Penn State photographer is starting a conversation about climate change

Lori Hepner, a photographer and associate professor of integrative arts at Penn State Greater Allegheny, remembers her 1980s-era kindergarten art class where the focus was not on crayons and paint, but computer-generated art. It was the early personal computer era and she recalls being struck by the mysterious relationship between the art she was making and the technology she was using.

Today, that childlike wonder has come full circle as Hepner continues to bring such technological mediums as binary code, social media, and light emitting diodes into her photographic process.

“I’ve always been interested in what’s happening below the surface of things, whether it’s how binary code that we never see operates our computers to how people are shaping their online identities. I want my photographs to make these ideas accessible to people who are not as obsessed with digital culture as me,” Hepner said.  

For years, her signature style has produced photographs that have been viewed in galleries as far away as Spain and China. But in the fall, Hepner, voted one of 35 emerging photographers 34-years-old or younger by the Magenta Foundation, will make the trek to the Arctic Circle for a sabbatical project where the coast, mountains and cityscapes of Finland will become her muses.   

To raise awareness of the effects of climate change on the Arctic landscape, Hepner will photograph her way through the Nordic country — getting content and ideas for shots through crowd-sourced posts that contain her project’s custom hashtag, #crowdsourcedlandscapes. Hepner will use the metadata tag to search for messages across social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Unlike Hepner’s past work that often incorporated social media as a theme, this collection will employ it as a means.  

“I wanted to have the opportunity to explore another part of the world and to transition from making art that focuses on the subject of social media to using social media to actually make the art,” Hepner said.

She’s hoping people will use the hashtag to tweet about everything from what they love about their homeland to their concerns about what will exist for future generations.

Finland was an appealing destination for this particular project because of the relationships Finnish people tend to have with nature and their cultural attitude toward conservation, Hepner explains. She’ll begin her journey in Helsinki, and then go north to the glaciers, photographing a variety of locales and seasons as she travels.

“When thinking about global issues such as climate change, I thought it would be important for people who don’t live in extreme locations like the Arctic or on the Equator to see how climate change is affecting other places differently or more visibly than it is us,” Hepner said.

“I’ll ultimately exhibit the photos in the United States to help people here see climate change through the eyes of others — something art may be able to do in a more humanistic way than scientific data, which isn’t always tangible or relatable,” she adds.

But it won’t be typical landscape photography. In addition to taking traditional atmospheric-style landscapes, Hepner will also use an abstract style of photography called light painting to create her images.

Light painting is a technique where a moving light source is photographed with a long exposure to create a continuous line of light in the dark — similar to photographing the golden trail of a lit sparkler as it moves through the air on the Fourth of July.

Instead of a fluorescent tube or a digital light wand, which most light painters use, Hepner will be using an open-source Arduino microcontroller, or mini computer, that will blink her followers’ tweets and messages through a grid of red, blue and green light emitting diodes (LEDs).

Her homemade 16-pixel tall by 16-pixel wide LED grid (which looks like a fancy version of a Lite Brite toy) will spell out each tweet by flashing only one letter at a time. All the letters in one word will flash the same color, but each word in a tweet will be preprogrammed to display as a different hue. She’s hoping to use various color schemes for different landscapes — but not too literally. Mountains won’t necessarily have green words, or the ocean blue.  

Hepner plans to experiment with the technique, but the basic idea is that she will move the LED light device through the shot — as the letters flash on the device — while her camera takes a long exposure photograph on a tripod, for up to 15 minutes.

“The result will be a photograph with a series of letters produced by light that spell out the words contained in a particular tweet — with a landscape as the backdrop,” Hepner explained. “You’ll actually be able to read the sentences that make up the tweet, unless of course you don’t speak Finnish.”

What makes this project so unique is not only the light device she’ll be using, but also the language factor. Because many people from Finland are bi- and trilingual, Hepner expects to receive tweets in Finnish, Swedish and other languages. But she won’t translate the tweets to English in the photos or pick and choose which to highlight.

“No matter how bizarre or random a tweet is I want to be able to make something out of it that’s really interesting. I like that there’s some chance to it,” Hepner said. “In the end, I hope the collection reads like a conversation that captures the variety of thought and emotion surrounding climate change.”

With the support of the Penn State Institute for the Arts and Humanities, Hepner will work with community and art organizations in Finland to promote the project and hashtag, and also lead workshops to teach photographers how to build their own LED devices for light painting.

For more stories about IT at Penn State, visit Current at http://current.it.psu.edu.

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Last Updated May 27, 2014