The First Streaks of Light

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Photographs of light trails have always enthralled and fascinated people. But then, have you ever wondered how this technique first came about? Unlike what you would have thought, the first light painting photos were not made for artistic purposes. Instead, they were made to study the actions of workers and artisans. Back in 1914, American researcher Frank Gilbreth and his wife Lillian Gilbreth were trying to make efforts to improve work practices. This husband-wife duo, who went on to become the pioneers of motion study, went on to make the first light painting photographs.

The duo captured the movements of workers like handkerchief folders and bricklayers. They reduced all the movements of the hand into combinations of 17 basic gestures. These actions were called ‘Therbligs’, an anagram of the word ‘Gilbreth’. Frank would attach a small light to the workers’ hands and tools. Then, he would keep the shutter of the camera open for a suitably long duration of time to trace their movements. After doing this, he would make models of the movements. This helped him discover that a trained worker had much smoother hand movements and made for a more productive employee.

Frank chanced upon motion study when he was working as a building contractor—he had been seeking ways to make bricklaying faster and easier. Eventually, his techniques were used by doctors and armies all over the world to standardise procedures and minimise the time taken to complete tasks, such as the handing of surgical instruments or the assembling of weapons in total darkness.

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of Better Photography.

Tags: better photography, January 2012, light trails, Story Ber, Frank Gilbreth, Lillian Gilbreth, photographing lightrails