Light painter Aurora Crowley prefers not to depend on other people. Once, when he fractured several bones in his hand, he waited ten days before going to the doctor (and almost had to have his hand amputated because of it). Originally a hairstylist, he (literally) picked up a camera on set, when he felt that photographers weren’t capturing his hairstyles properly. Even now, on his own shoots, he would rather it be, “just me and a model. I do hair and makeup, wardrobe, styling, everything.” For him, DIY is a lifestyle, not a hobby.
Crowley’s photos are as if the movies Tron and 2001: Space Odyssey had sex and birthed beautiful-alien-cyborg-fembots. They’re laser tag in heels. They’re beautiful and dystopic and visually cacophonous, in a good way, of course. He manipulates shapes, light, and mirrors with a style that seems otherworldly. His photos are mazes of infinite reflection but still remain as intimate and contained as the small, dark studio in which he shoots. That’s a lot of sensory stimulation from a guy who says he has achieved nirvana (once, ten years ago, and never since).
I visited him at his impressive self-built (of course) loft space and studio, tucked away in the furthest industrial corner of Greenpoint, to learn more about light painting and see, first hand, how the process works.
How would you define light painting?
It’s basically long-exposure photography where any light source can be used to light a subject. Absolute darkness is pretty critical. You use handheld lights to actually light your subject. The camera has to be stationary, and the model has to be totally static the whole time. It’s a lot of hits and misses.
How long is each exposure?
Now, it’s getting a lot shorter: under 5 seconds. I’m curbing light painting a bit because it’s just too art for fashion. You know it’s like crazy light everywhere and you can’t see the fucking clothes. They think it’s Photoshop from hell, so they don’t get it.
Are the exposures shorter now because of camera technology?
No, it’s just choice. Also, the lasers that I’m working with, each one is 80,000 times brighter than the sun. So, I’m having a huge issue with resolution being able to capture that, so if it’s over three to five seconds, there’s no image—it’s erased, it’s gone.
And are these lasers specifically designed for light painting?
No, no, originally they had military use for like sniper rifles. And then the hobbyists got interested, and the whole laser scene kind of blew up. I’m sponsored by this company called Wicked Lasers, and I think I might have the largest collection of their lasers.
Are they all different colors?
They’re blue and green and red and ultraviolet. The strongest one is the green, and the next strongest is the blue, then the red, and the violet is the weakest.
So are people still the subject matter of your personal work? Or is it just lights and the way that you manipulate light?
Both of them, people and light. There has to be a balance, you know, but then it also depends on the [model], if the [model is] weak and I feel like blasting away, then I’m gonna blast the shit out of them, to make it appear more drama. If the [model] is really strong I’m going to want to capture them, probably do shorter exposures and capture them.
How much is done on set and how much is done in post?
It’s almost all raw. I can tweak some perspectives; I have a little tiny studio so sometimes I can tweak the perspective just to make it fit the page.
Would you define yourself primarily as a light painter or as a photographer? Are the two inseparable?
Photographer. Light painter. I think more artist, a vehicle to help a lot of people.
You used to be a hairstylist, right?
I’ve been doing hair for 26 years. Nick Arrojo trained me at Bumble, and I worked at Pat Field’s which was fun.
I know how you went from hair to photography, just like picking up a camera and wanting to get good hair shots, but how did you get from photography to light painting?
That happened really quick. When I was at Bumble & Bumble, I went to a party and met this dude, my friend Patrick Rochon, and he had his book there and I saw his light paintings, and I was like, “I do styling—hair and makeup. We should shoot together.” And he was like, “Cool. Yeah. Let’s do it.” After that shoot, I instantly went home, grabbed my roommate’s teddy bear, light-painted the teddy bear on the toilet, and that was it.
What did you use as your light?
We just had some torch, like a mag light. But then the collection built up really fast, because you can use any light source, and they’re pretty cheap to get. It was a lot of experimenting and figuring out. I was doing nudes in the beginning mostly, and I cropped one photo and it was like this headless nude, and I was like, “Oh, shit.” So then I fell into this whole headless nudes trip, and then this gallery with Sotheby’s picked me up.
You’ve worked with a lot of great publications, including Zink and, ahem, Bullett. Has it been a difficult road in terms of incorporating into the fashion world?
Early on, I wasn’t really researching the magazines. I was blindly sending stories to editors without really understanding the magazine or understanding that they have concepts for every month. I was getting rejected, and that was a little difficult. But for the most part, it hasn’t really been that difficult. Like psychologically, I’m always happy just kind of in my own world, creating, and as long as I’m healthy, that’s all that matters to me.
I noticed, in a lot of your work, you use reflections and mirrors. Why?
The dimension, the depth, the infinity, the detail. As long as the subject is there in the first frame, totally in focus, the rest is their reflection. I try to get it as many times as possible.
You shoot in the dark, and you’re very much in control of the light that you use in your work. Do you ever shoot with natural light?
I love natural light. I just actually haven’t had the opportunity. I love taking snapshots, but it’s just regular photography. Sure, I can capture some fleeting emotion, which is what I love about taking snapshots, that I’m able to have the model flying around or doing anything to capture her in motion. For light painting, they have to be totally static. They can’t smile. They can’t move at all, which sucks for trying to capture emotion.
Whose portrait—it can either be one specific person or like a characteristic—would you really want to capture? Through light painting or otherwise?
I’m on this ongoing theme of light goddess, but I don’t know if it’s a goddess, or if it’s more of just a female figure. That’s my favorite subject to shoot. There’s nothing more beautiful to me than a woman.
Do you shoot men, ever?
Yeah, I’ve shot a bunch of men, and really it’s the ones that are more free who are most interested in shooting, the ones that are totally free, and just really nice, chill energy.
Is it completely different from shooting women?
Yeah, absolutely, with the wardrobe, and there’s never that attraction element. With men, it’s just like boy’s night out. We’re hanging out and getting dressed up. Usually, when I shoot men, it’s because I haven’t done enough light painting and I need to abuse someone with the light.
You think the women can’t handle it?
I’m sure some women can, but with women I’m always so delicate and taking it easy on them, whereas with men I can beat the shit out of them with the lights, and they’ll take it, and I don’t feel bad.
What subject would you never want to shoot?
Probably something that smells bad! I mean, if it smells bad, I wouldn’t want to be near it.