We propose a user-centred approach, which looks at the domains of amateur, artist and professional production. By user-centred we mean a focus on the spectrum from end-user experience of software, through redesigning or re-purposing hardware and software, to the origination of new tools. This user-centred approach to technological adoption and the evolution of technique is designed to test a subsidiary hypothesis: that how a given artist or technologist, or a given society's artists and technologists handle, depict, reflect upon and utilise light also tells us about the beliefs, meanings and values attached to light in different places and times, especially contemporary presumptions underlying both technological and technical innovation. The research will be grounded in experiment, archival analysis and interviews.

The project will focus on three families of light-based technologies:

  1. the depiction of light in pigment and ink-based technologies and contemporary computer-generated imaging,
  2. the recording of light in various forms of photography, cinematography and digital recording,
  3. the use of light as the material form of communication.

We hope to investigate material practices and their significance concerning the nature, value and meaning of light. The normative theses of much art and media historiography risk constructing stable norms to facilitate periodisation. Teleological models focus on the goals of verisimilitude, authenticity, standardisation and, in the case of digital media, of warmth, texture and depth. By stripping back the presumption that all innovation is either normative or goal-oriented, we seek a clearer view of the day-to-day practice of technical innovation in such areas as the light-responsiveness of various materials, the colour palettes and gamuts of specific technologies, and the impacts these have had on the evolution of style and form.

To address the challenges of depicting, recording and preparing digital resources for specific outputs (print, screen, projection), we are particularly interested in the human face. The notorious difficulty of skin-tones, the colour and 'life' of eyes, the differential scattering of light from different layers of the epidermis, among others, provide the opportunity to discuss key digital techniques of colour, layering (in relation to underpainting) and tonal transitions. We will investigate the genealogy of vector and bitmap techniques, and the significance of the statement by Alvy Ray Smith, co-founder of Pixar, that 'Reality begins at 80 million polygons per frame'. This case study highlight the prioritisation of and relationships between technical issues faced by digital media in the 21st century, and the most significant responses to them, and enables direct address to the historical inspirations and accumulation of expertise in contemporary digital practice.