Brocken Spectre


I keep a running list of favourite words and things (mainly in my head) and sometimes I get the chance to use them as a basis for a series of images. I have been utterly obsessed with brocken spectres for several months (if not years) but haven’t been able to work them as an idea in to a project.

A brocken spectre is, in effect a selfish rainbow. It is the enormous magnified shadow of an observer, cast upon the upper surfaces of clouds opposite the sun. They were first observed in 1788 by Johan Siberschlag in the Harz mountains in Germany. They are an optical illusion created when  sun shines from behind an observer who is looking down on to cloud or mist. The light projects their shadow which falls on to droplets of water at varying distances from the eye causing a halo of colour like a rainbow. Because of the angle of view only the observer can see this rainbow effect and this is what makes it a selfish rainbow.

When I first learned about brocken spectres it reminded me of the selfishness and illusionary nature of social networking and digital technologies; of how we lack the technical knowledge and understanding of how networks are created, as if they are some sort of ethereal experience which they are not. I have developed a deeply cynical view of social networks and am an unwilling participant (I am not a luddite)!

I have wanted to produce a series of images of people interacting with technology and the one idea I keep coming back to is that of the sitter being lit only by the light of the device they are interacting with. I like to imagine how Velazquez or Poussin or Rembrandt would have worked had they lighting choices other than candlelight or daylight?

My Thursday group and I visited the National Museum of Scotland a few months ago and whilst there I took the photographs below. I was struck at how the light from the small screens brought out the features of those in the image, and I also rather enjoyed the space landscape in the background- a simulacrum which only adds to the idea of modern life as rubbish (Baudrillard). The images below are simply ideas- they are not formed finished images but just the start. I get the irony of shooting these pictures with an iphone, and I will shoot the finished project with my DSLR which will only add to celebrate the selfishness of technology, But, lest we forget, once upon a time photography in it’s infancy was cutting edge technology, as was the development of ready mixed paint available in tubes, or the use of perspective…