Photographer Uses Static Electricity to Shock Exposed Film for Dramatic Explosion Effects

Photographer Uses Static Electricity to Shock Exposed Film for Dramatic Explosion Effects

One photographer is using her anxiety disorder to fuel and inspire her creative work. In her self-portrait series, entitled "Static," she used static electricity to shock 4x5 film, creating unique patterns and light bursts in her double exposures.

Kate Miller-Wilson is a fine art photographer based in Minnesota. Writing for PetaPixel, she has opened up about the process by which she creates the imaginative series. Explaining it, she says the act of shocking the film entails surrendering creative control, as the static can’t be shaped, and every result is different. “I’m particularly interested in how the sparks show the intersection of creativity and anxiety,” she says. The lack of control also runs the risk of unusable results, destroying expensive film in the process.

Miller-Wilson uses a Zone VI 4×5 Classic Field Camera, Schneider Xenar 150mm f/3.5 lens from 1928, and Ilford Ortho Plus 4×5 sheet film. All the photos in the series are shot in natural light.

I use a Wimshurst machine, a static generator designed in the 1880s that is now a fixture in many science classrooms. It has a big crank you turn with one hand. As it builds up a charge, sparks leap between two metal spheres. If you put your hand in there, you’ll get a zap, but it’s not going to kill you.

She explains that different approaches yield different results. If you’re after a lighting shape, try a quick and sudden crack. For a fireball effect, she says it’s best to shock for a longer duration in the same spot. That’s not to say the static isn’t unpredictable in its patterns, though: “It can just as easily completely obliterate the image or overexpose the whole thing,” she explains.

What I love about this process is the way the sparks can show emotion and unseen thoughts. It’s a way to make invisible things visible. That usually invisible spark is what makes a portrait or self-portrait powerful, and seeing it manifested this way is nothing short of exhilarating.

Catch more of Miller-Wilson’s work at her website and Instagram.

All images by Kate Miller-Wilson and used with permission.

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3 Comments

Rod Kestel's picture

Nice. I love that people are endlessly creative.
I bet she's had a huge number of tries to get a few good images. She's also using emotionally loaded poses which nicely compliment the effect.

Jason Bonello's picture

It's called reticulation.

Spy Black's picture

It's called static discharge. Reticulation happens if you have too drastic a drop in development fluids temperature, from developer to stop bath for example, causing the emusion to shrink and crinkle