Last Of The Great Symphonies
Superchromatic Spectrosynthesis 1986
The 407 Hour Masterpiece
by James Elliott

'Superchromatic Spectrosynthesis' is the world's first photographic Light Sculpture.




An incredible vision flashed across my mind just as I was getting out of bed at my London Studio. It was so vivid that I was literally frozen spellbound, one leg on the floor the other still in bed, as I attempted to hold the vision. Five seconds later, in a mad fogged frenzy, I searched frantically for paper and pen, throwing things all over the place as I went. Unable to find a pen, I did in fact locate a green felt tip marker, grabbed some paper and dashed off my usual form of visual shorthand. The reason for this frenetic activity was first that I had seen something highly original and incredible and second, that I was acutely aware of the ephemeral nature of ideas.

Sometimes a momentary distraction is all that is necessary to lose an idea forever - especially in a hyperactive mind. Ideas are just like so many sperms, most of the time they amount to nothing and yet each one is a creative attempt. God, Nature, what you will, budgets for loss and I try to do the same - but this idea was incredible and I didn't want to lose it. To get an idea out of your head and into physical reality, is absolutely crucial.

This initial flash of inspiration came in January 1979, long before the masterpiece was actually created.

Initially I just knew I had a good idea - but so what?! I had lots of fantastic ideas. However, I had learned many years earlier to distrust new ideas and put them to one side, to let them mature.

I had hundreds, even thousands of ideas, just lying around in box files. More than I could ever do in a lifetime. So I had developed a sifting process to exponentially increase my creativity.

My criterion was and is this. If an idea constantly returns to haunt me, without relenting, then it must have deep significance, so then I short-list it. If it gravitates towards the top of this list, then I commit unlimited resources to creating it.

Time, effort or money just doesn't come into it. People are always moaning that they don't have the money to do this or that - but that's nonsense, because they sit there smoking, staring through the windscreen of their convertible as they say it. When I created my early Eighties fetish erotica classics, I spent so much dosh on them that I went broke and had to sell my lighting equipment to pay off the bank. For this reason - that when I commit it is absolute - I always circle an idea like an eagle, before making my swoop. Sometimes I fly away. Sometimes I come back. I like to look at the idea from every angle first. I circled this one longer than any other.

Likewise with effort and time - I give it what it needs. I am always reading about this or that photographer who died and left 30,000 negatives and I think "What a load of crap! I wouldn't like to have to sift through that lot!" I have created around 250 images so far as I write this in 1999. If I live to create a thousand, no-one will be more surprised than me and as I shall never tire of saying "Prolificacy is the hallmark of those who lack perspicacity."

I give images temporary and often nonsensical titles, just to give my brain something to point at. They are literally the first thing that rolls out of my mouth which connects with the image. Initially I called it "The Incredible Space-Age Polychrome Flitz". That was too much to chew so a couple of days later I wrote in my diary "Stellachrome Flitz", but to remind me of what a blinding vision it was. I settled for years on "The Incredible Stellachrome Flitz". The name only changed days before creation. "Incredible" was my feeling about the idea. "Stellachrome" was from "stellar" hence stars and so space and space-age and "flitz" was a shorthand scribble term meaning electronic flash.

I had as a teenager, heard my Belgian uncle Fonze use a word which sounded like "flitzen" when referring to Electronic flash and I had adopted it. So that was how I referred to the image for years, but titles - like my images - are usually perfected over time.

The reasoning behind "Superchromatic Spectrosynthesis" as a title was this. I knew it would be the most incredible labour of love. I knew people would never understand what was involved in creating the image - especially as in 1986 people in England were just so incredibly ignorant of Photography as Art. So I thought one way to help them understand was to give it a difficult title. Difficult to remember and difficult to pronounce and preferably with alliteration and a euphonic trip of the tongue.

My titles like 'Madness Mistress Metamorphosis' or in a purely euphonic way 'Kiss On Frosted Glass' roll off the tongue in a way that make them a delight to say. My grammar school was pedantic about alliteration, grammar, spelling and syntax but I always found this small minded. The wise care not for such trivia. Used sparingly, alliteration is extremely effective. Of course the same teachers also hold up Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice' as an example of great writing. Not to mention 'Sense and Sensibility'. The English language - like anything else which has evolved over time - is a bit of a mess anyway. People think that if they misspell something they have made an error. With me it is the reverse - I think the English language has made an error. It usually has. And it is high time someone sorted it out..... but we digress. Creative minds are rarely linear.

The concept of the image was this incredible futuristic scenario, where nothing actually had any colour - rather like life. Physics and psychology tell us that there is no colour, it is just a human response to particular wavelengths of light. Cats see in black and white for example. And I knew that by giving colour only to the light, that fantastic saturation and purity of colour would be achieved. This would achieve the exact 'feel' that I wanted. An almost spiritual glow. Like something from another dimension.

The idea kept coming back to me but each time I gave it thought, it became clearer and clearer that although it would be a masterpiece, it would be extremely complex to pull off.

Because of this I procrastinated for years. Not on my art, just this particular piece. When it came to selecting images to create it was always deferred to 'next years' images. I knew I was going to need absolutely the right frame of mind to even begin it. And anyway, I had already figured out that effort does not equal result. However, on this occasion I searched in vain for a simple solution.

Years went by - seven actually - and I knew that if I didn't make a start soon, I was simply indulging in self-delusionary evasion and I was never really going to do it at all. So it was late Spring, my favourite time of year - and we English are always full of enthusiasm as the year is reborn. Also it was becoming increasingly apparent that I would move from the Cricklewood Studio at some point - so I made a start on Saturday 31st May 1986.

I have to say, there were many times when I wished I hadn't. But in life there is never a perfect time for anything and there is never a perfect anything in all eternity - so I made a start.

Some aspects of my Photography are like painting an entire canvas in mid air then throwing it at the canvas in one hit. No picture was more like this than 'Superchromatic Spectrosynthesis'. It just always looked awful, nearly all of the time. Four months of fencing with chaos. This can be seen from the extensive documentation.'

'Superchromatic Spectrosynthesis' is the world's first photographic Light Sculpture. The original sculpture was painted in white and silver. It had no colour at all. I knew that by shining pure light in many colours on to the sculpture, super saturation of chroma would result. Some parts are translucent to allow back-illuminated transmission of light. Some elements moved during exposure. All colour was introduced with great precision by filtering and focusing the 21 lights used. In addition the entire scenario was shot through a filter giving a 4,000 degrees Kelvin shift towards blue and so electrifying the colours of the entire scenario. As always I worked without assistance. There is no 'Team Elliott'. I do not create art by proxy, as is common nowadays. People who think authorship of little importance, do not understand creativity in the slightest. I create masterpeices - not assistantpieces.

During creation, I wandered off up many blind alleys, as for example with the sentinel faces guarding the sleeping sphinx-like goddess. Whatever I did they just looked 'too aboriginal', which would have been the complete antithesis of the space age feel I was after. I was also trying to balance them on edge of perception, so that you didn't see them immediately, which was incredibly hard as you already know they are there. So how do you judge them from the perspective of someone who has not perceived them yet? You may as well ask a whore to be a virgin or try to get the avalanche back up the mountain.

Anyway it was total cacophony right up until the final few weeks. I knew I was moving forwards but I had no idea where the hell I was. There was more than one occasion when I seriously doubted I would ever pull it off. However, I had learned from 'Metasphere' 1974+5 - which took 332 hours of work to create - that doubt is an illusion, caused by negatively pre-empting a future that we cannot possibly predict.

The only way I can describe the feeling an artist gets working on an image like this, is to use the metaphor of a dark tunnel, many miles long. When you enter from one end you have no idea how long it is - you just know that it is where you want to go. In fact at normal walking speed, the 407 hours of work spent on this image equates to a 1628 mile marathon. But when you set out you think maybe, a few hundred and you mentally prepare for that. As days pass you have absolutely no idea whether it would be better to go back because you just don't know how far in you are. There is no point of reference.

You don't know whether to discard all efforts, stay sane and throw away part of your life, or to keep moving forwards. You don't even know if it is quicker to abandon it and attempt a new image. In my diary notes, when I comment 'I am standing in the light just inside the end of the tunnel', it is this felling I am referring to. After months in the dark, a ray of hope. It had taken me three and a half months of intense work before I knew I would win. But even right up to the final day it all nearly horribly backfired.

There was one point when I was four months into it and it just all became too much and I rushed to the studio to destroy it out of sheer intolerable frustration. Much to my astonishment the studio door was locked. What is incredible about this is that I never locked the studio door. I had no reason to, as it was inside my apartment. I had been there eight years and never once locked it. I mention this in my diary. Divine intervention? Well that certainly, if you believe in that. If not, the only explanation I can give is that I subconsciously knew I was going to explode and unwittingly locked it. Although either way it is bizarre. Whatever the reason, it broke my dynamic and confused and disturbed by the event, I left the sculpture alone and went to the park for some air. I continued diligently later that evening.

Even the final shoot was incredibly prone to disaster because I only got three shots completed. The first failed. Then I completed one and then tried again. Remember, each exposure required 76 actions all in the correct sequence. Doing 76 of anything in sequence is unbelievably difficult to do. And remember that in those days there was no computer correction - which is more like painting as you can go over it. But until the Nineties it was, as I said, like painting an entire canvas in mid air and then throwing it all at the canvas in one hit. People are always glibly saying that you can 'do anything on a computer' nowadays, which is utter crap. Being a master of that medium also, I know that computers facilitate a great deal but also present their own lexicon of problems. Anyway, even if you could create a 'Superchromatic' on computer today, that is irrelevant as my work would still be a historical precedent.

Anyway on the final day I learned that however bad something is, it can always get worse. Just when you think you are on the bottom, some bastard pulls the floor out from under you. I was giving out extremely loud moans of frustration. It sounded like some large unidentified jungle beast, about the size of a waterbuffalo, in excruciating pain. I was smashing things with my fist, completely oblivious to the pain and hurling things across the studio. My language would have made the Pope collapse.

I calmed down momentarily and made another attempt but made an error - just what I needed! Then I miraculously completed one attempt, which appeared to be OK but there was no way of telling until after processing. Remember this is not like snaps, where an experienced photographer knows he's got it, the exposure was long and protracted, so you couldn't really tell. I had made 'successful attempts' before which had not stood up to critical scrutiny.

On the third attempt I was again diligently proceeding with the 76 action exposure sequence, when on step 76 whilst trying to draw in the violet halo of light, I made another bloody error - my hand slipped of the guide runner, drawing an imperfect circle and ruining the image. After the frustration of hundreds of previous errors, to screw up on stage 76 ...... it was just too much and I completely lost it and exploded!!

In a moment of incredible rage, I leapt to my feet and smashed the whole thing into a zillion pieces like a demented maniac!! When the colour film was processed, the second attempt had been completely successful but there was almost an indifference in me. Even if I had failed I would not have cared as I just wanted the bloody thing out of my life!

Still now that time has distanced me from all of that - thank God the second one I attempted was successful. When I think of the permutations of circumstance, the locked door and the one successful image on the final roll, the Gods must have been on my side.

As an even more absurd anecdote, on 1st August 1986 I moved into a new studio and apartment on the ground floor at 63 Belsize Park in London's Hampstead. I had to maintain the upkeep of the former Cricklewood Studio for no other reason than the fact that "Superchromatic" was standing there unfinished. This continued for over two months, at great expense, before the image was finally completed after 407 hours of work on 10th October 1986.

I spent an additional three days making the colour prints at Belsize Park. I created an edition of ten via the silver dye bleach process (Cibachrome) on equipment designed to my own exacting standards.

If you love the image then acquire it if you can, as one thing is absolutely written in stone - I shall never venture down this creative High Road ever again - not in this lifetime, anyway.

I still consider it to be one of my greatest masterpieces and I know that I always will.

Written by JAMES ELLIOTT
19th March 1999
at Greencroft Gardens, London
2840 words - reading time : 15 minutes


'Superchromatic Spectrosynthesis' 1986 was Elliott's final, climactic 'Symphony For The Camera'.
Although 'The Inevitability Of Circumstance' is dated 1987, it was created just before 'Superchromatic',
but post production ran into 1987. All 'Symphonies For The Camera' predate Photoshop.



© JAMES ELLIOTT 1999