“It is well known that human beings under certain physical conditions become luminous,” wrote Charles Frederick Holder in his obscure little book, Living Lights: A Popular Account of Phosphorescent Animals and Vegetables (1887).
“Luminous Protozoans” by A.L. Clement (one of several beautiful illustrations by Clement in the book)
With its UFO-like eyewitness accounts and pseudoscientific case studies, you won’t find this book on many library shelves. But taken from an artist’s point of view—a photographer’s especially—Holder’s declarations still hold true. People do grow luminous with rage; they glow with contentment; they sparkle with excitement.
What should not shine shines all the same, depending on the mood, the company, the right place and the right time. I feel every bit as convinced of this as Holder when I look at the photographs of Katrin Koenning.
In Koenning’s series, Glow, the banal bric-a-brac of life suddenly takes on a kind of cosmic significance. Water reflects its own galaxies; paper shines like a square moon, and the torsos of anonymous people flare up, like in Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.”
Check out Koenning’s debut monograph, Astres Noirs (Chose Commune 2016), copublished with photographer Sarker Protick, another seer of the “living lights.” The images shine in silver ink—a lovely touch and perfectly in sync with the book’s idea.
Chapter XV: Man’s Relations to the Phenomenon of Phosphorescence
© Katrin Koenning
DR. PHIPSON, the eminent scientist, states that he once observed certain phenomena in man, the light being a brilliant scintillation of a metallic pink color.
It is well known that human beings under certain physical conditions become luminous. In some cases among the ignorant great excitement has been occasioned, and the victim avoided as a pest, or something capable of dire disaster to the entire community.
In a small German village, an English physician discovered a man who was luminous at night, and who had caused much alarm among the superstitious.
Bartholin records an instance of an Italian lady whom he calls Mulier splendens, who suddenly found that, when rubbed with a linen cloth in the dark, her body gave out a brilliant phosphorescent light; so that she appeared in a darkened room like a veritable fire-body, an awe-striking object to her superstitious servant, who fled from her speechless with fear and amazement, thinking that her mistress was being consumed.
© Katrin Koenning
Dr. Kane records a very curious instance of luminosity, probably electric, which played about his person. He was on his way with Petersen to an Esquimau settlement, in order to procure food. Their thermometer indicated 42 C. (44 Fahr). With their weary dogs and sledges, they had reached some untenanted huts at a place called Anoatok, after thirty miles march from the ship. “We took to the best hut,” says Dr. Kane, “filled in its broken front with snow, housed our dogs, and crawled in among them. It was too cold to sleep. Next morning we broke down our door, and tried the dogs again. They could hardly stand. A gale now set in from the south-west, obscuring the moon, and blowing very hard. We were forced back into the hut; but after corking up all the openings with snow, and making a fire with our Esquimau lamp, we got up the temperature to 30 below zero, Fahr., cooked coffee, and fed the dogs freely. This done, Petersen and myself, our clothing frozen stiff, fell asleep through pure exhaustion; the wind outside blowing death to all that might be exposed to its influence. I do not know how long we slept, but my admirable clothing kept me up. I was cold, but far from dangerously so, and was in a fair way of sleeping out a refreshing night, when Petersen woke me with, ‘Captain Kane, the lamp’s out.’ I heard him with a thrill of horror. . . . Our only hope was in relighting our lamp. Petersen, acting by my directions, made several attempts to obtain fire from a pocket-pistol; but his only tinder was moss, and our heavily stone-roofed hut or cave would not bear the concussion of a rammed wad. By good luck I found a bit of tolerably dry paper, and becoming apprehensive that Petersen would waste our few percussion-caps with his ineffectual snapping, I determined to take the pistol myself. It was so intensely dark that I had to grope for it, and in so doing touched his hand. At that instant the pistol became distinctly visible. A pale-bluish light slightly tremulous, but not broken, covered the metallic parts of it, the barrel, lock and trigger. The stock, too, was clearly discernible, as if by the reflected light; and to the amazement of both of us, the thumb and two fingers with which Petersen was holding it, the creases, wrinkles, and circuit of the nails, clearly defined upon the skin. The phosphorescence was not unlike the ineffectual fire of the glowworm. As I took the pistol, my hand became illuminated also, and so did the powder-rubbed paper when I raised it against the muzzle. The paper did not ignite at the first trial; but the light from it continuing, I was able to charge the pistol without difficulty, rolled up my paper into a cone, filled it with moss sprinkled over with powder, and held it in my hand whilst I fired. This time I succeeded in producing flame, and we saw no more of the phosphorescence. . . . Our fur clothing and the state of the atmosphere may refer it plausibly enough to our electrical condition.”
© Katrin Koenning
Mr. James Moir of Saroch, Scotland, relates an equally strange personal experience, possibly connected with the electrical condition of the atmosphere. “In February, 1882,” he says, “this part of Scotland was visited by a furious gale of wind, rain, sleet, and hail. The gale subsided considerably about five o’clock in the afternoon. At eight o’clock the sky was fairly clear, when a black cloud sprang up in the north, and the night became suddenly intensely dark. With the darkness came a tremendous shower of hail. All at once I was startled by a vivid flash of lightning close at hand, but without thunder. At the same instant I found myself enveloped in a sheet of pale, flickering, white light. It seemed to proceed from every part of my clothes, especially on the side least exposed to the hail; and more particularly and brightly from my arm, shoulder, and head. Though I turned about pretty smartly, and shifted my position, I found it impossible to shake off the nickering flames. When I walked on they continued with me for two or three minutes, disappearing only when the violence of the blast was somewhat diminished. I felt no unusual sensation beyond the stinging of the hail, and no sound except that of the storm.”