Scott Aitken—who purchased this review in the Strangercrombie charity auction—is a photographer who paints with light. Blackness is his canvas. The windows of his studio are covered in black paper. The camera sits on a tripod, operated by a remote control. Pressing a button, Aitken activates the camera for a 30-second exposure or more. He turns off the lights. Grabbing a 25-watt light bulb with a cone duct-taped to it—a kind of torch megaphone—he approaches his frozen subject and begins to spray him with light. On those posing (usually naked) in the dark, Aitken performs a series of glancing caresses. The camera only picks up what the light hits. Everything else is invisible in the photograph, including Aitken.
Aitken was born in Winnipeg, Canada. He moved to the United States as a toddler. As a teenager, he borrowed his dad's Canon camera and learned to develop black-and-white images. Later he studied at the Photographic Center Northwest, the Rocky Mountain School of Photography, and the Coupeville Arts Center. He has a commercial photography business on the side, and has been making studio images using his uncommon technical approach for about three years.
This technique has a history, going back to Civil War movies and late 1800s product photography. At present, Aitken is one of the few artists employing the process, which he calls "painting with light." The result is a dreamy, ethereal, surrealistic quality, which is heightened by an antiquing sepia treatment. Life and color are drained from the image, and what is left is not a man in a photographer's studio with his muscles, flesh, and bones, but a marbleized ideal. Every scene is theatrical. But what kind of play is this? Who is the audience? It is the well-made play of the 19th century, performed in the gas footlights that distort the actors, making the real unreal. Aitken's images are flat, their eroticism conjured by lack. Take, for example, Djinni. A muscle-bound young man is rising from a golden urn, arms stretched, ready to grant us our every wish. (Aitken suspended the urn fom transparent fishing line.) A curving horizon of light radiates from the model's torso. He looks downward, in obeisance: What is it you want? What is it you need? It you shall get.
Some of the pictures are more discomfiting. Panther is a black man on all fours wearing a studded eye mask, surrounded by streaks of light that resemble cage bars. The image, again, is flat, and its meanings are all too present, obliterating desire. It's impossible to ignore the racial implication of the animalistic image—after all, this is a black panther. Neither the mask nor Aitken's manipulation of the light remove the object from history.
Three Dancing Ghosts, on the other hand, has aspirations in the right direction. It makes conscious references. Coming straight to mind are Matisse's wildly popular depictions of a circle of dancers, and the three graces of classical painting. In the photograph is a single male nude, pictured at three distinct points during the two-minute exposure, in three different positions. He is a threesome. One of him, seen from behind, has a thick, burning candle between his legs. Unseen in the middle of this dance in the dark is invisible Aitken. He is the one illuminating the young, nubile man's joie de vivre.
It's a nice coincidence that Aitken's upcoming show of a dozen of these dramatic photographs, opening February 12 at ArtsWest in West Seattle, will share space with an actual play. The play, called Beat the Sunset, is an American premiere by Canadian playwright Michael Lewis MacLennon, "a story that focuses on the relationship between two childhood friends who overcome scandalous events to find a closer understanding of themselves and their relationship," according to ArtsWest's website. It sounds like the play is going to be less theatrical than Aitken's photographs, which have deep thespian roots feeding a concept that bends feebly toward the sun of Mapplethorpian-style erotics. Ultimately, Aitken's technique is fruitful, but his imagery needs more surprises.