen), Pigment print from color negative taken with afterimaging camera

29°41'7.93"N, 89°58'17.71"W (Belle Chasse),  Pigment print from color negative taken with afterimaging camera

The acts of photographing, seeing, and existing are becoming more synonymous than ever.  In May of 2013, Facebook reported that users had already uploaded 250 billion photographs and were adding 350 million a day to the total.  That number is certainly higher today.  Additionally, Facebook-owned Instagram users share more than 80 million photographs a day.  This volume of output occurs when we photograph, according to photography critic and Conscientious editor Jörg Colberg, as a form of “compulsive looking” and statement of presence.   In this context, that which cannot be photographed isn’t seen, either, and might not exist.  

29°59'23.95"N, 90°25'19.16"W (Norco),  Pigment print from color negative taken with afterimaging camera

30°28'28.46"N, 91°12'33.97"W (Port Allen), Pigment print from color negative taken with afterimaging camera

While photographic technology has grown more ubiquitous, some subjects remain difficult to photograph.  Trevor Paglen has spent the last decade finding ways to photograph aspects of our surveillance state that were intended to be non-visible: spy satellites, secret military installations in Nevada, drones in flight.  Local police arrested at least 5 photojournalists during the 2014 protests in Ferguson, MO, following Michael Brown’s shooting death by police officer Darren Wilson.  Similarly, when photographing oil refineries along the Mississippi River starting in 2012, AnnieLaurie Erickson was once stopped by a police officer, who told her the refineries were “unphotographable” because of post-9/11 regulations.

30°28'18.29"N, 91°12'36.90" (Port Allen),  Pigment print from color negative taken with afterimaging camera​

Erickson’s images of these oil refineries, made forbidden by insinuation if not by law, became Slow Light​, a series of photographs recorded by a hand-made “retina” camera.  This camera attempted to replicate the physiological phenomenon of afterimages mechanically, by first capturing light onto a surface embedded with strontium alluminate, a photo luminescent chemical, and then releasing the light slowly onto film.  The strontium alluminate produces ghostly smudges of light and color.  The resulting photographs inhabit a supernatural space that objectively reveals little of oil refineries.

Although we know that the photographs in Slow Light were all taken in 2013, Erickson has chosen to withhold further information about the time of year or the exposure length of each image.  The photographs are titled with their precise geographic coordinates, fixing their location but not their time of creation. What Erickson has revealed, however, in her care to foreground the retinal camera and the title of the series, Slow Light, is that she has further elongated the process of recording light onto film.

Indeed, most acts of photography slow down light, which propagates slower when passing through materials such as glass, which camera lens have in abundance, but returns to its original velocity as soon as it’s through. In the last 20 years, scientists have found ways to further slow down light and even to stop light completely.  In Bob Shaw’s 1968 short story “Light of Other Days,” people living in cities used glass that slowed down light so much it took a year for light to pass through to record pleasant views. They then placed this slow glass in their windows, to enjoy a year of bird watching, for instance, instead of staring at the laundromat across the street. Erickson’s Slow Light photographs were delayed by their second exposure process and not by slow glass. 

29°41'2.68"N, 89°58'51.90"W (Belle Chasse),  Pigment print from color negative taken with afterimaging camera​

29°55'28.56"N, 89°58'48.87"W (Chalmette),  Pigment print from color negative taken with afterimaging camera​

30°28'18.29"N, 91°12'36.90" (Port Allen),  Pigment print from color negative taken with afterimaging camera​

29°41'2.68"N, 89°58'51.90"W (Belle Chasse),  Pigment print from color negative taken with afterimaging camera​

Instead of depicting charming tableaus, they portray buildings, located near the mouth of the Mississippi River, that continue to release vast amounts of harmful chemicals into the atmosphere and wastewater into the ground.

29°59'23.64"N, 90°26'19.76"W (Taft),  Pigment printfrom ​​color negative taken with afterimaging camera​

29°40'42.81"N, 89°57'29.91"W (Belle Chasse), Pigment print from ​​color negative taken with afterimaging camera​

In 2008, a taxicab knocked Erickson unconscious and broke her leg on a bright day.  When she came to, sunspots clouded her vision.  This experience led to her obsession with reproducing retinal afterimages with a camera. Slow Light, thus, bears witness to two different instances of trauma: Erickson’s accident and the legacy of the petroleum industry on the environment, from oil refinery discharge to the ravages of the BP oil spill and many others before it on the Gulf of Mexico, its wildlife, and its people.

—Abby Sun

30°28'18.29"N, 91°12'36.90" (Port Allen),  Pigment print from color negative taken with afterimaging camera​

AnnieLaurie Erickson is an artist and educator living in New Orleans, LA. She is the Director of Photography at Tulane University and a member of the collective gallery Antenna.

Abby Sun periodically roams the country making photographs, video, and sound recordings.

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