Ralf Jacobs, 1985
Eindhoven, The Netherlands
When I started experimenting with art in 2010, I used my professional work field as the foundation of my experiments, the field of physics and technology in optics. I clearly looked for a connection between them. I not only want to integrate my work in my art but I definitely want to integrate art as deeply as possible into my life, because it challenges me intellectually and socially.
In art I find freedom, the freedom to choose, to investigate without any responsibility of explaining why. A journey of technical and aesthetic beauty and to chase after ideas is the journey that matters to me. That’s my existentialist essence, and that comes down to a lot of research, thinking, googling and experimenting, using different techniques, software, lasers and so on.
One of the projects in which my technical work and artwork comes together beautifully is my latest work the Laser Cyanotype Harmongrams.
For my work as an optical engineer I daily see images of spots that are projected by a lens system. I became intrigued by the interesting geometric shapes of these spot images. So, I wanted to be able to make these images directly on paper. I found cyanotype* as a technique that allowed me to make photogrammes with a laser in lamp light or dimmed daylight.
*Cyanotype is a photographic printing process discovered in 1842 that produces a cyan-blue print, referred to as blueprints.
Intuitively I go on a journey in the software, where I play with different combinations of settings, until I have found a shape that I love. Then I set the laser from red to blue, so it will be written in cyanotype. I am the first one who explores the field of this exact combination of techniques.
When I work with the process of Laser Floepjes (light flukes) I look for shapes that stimulate the optical senses. It is almost like composing music but instead of stimulating the ears, the eyes are being aroused. The laser is very much an instrument within the spectrum of color.
The process of Laser Floepjes (light flukes) is based on the technique of Refractography, a technique with a bundle of three colours; red, green and blue. I like to use Refractory objects like glass artefacts or lens shapes while focussing and defocusing the lens and that results in the most unique and colorful shapes/patterns.
Ralf Jacobs, Eindhoven – The Netherlands, 1985
Perhaps it is best to describe Ralf Jacobs as a photographer. He ‘writes with light’ in a wonderful spectrum of old and new techniques, from 19th-century cyanotypes to software-guided laser projections. Combining different photographic procedures and images, he creates new realities that incorporate time as a tangible presence.
An old-fashioned harmonograph is a machine with rods and weights that mechanically moves a pencil across a piece of paper. Driven by the swinging motions of two or three pendula, it produces an endless variety of intricate elliptic line drawings. Jacobs uses software that emulates these motions instead, to create digital versions. It allows him to tinker with variables like frequency and phase, until a pattern emerges that shows the beauty of scientific imagination, liberating it from its mathematical equations.
A laser can trace the harmonographic image on chemically treated paper to create a cyanotype, a photographic printing process also known as blueprint, discovered in 1842 by Sir John Herschel. Jacobs uses this vintage process also to transfer conventional photographs to the characteristic cyan hue, saturating the image with a melancholy passage of time.
The invisible world
In a next step, superimposing harmonographic images onto regular pictures in cyanotype, Jacobs presents the patterns as alienating elements. Or are they intimate reminders of all that goes on beyond our everyday perception of reality? Another set of mathematical equations that Jacobs explores for their intriguing visual representation belongs to chaos theory. Lorenz attractors, for instance, appear in several of his works, introducing an unpredictable dynamic that seems to suit our era.
The process Jacobs calls light flukes is closest to his profession as an optical engineer. Based on the technique of refractography, it involves a bundle of red, green and blue light that travels through a refractory object, like a glass object or a lens shape, before it is registered by the camera. The resulting colourful chance patterns and images deny their tiny scale to suggest playful forces of a cosmic dimension.
The light phenomena captured by Ralf Jacobs in their appealing complexity and poetic beauty suggest an enviable innocent sense of wonder about the world. Jacobs has retained the ability to be mesmerised by rays of light and their intricate behaviour, even when his profound expertise in optics, lenses and perception might go a long way to elucidate the physical principles behind them. These principles can’t, of course, explain why the images constantly generate new questions and ideas, nor why Jacobs’ photographs can elicit such emotion and meaning.
Written by Nanne op ‘t Ende, 2021