In the age of digital design, how rare and thrilling is it to look at a photograph and have no idea what you are seeing? To be unable to decipher what methods and materials were used to create an image? To wonder where the light source is coming from? To learn that an art piece was not made with 3D design software but with organic materials? To be free to interpret however you wish? Ela Kurowska’s otherworldly photos are the kinds of images that inspire these questions. And they are created by mixing the principles of art and science in a profound and exciting way.
Ela Kurowska is a Canadian artist known for her Light Forms, a photography project exploring the abstract origins of life using the photoelastic effect. Her ethereal photographs have been featured in magazines, nominated for and won dozens of awards, and she’s held exhibitions in New York, across Canada, and in Europe. According to her artist’s statement, “my art depicts the transformation from organic matter to living organisms, where simple life forms emerge from the darkness, bursting with light and vibrant colors.” The worlds and creatures found in Light Forms are a stunning testament to Ela’s eye for beauty and her scientific approach to art.
Discovering Art and Science
Having earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry, Ela spent 30 years as a researcher. Ten years ago, she picked up a camera and started teaching herself digital photography. She began her artist’s journey with travel photography and then started experimenting with the photoelastic effect.
The photoelastic effect was discovered at the beginning of the 20th century. Until a few decades ago, the photoelastic effect was used to visualize stresses in complex 2D and 3D models. By casting 2D or 3D models in certain resins, applying load, and examining stress responses in polarized light, engineers could identify stress areas by analyzing colorful fringes displayed by the models. Today, photoelasticity is largely of historical importance; now most people use numerical tools, such as SOLIDWORKS Simulation, to run finite element analysis (FEA) studies. Search the words “photoelastic effect” online, and you’ll find plenty of images of transparent plastic cutlery and plastic rulers swirled with rainbow stress fringes.
Six years ago, burgeoning photographer Ela Kurowska saw those images as well. Most articles about Ela describe her “stumbling upon” the photoelastic effect, but her discovery was a bit more organic. Ela explained, “My husband is a mechanical engineer and he used the photoelastic effect in his research on the human spine. He built resin models of human vertebrae and implemented the photoelastic effect to check why lumbar vertebrae are prone to certain mechanical failures. Six years ago, he was working in the field of structural analysis using FEA, and he asked me if I could come up with some cool images to complement the FEA results.” Ela figured that she should use images of the photoelastic effect. After researching and coming across the aforementioned plastic utensil photos, she became inspired. “It was interesting from the point of view of a photographer. There was a lot of light, bright colors coming from the dark. It had the potential.”
Initial experimentation with models made from hard resins left her disappointed. Ela needed to find better materials to capture her vision, a softer, malleable material that was easy to deform but had the same strong photoelastic properties as the resins. The same ability to glow as it deformed when viewed in the polarized light.
“I discovered something truly serendipitous,” Ela said. “In my search for materials with photoelastic properties I came across certain organic gels. They’re something I’m familiar with as a biochemist. Not only do I understand their molecular structure, and their properties, but I also know many laboratory techniques that use them as tools. In addition, organic gels are actually more transparent than resins, so they show beautifully in photos. And they naturally form biomorphic shapes, which are pleasing to the artist’s eye.” This discovery led to the beginning of Light Forms.
Ela’s first photographic experiment was a simple gel object set on top of a computer screen—computer LED screens emit polarized light—captured with a polarized filter on the camera lens. “When I first saw what I could do with gels, it was breathtaking,” Ela recalled. “I saw all the color and light and I fell in love with it.”
Over time, Ela improved her process. Learn more about the evolution of Light Forms and her methods in Part Two: Art Experiments.
All images in this article are courtesy of Ela Kurowska.