The photography of Geoff Robertson is both intriguing and illusionary; a narrative of characters removed from their environments and placed in a surreal space of light and shadow. At first glance, the images appear to be highly digitally altered, with their carefully designed light streaks and layers of movement. In reality, the light elements aren’t created in post-production at all, and instead are the result of Geoff’s custom-built, one-of-a-kind hardware called The Halo Machine.

Halo Spinner. Image courtesy of the artist.

We interviewed Geoff to find out more about his photographic process, the creation of The Halo Machine, and his thoughts about photography in NFT marketplaces.

Ephimera: How did you get into photography? What inspired you?

Geoff: It’s been a gradual process to get to where I am now – with various sources of inspiration along the way. However, I can trace it all back to one particular moment in 2016 that sort of set off the chain reaction. So for years I had been using this Sony NEX-5, a mirrorless crop-frame camera, for everyday documentation purposes. I mean, that thing lived in automatic mode. One day a friend of mine showed me some long exposure photos he did of trailing car lights from the perspective of a highway overpass. I asked how he did it and he gave me the 101 of camera mechanics. A light went on in my head and I haven’t used a professional camera in automatic mode since. 

Ephimera: Photographers often explore long-exposure light painting in street photography, on-location portraits and more, but oftentimes these are photos using available light. Why do you think it’s important to be able to create, and control, the light? What does it do for the image?

Geoff: A guiding philosophy, if you will, of mine is that “photography is the art of capturing light over time”. Here, I think of light as a physical medium, like paint, that gets applied to a canvas – the canvas being film or a digital sensor. The lens of a camera controls the direction of the paint onto the sensor, the aperture controls the volume of the flow, and the shutter controls the duration of time for which that flow is applied. However, my pursuit as an artist is not so much focused on the mastery of these controls but rather the mastery of the presentation of light and the objects off of which it reflects before it even enters the camera. I don’t want to just control how the paint is applied – I want to create the paint altogether. By working in the vacuum of a light controlled room I’ve been able to isolate, combine, and manipulate variables to explore what kinds of effects they yield. Through this experimentation I’ve refined a variety of techniques that generate images with surreal aesthetics unique to the realm of fine-art photography.

Ephimera: Tell us about your “orchestrated single exposure images.” How did you coin the name?

Geoff: The phrase “Orchestrated Single Exposure” comes from the defining parameters that I’ve set for myself as an artist. These parameters dictate that all visible content must be captured in-camera via an orchestrated single exposure. Meaning, everything you see in my images was put there deliberately between the time the shutter opened and closed with no post production structural changes (aka Photoshop). It’s a challenge that has refined my style by pushing me to be inventive with how and when light and the objects off which it reflects are presented to the camera for that duration of time.

Halo Spinner. Image courtesy of the artist.

Ephimera: Can you tell us a bit more about The Halo Machine? How did you conceptualize it?

Geoff: The Halo Machine is a device of my own design that affords me control over the spin (velocity), state (on/off/brightness), and position (x, y, z coordinates) of lights as they rotate – typically around a subject or object. The conceptualization of The Halo Machine evolved over years of building smaller, hand-operated devices for the purposes of painting with light. Each device taught me a little more about electrical and mechanical engineering. Eventually I started to visualize how a more complex system could be built that would not only move the lights for me but allow those lights to be interchangeable and configured in different ways.

The Halo Machine Diagram. Image courtesy of the artist.

Ephimera: You started construction on The Halo Machine in 2020. Are you happy with where it is now, a year later? Do you expect to make more versions of it in the future?

Geoff: I started planning The Halo Machine in the fall of 2019 with construction beginning in January of 2020. Since then I’ve built two versions, The Halo Machine V1 & V2. Here, V2 was essentially a reconstruction of V1 but with better parts and a more robust electrical system. Specifically, a stronger shaft system and the ability for me to run multiple, more complex circuits of lights simultaneously. I’m proud of where V2 is now and what it’s allowed me to accomplish – granted there are many ways it can be improved. Currently, I have two projects in the works that stem from the lessons of The Halo Machine. The first is a device I call The Halo Mini. As its name suggests, it’s a scaled-down model of the original intended to be used for small objects / macro photography. The second device, however, is a completely different beast altogether and is geared towards another photographic technique. I don’t want to give too much away – but stay tuned for The Stroboscopic Graffiti Machine.

Ephimera: How do you see yourself using The Halo Machine in the next few years? Currently the works you’ve tokenized on Ephimera use it for single-exposure photographs. Would you ever try it out for video work, or installations?

Geoff: I intend on using The Halo Machine going forward in a few different capacities that range from experimental work, to commissioned portraits, to commercial applications such as product photography (one of the reasons behind The Halo Mini). But to speak to your question about alternative uses, something I realized when reviewing the images yielded from my earlier shoots with The Halo Machine is that they can be reconstructed to form time-lapse animations. Here, because each image depicts a captured light-painted segment of a larger circle, the whole thing can be looped for a show of continuous, cyclical motion. I call these animations Halo Spinners. Anyways, my wife, who is the Associate Concert Master of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (2nd chair violin), and I actually took this concept and created an entire time lapse video to accompany a piece she played for a streaming recital. The video, which we named “Ysaye Sunrise”, can be viewed below. Now, I’m not going to lie, reconstructing the hundreds and hundreds of single-exposure photographs for that animation was a lot of work – and I would be interested in taking a different approach going forward. In theory, with video you could simply adjust the shutter speed of each frame so they capture a brief blur of light-painting. So instead of a video of The Halo Machine spinning as you would see it with your own eyes, it would present a similar aesthetic to the time-lapse of light painting single-exposures. I haven’t tried it yet but it’s on the list of things to explore.

“ysaye sunrise” on Vimeo.

Ephimera: You take a unique approach to your tokenized artworks, offering prints, clothing or other physical representations to collectors who purchase the pieces in question. Why do you like this approach, and where do you see it heading in the future? How do you see the intersection of tokenized art and displays in the physical world?

Geoff: I feel that fine-art photography is currently sort of an odd duck in the NFT space. I think this is due to a number of factors – perhaps a big one being that, in an arena where digital art thrives, static images of the analogue world, though digital in format, simply do not stand out amongst the flashing animations and movement. This is one of the reasons I’ve been exploring the use of tangible incentives – experimenting with ways to stand out. However, I do also foresee a potential marriage, of sorts, between the digital (NFT) and physical art worlds. This will come as the latter adopts the technology of the former for the purposes of promotion, distribution, authentication, and tracking. Here are some hypothetical scenarios to help illustrate:

Scenario 1:

An individual artist working with a physical medium mints NFTs to serve as digital representations of their work. For example, a NFT is minted to represent a single oil painting or 5 NFTs are minted to represent 5 editions of a limited print. Doing so opens up a whole new channel to promote and distribute (i.e. sell) their work as they can now leverage NFT based platforms. Here, the physical art is what’s being sold and the NFT is serving more or less as a proxy. However, extrapolating this concept shows how the two can become more intertwined.

Scenario 2:

An established institution that handles physical mediums mints NFTs as a means of double authentication for the one-of-a-kind pieces that get moved from one museum / gallery to another. Say, for example, an unknown Monet is uncovered. A team of expert historians authenticate the physical piece as a Monet and mint an NFT that represents it digitally. Here, the NFT wouldn’t just be simply an image of the piece – it would also contain information about the unique attributes of the piece (e.g. size, weight, date of origin, etc.). Next, information about the NFT would be programmed into a non removable tag (say, an NFC) that gets applied to the back of the physical piece. As this priceless Monet is moved from one institution to another its NFT is also moved from one respective wallet to another. Perhaps this could be done automatically as the tag is scanned by the receiving party to certify its authenticity.

Scenario 3:

An established gallery that serves as both the producer of a photographer’s prints as well as their representative agent in the art world mints an NFT for each print edition they produce. They then integrate the mechanics of the NFT – NFC combo mentioned in scenario 2 into their authentication plaques – which are labels that go on the back of a print that list the gallery, print specs, edition number, and the artist’s signature. This would allow them to present and position the piece of artwork both digitally and physically while maintaining their ethical responsibility of control. Presented digitally, the NFT is positioned as coming with a corresponding print. Presented physically, the print is positioned as coming with a corresponding NFT. In other words, the gallery takes advantage of the two worlds but is not double dipping with the same piece of art.

“‘Planetoid’ NFT + Print & Gift” by Geoff Robertson. Currently listed for Ξ 3.00 ($3645.96) in the Ephimera marketplace.

You can find a number of Geoff’s artworks utilizing The Halo Machine for sale on the Ephimera marketplace. Follow Geoff Robertson on Instagram and Twitter @GBRme.