Mixing Light: The Abstract Photography of Jessica Eaton

Jessica Eaton, cfaal 340, 2013. Inkjet print, 127 x 101.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Jessica Eaton Photo: NGC

When asked about her complex artistic process, photographer Jessica Eaton begins with a story. In 1861, Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, author of a landmark treatise on human colour vision, worked with Thomas Sutton, inventor of the single-lens reflex camera, to produce the first colour photograph. It showed a tartan ribbon tied in a bow. Sutton had photographed the ribbon three times with three different filters – red, blue and green – applied to the camera lens. That same year, in a lecture to the Royal Institution of Great Britain, Maxwell used three magic lanterns, each fitted with either a red, blue or green filter, to project and superimpose the separate images, showing the ribbon in roughly true-to-life colours.

Eaton shares the story to introduce the way she reproduces colour in her own photography. The anecdote also subtly reveals other dimensions fundamental to her practice – she is an artist deeply engaged with the history, the physics and the possibilities of the photographic medium.

Jessica Eaton, cfaal 346, 2013. Inkjet print, 127 x 101.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Jessica Eaton Photo: NGC

The Montreal-based artist is perhaps best known for her ongoing photo series Cubes for Albers and LeWitt, which spans more than a decade (the works' titles, cfaal, are an acronym of the series name). Coloured in rich jewel tones, Eaton’s nested, knotted forms behave in ways 3D objects ought not to. Part of the joy in experiencing her work, indeed, is puzzling out just what you are looking at and how it came to be. Viewers might compare it to the geometric abstraction of Josef Albers and Sol LeWitt, the two artists the series salutes, or maybe the paintings of Frank Stella or 1960s Op Art. Eaton’s polychrome enigmas, however, are made purely photographically – the effects are produced entirely in-camera and through masking, filters and multiple exposures. The National Gallery of Canada holds in its collection three works from this series: cfaal 306, cfaal 340 and cfaal 346.

Eaton’s main subjects across the project are the eponymous wooden cubes. They are built in varying sizes and painted strictly in the shades of an 11-value greyscale, from white to black (based on the Zone System of pioneering photographer Ansel Adams). Eaton achieves the glorious colours characteristic of the series — whether tangerine, russet or robin’s egg blue – by taking multiple exposures through a combination of red, blue and green colour-separation filters. This system of colour synthesis, which applies particularly to light, is known as additive colour mixing.

Jessica Eaton, Excerpt from sketchbook for Cubes for Albers and LeWitt. © Jessica Eaton Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Eaton prepares detailed notes for each shoot, developing formulas for desired colour outcomes and planning the precise choreography of filter swaps and cube movements within the frame. The process has become both more methodical and more complex as the series has grown. An image such as cfaal 346 (2013), she says, might be comprised of 12 to 24 exposures, whereas more recent instalments might consist of as many as 90 exposures. 

The project began at least partly, she explains, because artist and theorist Josef Albers, in his influential 1963 handbook Interaction of Color, dismissed additive mixing as the territory of physicists, not artists. Albers had conducted “the most extensive study into the subtractive system of colour in contemporary times,” Eaton says, so his outright rejection of additive mixing struck her as something of a challenge. She was also influenced by Sol LeWitt’s Paragraphs on Conceptual Art and Sentences on Conceptual Art, 1967–68 and, as she emphasizes, in particular by one entry about working with ideas that are abstract and may not have a physical index. LeWitt suggests taking a simple form and projecting onto it, and through repetition the idea is able to become the art. She has made the cube just such a vessel.

Jessica Eaton, cfaal 306, 2013. Inkjet print, 127 x 101.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Jessica Eaton Photo: NGC

“My work lets go of the idea of photography being the ‘pencil of nature’,” Eaton says, referencing the mid-19th-century explorations of pioneering photographer William Henry Fox Talbot. “What interests me about photography is much less replicating my experience of reality and much more the ambitions we would normally associate with painting: to show something beyond my experience.”

This doesn't mean her photographs don’t show something “real.” Bound by her medium to collect information only from the physical world, she has to negotiate space and time and the electromagnetic spectrum. The results represent reality, although not as it is normally perceived by the human eye. She calls this the metaphysical aspect of her work. “I find it to be comforting. I know a lot of people need a god and the idea that there are these absolutes, but I have always thought that the infinite mystery of the universe is much more appealing … It has the nice potential to remind you that there is more than meets the eye. We as humans, I think, far too often get trapped believing that our way, and the way it is now, is the only way.” Eaton's photographs rejoice in possibility. "I have always thought the work was celebratory in that way," she says. "Kind of utopian maybe.”


For information on Jessica Eaton's works in the National Gallery of Canada, see the collection online. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

About the Author