Moving toward the light |

Moving toward the light

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

For their first photography project, identical twin brothers Mike and Doug Starn made portraits of the teachers in their Absecon, N.J., elementary school. They then turned those portraits into dart boards and distributed them to their schoolmates.

Since that sixth-grade prank, the Starn brothers have become considerably more serious in their photography, tackling ambitious themes in broad, extensive projects. The one thing that hasn’t changed over the three-plus decades since the dart boards is the brotherhood. Even before that first photographic series, the Starns had worked together. In their Brooklyn studio hangs a photo of the two as 5-year-olds; one brother is leaning over to correct a perceived flaw in the other’s painting.

“So it’s been going on forever,” said Mike, noting that as students at the Boston Museum School, the two did occasional separate projects in addition to their joint efforts ” the only time they have worked apart. “It’s just the way we work. It’s the way we live.”

“Attracted to Light,” the current exhibit at the Baldwin Gallery, reveals just how ambitious the Starns have become in their work ” and perhaps proves that two heads and four eyes are better than one and two, respectively.

“Attracted to Light” is actually four separate bodies of work, thematically connected by various concepts of light. But these are not simply depictions of different ways of capturing and presenting light. “Attracted to Light” shows that the Starns have spent much of their 42 years thinking about light ” what it does, what it looks like, what it means.

“Light is in our thinking, the basis of photography, the basis of vision,” said Mike, who lives in Manhattan’s East Village, while his brother lives in the West Village. “That’s the most powerful force for us. Light, going back to Plato, means intelligence and thought and information.”

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Over the last few years, the Starns have turned that force into four powerful series of art.

The most visually arresting of the series is “The Structures of Thought.” The works, in varying shapes and sizes, are centered around images of trees, rendered entirely in black. Look closer and you see the layers of physical depth to the works: more images of trees farther back, coats of wax and caustic potash, images of neurons, all printed on different types of paper. And the thinking behind the art is as deep as the work itself.

“Black can be the void of light ” it can be a shadow,” said Mike of the predominance of black in “The Structures of Thought.” “But it can also be the absorber of all light. White has nothing in it, but black can have everything in it, like a black hole.

“Trees are made of carbon. Carbon is black, so [the trees] literally are absorbed light. They grow toward the light; they’re made of light.”

On another level, Starn sees the tree works as related to the mechanics of thought. The art, he notes, is very much about assembling the layers, putting things together on top of another, one next to the other.

“Thoughts aren’t linear,” said Starn. “They’re so many things, so many connections, your health, your desires, the way you slept last night. And the trees are a representation of those connections ” all these connections and all these layers.”

In the art, the point is reinforced by the neuron photographs layered between the tree images. For the Starns, the point was made clear by a series of chance occurrences. Looking for a black willow in some upstate New York woods, the brothers were approached by a truck. They asked the driver if he knew where a black willow might be found; he pulled out a book, “Great Trees of New York,” and pointed them to a spot 20 minutes away.

There’s more. The Starns went to the site, the Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory, and asked for more precise directions to the black willow. When the staff there couldn’t help, Mike pointed to a photo of a tree on the office wall, and asked where he might find a tree like it. He was informed that the photo was not of a tree, but of a neuron. “That sent chills down my back,” said Starn, who was already well into “The Structure of Thought” series.

The meaning of moths

Also part of the “Attracted to Light” project are the “Attracted to Light” series, which is also the subject of a new book; “Ganjin,” a series of photographs made in Japan in 2000; and “Black Pulse,” a series of leaf photographs that is not included in the Baldwin Gallery exhibit. Related to the project is another work in progress, a film that is being made under the auspices of the Anderson Ranch Arts Center and the Bohen Foundation.

The “Attracted to Light” photographs use images of moths, which the Starns find a natural subject for their light concept. “These are insects that hide in the daytime and come to life at night and go straight to the light,” said Mike. “And no one has discovered any reason why. It’s not to eat, it’s not to mate. They’ll go to light more than they’ll go to mate. There’s this desire to get to the light.”

Completing the concept is the worn, hand-coated paper, meant to mimic a moth’s wing; the paper even flakes away, just as a moth’s wing does when touched. To secure the images to the paper, the Starns use lepidoptrical pins, the kind used by insect experts.

“Ganjin” is a series of images of the eighth-century holy man of the same name, who reformed Japanese Buddhism. The Starns were among 10 groups invited to photograph the life-size statue of Ganjin, which is only open to viewing one day each year. The photographers had to pray to Ganjin before shooting; the shoots were done in one hour in front of a group of 16 monks, an experience Mike likened to “shooting the pope.” Not that he minded; the work fit in well with the brothers’ themes.

“We’ve always worked with spiritual art history ” crucifixions, ascensions, things in Jerusalem, the Dead Sea Scrolls,” said Starn, who will have the “Ganjin” series presented in Japan in June.

Naturally, Starn found a link between Ganjin and the “Attracted to Light” concept. “He was blind,” said Starn. “As a blind seer, he sees the dark filled with light.”

A tangential piece in the series is the film. The Starns worked on the project last week at Anderson Ranch, and a large-scale still from the film is included in the Baldwin Gallery exhibit. The film was shot mostly at 300-plus frames per second, vastly more than the standard 30 frames a second the human eye can process. But a moth, said Mike, can process much more visual information than a human.

“A moth would see a slide show if it watched a movie, because they can see 300 images a second,” he said. “This film is shot at 300 frames a second, so it looks like slow motion.

“This puts us in their scale. We’re these beings trying to get to the light.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is