PDN Feature - Tobias Hutzler's Light Drawing Experiments
By David Walker

Tobias Hutzler’s experiments with the interplay of light and landscapes have led to various assignments, including album art for the band Magic Man. Above, points of light set in motion by tidal action.

The cover photo of indie rock band Magic Man’s most recent album, Before the Waves, is a seascape at twilight, erupting with energy. Hundreds of colored light points dart around the edge of the water, mixed by the ebb and flow of the current, captured with a long exposure. Photographer Tobias Hutzler calls the technique, which he originally developed in his personal work, “light drawing.”

“I’m interested in light and its interaction with the landscape. It’s not me that’s drawing. It’s nature,” he says, explaining that he photographs the manipulation of artificial light by wind, waves, and gravity. The long-exposures result in traces of light, both ordered and random, across dramatic landscapes. Hutzler creates the images in camera, without any post-production manipulation. “The images have a hand-written character. It’s like calligraphy. It has imperfection. That’s the beauty of it,” he says.

He began his “light drawing” project more than a year ago, taking trips into the deserts of the American west to study the nuances and ever-changing qualities of different types of light against the natural “canvases.” “I’m searching for some kind of abstraction of nature,” and the interaction between the light and landscape is always fluid in the desert, he says. Deserts also tend to be far from the light pollution of cities.

Hutzler can spend anywhere from several days to more than a week on each trip, figuring out how to photograph with twilight, moonlight, fire and artificial lights such as lasers, glow sticks, and other light sources.

“It looks different in the camera than in real life. That’s why I experiment—to figure out how it works. My lab is basically the desert, where I test it, then apply it to assignments,” he says.

Hutzler ended up showing his light drawing work to Dave Bett, whom he’d met at the Palm Springs Photo Festival. Bett, who is design director for Sony Music Entertainment’s Columbia Records division, was looking to hire a photographer to help promote the new Magic Man album. The cover of the band’s previous album had featured images of colored smoke in wooded landscapes. “We wanted to take that idea of an unusual phenomenon in a natural setting to another level. Tobias’s light paintings were the answer,” Bett says. “We wanted to create a surreal, unearthly event in a beautiful natural environment.”

The title of Magic Man’s new album suggested a seascape, and members of the band wanted a setting that reflected their origins in the northeast, he explains. Bett and Hutzler chose Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island, for its unpopulated oceanfront, and because it was close to New York City, but far enough away so light pollution wasn’t a problem.

Hutzler’s assignment was to scout the island for places to shoot, and present light drawing ideas for the album packaging. “Tobias was free to draw from his experience making personal work, this [assignment] would basically be an extension of that for him creatively,” Bett says, while noting that the turnaround time was tight and the budget was “low.”

Hutzler’s idea was to make images that captured the sense of calm before a storm. He decided to “do something with fire” in a serene landscape where “you feel something is about to happen.”

Because fire is often a visual cliché, he was looking for unusual ways to shoot it. He turned to a science-minded friend, who suggested photographing an underwater fire. The idea worked. “It had a magic glow. It looked like a volcano,” Hutzler says, adding, “It’s more modern, more abstract” than a traditional photograph of a fire. (He used a chemical agent that burns underwater, though he declined to identify it.)

For another image, “we wanted to have an entire landscape burning,” he says. To simulate that, he used string to tie hundreds of small lights to a large net, and threw the net into the water, far enough from shore so wave action could move the lights freely in all directions. The resulting image, Hutzler says, “is basically an illustration of the waves, and the energy and movement of the water, through light.” (The resulting image was used on the album cover.)

The reason he attached the lights to a net, he explains, “is because I wanted to collect the lights [afterwards], not create garbage” in the ocean. Hutzler wouldn’t say what types of lights he used, hinting only that he’s experimented in the past with glow sticks and waterproof, battery-powered LED lights.

Hutzler had to work within the narrow windows of time just after sunset and before sunrise, when “there was just enough light to expose the seascape, and just enough dark for the streaks of light-painting to register,” says Bett, who was on set.

He continues, “We’d shoot starting before dusk until 10 or 11 p.m. or so, then sleep a few hours to start again before sunrise. Then we’d review what we shot and plan for the next window. After a few days of this we were exhausted.” The conditions were cold and wet, and they had to haul equipment to and from the beach in the dark, going up and down a muddy bluff. “This was probably the most physically demanding shoot I’d ever experienced, with very satisfying, beautiful results,” says Bett, who adds that Hutzler provided “dozens of images” for the campaign.

Hutzler has landed other assignments on the strength of his light-drawing project, most recently for a 20-page GEO feature about a paleontological expedition to the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The scientists on the expedition were searching for clues to the origins of life in the fossil record.

“The assignment was to interpret the magic of what the scientists were discovering, using my approach to light,” Hutzler says. He wanted to photograph the scientists’ camp at twilight, amid the soaring mountains, “to show how small humans are in this scope of nature.” Hutzler knew he had just a few minutes each day of “in-between light” just after sunset. After a week of constant rain and snow that kept him tent-bound, the weather finally cleared at just the right time, and for just long enough.

“I climbed half an hour up a hill, had one minute to shoot, then climbed back down,” he says. The long exposure “was like looking down on a little city, with people moving between tents with their flashlights.”

Hutzler says he does little to promote his personal work. Instead, he focuses on projects that are out of the ordinary. Several, including his light drawing project and a video he made of a circus performer building an elaborate balance, have gone viral. “It’s important to go on a path where nobody else goes, and to go beyond common projects,” he says. Not only does that strategy help define him as an artist, he says, but it attracts clients interested in hiring him to apply the esthetics and techniques of his personal work to the promotion of their brands.