Further inspirations for my research are ancient stories about spontaneously appearing images made by thunderstorm lightning and how photographic processes were involved in explaining such self-generated images. Around the end of the nineteenth century, following the recent discovery of X-rays and nuclear radiation, a better understanding of the behaviour of electricity and the ability of photography to register these phenomena invisible to the human eye led to the publication of several studies of the photographic effects of lightning.
A very popular interest involved the curious Lichtenberg figures that some (human or animal) victims developed across their skin when struck by lightning. As we know now, these striking patterns are likely caused by the rupture of capillaries beneath the skin from the electrical discharge, but at the time, this fact was not yet recognized as such. The peculiar 'lightning flowers' or 'skin featherings' (the current medical terms are arborescent erythema
or keraunographic markings) were often explained in terms of a photographic apparition.
In an article entitled A 'Lightning Figure' Photographed (1883), for example, the British meteorologist George Symons discusses a strange case in which six sheep were killed by a stroke of electricity in a wooded area near the city of Bath. When the skins were taken from the animals, a facsimile of a portion of the surrounding scenery was visible on their inner surface. These 'beautiful photographic images'3 caused a great local sensation at the time and the skins were publicly exhibited in Bath.
In his book Les caprices de la foudre (Thunder and Lightning, 1905), the French astronomer Camille Flammarion also recounts a number of spectacular incidents involving inscriptions on the skin caused by lightning strikes. The first one tells the story of two French labourers who were struck by lightning when taking refuge from a violent thunderstorm in 1896. While one of the labourers only sustained minor injuries, his friend was in worse shape: the lightning cut open one of his boots and tore his trousers; but over and above all this, 'like a tattooist making use of photography', the lightning had 'reproduced admirably'4 on his body a representation of a pine tree, of a poplar, and of the strap of his watch. In Photography through an opaque body (1896), the French author and editor Emmanuel Santini, too, describes numerous events in which images made by lightning spontaneously appeared: imprints of crosses, circular shapes, trees, flowers and plants, even cows are reproduced onto the lightning-stricken skin of human and animal victims. Like Symons and Flammarion, he approaches these phenomena as genuine photographic processes and uses similar analogies in their explanations: the lightning 'photographs', as it were; the images that it creates are 'reproductions', the skin of the victims serves as 'the sensitive photographic plate' of this spontaneous process. Mediated by lightning, this type of photography occurs in a natural manner, without human assistance, 'by itself.'
On the one hand, my photo-fulguric series can be considered as an updated manifestation of the same natural imprinting properties of flash light and of processes involving photosensitivity and radioactivity that are of all time. On the other hand, what sets them apart from these intriguing lightning stories is the fact that both the production and manifestation of the flash, and the petrified object, happen within the black box of a scientific apparatus. It seems that the technically induced visibility acts here as a kind of mirage that simultaneously obscures and reveals the relations embedded within the processes of production. Working in a scientifically controlled environment with high-tech observation methods amplifies the tension with which the photographic must contend: how visual aesthetics articulate what is not immediately visible but is still, of necessity, embedded within an image. While both fulgurites and spark figures may physically resemble their naturally occurring examples, they are fundamentally different because of the scientific procedures and the reflexive concepts they carry. Brought about by the workings of a partially autonomous closed circuit, together with elements of chance, anticipation and intention, these appearances are deceitful and truthful at the same time. They are what they are, in their phenomenological specificity, yet maintain a fundamental relationship with the hidden programs and rituals attached to them by design.