What does breath look like?
The query sounds like a koan, though in photographic terms, it is also a formal quandary. Can it be captured as an image?
Shao-Feng Hsu’s series Night Swimming (2021-ongoing) takes on this visual and philosophical challenge. The unique silver-gelatin prints are deceptive abstractions, as they are a literal record of oxygen that has passed through the artist’s lungs. The compositions are dark, with circular ring forms, often surrounded by bubbles that resemble stars in the evening sky. The circles bring to mind halos, smoke rings, glittering bracelets, and microscopic creatures. But more fittingly, their form suggests the Japanese zen symbol of the ensō, a hand-drawn circle that is meant to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create.
Night Swimming is a highly physical project, one that is process-based, cameraless, poetic, and notably rooted in the body. Hsu, who was born in Taiwan and is currently based in San Francisco, traces the roots of this series to childhood asthma, and a doctor’s suggestion to train himself to hold his breath. Swimming then became a meaningful pursuit, something he did competitively in college. Over time, the athletic aspect became something more meditative and aesthetic.
The process is something the 34-year-old artist engages in under a new moon – the darkest night of the month – in a swimming pool in Sebastopol, California. It involves photo paper attached to a pool float, the artist releasing breath underwater, and a flash. He develops the exposures in poolside trays of chemicals, under the stars. He can capture up to ten breaths in a session before he becomes lightheaded. (The act of making these images is documented in a short, atmospheric video on his website.)
The images stand alone, but the concept makes them richer. The ring forms are consistent, yet full of variation. Some breaths result in more variegated images, light variations, and the buoyant play of watery bubbles that rise to the surface. Hsu has displayed the pictures unglazed in grid formation, an arrangement that adds a visual rhythm, and shown them more formally, in smaller groupings, framed, giving each room to breathe (pun intended).
Hsu also photographs in and around coastal California, using more traditional techniques. His interests are ecological, geopolitical, and philosophical. He plans to continue Night Swimming, as he finds the project has evolved with his abilities – technically, physically, and mentally. He is able to control his breath with greater skill, and thereby the compositions change subtly. Hsu describes the project as “physical self-portraiture” that captures how the body functions as it ages, and he sees it as a way to push photography’s capability to capture a tangible image of the internal self. He creates, quite simply, pictures of life.