Sean Williams

- illuminate Best of Show


Light Miners is a series of photographs depicting a world where Mother Nature gives back to humankind in the form of glowing pods of light and energy. Shot on location in places like the second and third basements of the landmark Chicago Daily News Building, as well as in Chicago Public parks, Sean Williams and his team of artists and designers rounded out the productions with scaled models of windmills, water towers, and caverns built and shot in studio and ultimately composited to make the fantastic and hopeful world of the Light Miners.

Listen to Sean Williams talk about his series on his Gallery Audio Tour.



About Sean Williams:

Sean Williams
Chicago IL

Dreamy, cinematic, fantastical, Sean Williams' photographs are imaginatively stylized scenes into worlds we have just stumbled upon-worlds we recognize from fairy tales and mythology, from dreams and memories. At once contemporary and yet of a different time, his imagery quotes tableau painting and staged photography of the late 19th-century-in vivid color. Williams is interested in the contemplative, slower moments when the uncanny flirts with reality. And he lights his people and places with an eye toward chiaroscuro-imagery rich in shadows that remind us of Caravaggio and Goya. His characters look up from their worlds as though suddenly aware of our gaze. And we see in.

In the 1990s, Williams wrote fiction and taught Composition and Rhetoric. For years, he focused on narrative in language-narrative as rhetorical constructs. In time, he found himself ambivalent about writing and, ultimately, bound by the formality of academia and scholarship. As a result, he felt void of inspiration. In the Fall of 2003, through a series of unplanned events, he found himself directing a documentary on foot and shoe fetishism. This experience of working with camera and light led him to considering the image as narrative, something he explored outside of schooling and formal training. As he explains it: "As a writer there were a lot of other writers in the room with me. It was a deafening and recursive conversation filled with judgment and comparison. Making photographs, however, allowed me to be free of self-censorship; it allowed me to feel inspired to create again. And that inspiration was fueled by a naiveté of photography. I had no idea what I could do, so I just did one thing after the other."

Within a few years, Williams' photographs evolved into orchestrated productions often incorporating sets and models in scale to create his imaginative worlds. Although much of his process is digital, he maintains rigorous application of traditional photography, a foundation he taught himself from the beginning. And in contrast to writing, which is often done alone, he prefers the collaborative efforts of a team assembled and working toward a shared vision. In this way he honors his studies in Rhetoric allowing the ideas of the group to inform-persuade-the final image.

In addition to his commissioned work, Williams maintains a commercial photography studio in Chicago. In 2009, he was featured as a photographer to watch in Communication Arts' photography annual issue. His commercial work has received awards from the International Photography Awards, International Aperture Awards, as well as from various print and design annuals. Currently, he's working on two commissions for the new Chicago Children's Hospital opening in February 2012.







Details of the Light Minors Series:

The concept of the project was to create a narrative where nature and industry are inextricably linked in a visual symbiosis. Williams was inspired by steam-punk imagery and WPA-era documentary color photographs as well as by films as disparate as Days of Heaven and Dune. After story-boarding a loose narrative, Williams assemble a team of artists to help make the pieces of the world. This group included set designers and painters chosen from a stable of theater-arts professionals, with whom Williams has worked with over the last five years and who share an appreciation for his visual style one could described as dreamy realism. Together they explored production methods in order to make a fantastical world within a limited budget; they had to be innovative and crafty, deciding on making many of the elements of the world in scale and later compositing. Ultimately, they chose to work in a scale where day-to-day materials could be cheated to fit full-scale, somewhere around 1:6. "We spent a lot of time at Home Depot," says Williams. "We employed similar special effects that film-makers use. I read a lot of articles written by cinematographers who made films like Dune and Star Wars. The principles are fairly basic, like scaling distance and f-stop to be able to realistically composite models sometimes as small as eighteen inches to be windmills or underground caverns." Using a simple device called a range finder that measures distance and angles, Williams painstakingly measured his sets and locations to match in post. "I hadn't done that much math in 20 years."

The studio became a workshop where they conceived, drew, and ultimately created the glowing pods, the nests of baby lights, the pipes and machines that transported the water to the pods. These were the specific elements that narrate the cyclical path of nature, all made in his Chicago studio. The windmill, for example, is less than two feet tall and made from balsam wood papier mâché. Once built it was shot in studio on a pond liner filled with water and eventually composited along with its reflection into the great pond that sits in Humboldt Park. ­­­Critical to the world for Williams was people. "We needed to see into this world. We needed to see the miners in relationship with one another and with their world. That was the narrative-a sense of family and togetherness, something akin to a Utopia where energy was no longer a commodity-something to be fought over-but a gift from nature.

The series has a particular relevance in today's socio-economic climate. As such, the work comments on awareness, respect, and, ultimately, stewardship of the world's natural resources without being provocative, something that Williams' really liked. "It was important for me to make this body of work resonate with the community without wagging my finger at them. Gas was at its most expensive over the summer when we were driving in vans and trucks, running generators and such to make the work. The contradiction wasn't lost on me. It wasn't like we were burning through fuel, but there was this on-going conversation in my head about it. How do you reconcile that? I have no idea. It seems enough to prompt a dialogue."