Lambertian photographs are digital photographs made out of wood. There is no pigment,
ink, or emulsion that define them; nor are they projected images. Rather, the photographs are
formed by light and shadow as it rakes across the surface contours. The science of the images is based on Lambert’s Law, from 1760. The equation calculates the diffuse reflection intensity of a surface based upon the angle of illumination and the angle of observation. Programmers have used Lambert’s Law to render objects realistically in 3-d computer programs. Mark Woodworth, a friend, an industrial physicist, coded Lambert’s equation into a software program that translates grayscale pixel densities into angular surface changes that can be milled on to a wood surface. Each photograph combines around 96 separately machined pieces of wood viewed from the side. In normal room light, the images can barely be perceived. They look like a peculiar chunk of wood; maybe something is carved into the surface. Illuminated properly with a single light source, the wood transforms into a black and white photograph.
The poetry of each portrait comes from their concave quality. The photograph is hollowed
out of the wood, a subtractive process. So the sitter leaves a space behind, an absence. That absence is reminiscent of the shadow that symbolizes the origins of art, when the Corinthian maid traced the shadow of her beloved the night before he left for war, so she could remember him. As a result of this myth, both art and photography have been described as “fixing a shadow.” John Berger speculates something similar as he reflects on one of his drawings, “What is a likeness? When a person dies, they leave behind, for those who knew them, an emptiness, a space: the space has contours and is different for each person mourned. This space with its contours is the person’s likeness and is what the artist searches for when making a living portrait. A likeness is something left behind invisibly.”1
1 John Berger, The Shape of a Pocket, Pantheon, New York, 2001, p.19.
Please view the accompanying video explaining the process.
The wooden photographs seen here are made out of Basswood. The square images are 12”x 12”; they each contain 96 separately milled pieces of wood.