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  • by Matthew Wheeler

Joan Frick: Light Lines

Photography often focuses on recognizable images, with an emphasis on capturing something identifiable, or enhancing images that are already there.

Frick insisted on creating something new.


Joan Frick could easily be mistaken for a photographer. She used a handheld camera, created prints, used film to form her art, and worked extensively with light. However, her creative process differed from that of a traditional photographer, although it did involve drawing with light and employing the use of photographic technology to create unique images.

Surveying Frick’s innovative work, it is easy to understand how photographers, or any artist for that matter, would be inspired by her example.

Her early work incorporated mediums such as fire, canvas oils, and Plexiglas. Later in her career she utilized photographic techniques to draw and create images. Cameras, prints, and other implements associated with photography entered Frick’s creative process around 1983. Before this, she had extensively used light that was channeled, refracted, reflected, and otherwise manipulated to create installations that were a mixture of sculpture, drawing, and architecture.

These “4D Installations” filled studio rooms with various forms of light that immersed viewers. The non-static light in the installations changed with the weather and the Earth’s rotation, creating a “multidimensional” experience. The installations were received with criticism from traditionalists who scoffed at the fact that her shows did not feature “pictures on a wall.” Her later images attracted criticism too; “That’s not possible,” one viewer said after looking at one of Frick’s “2D Light Line Drawings.” The viewer then left the gallery in which Frick was exhibiting.

The photographic process may seem like an obvious medium with which to make art using light, however, the practice of simply “taking pictures” did not interest Frick.

“I used to look down my nose at using photography,” she said.

Perhaps she did not immediately see a strong connection between the work she wanted to achieve and the traditional conventions of photography because she placed emphasis

on drawing, and specifically, upon creating lines and forms. While line and light figure greatly into photography, she required the challenge and control of drawing her lines herself. She needed to create her own shapes, rather than capture images with photographs in an imagistic fashion. It was a later realization that led her to incorporate photo-technology into her artistic process:

“I discovered I could draw with my camera.”

Photography often focuses on recognizable images, with an emphasis on capturing something identifiable or enhancing images that are already there. Frick insisted on creating something new.

While she often used light from scenic images (most often the night sky) it was paramount that she was able to exercise her creativity and experience what she termed “the physical

challenge of drawing.”

“I look at a piece and it has to pass as a drawing.” She observed that primarily “a photographer worries about the perfect print,” whereas she focused on the activity of drawing.

Many of Frick's two-dimensional light drawings were created using sources such as aircraft light, the planet Jupiter, the moon, or constellations, but none of these images fully retain their original appearances in Frick’s drawings. The resultant images in her final compositions are linear and colourful, and feature contrast between light and dark. Frick noted that it is not just the lines the light creates that are important but the space in which the lines are drawn, as well as the edges that surround it.

It is hard to attribute any of Frick’s work to a particular period or genre. While her work is sometimes viewed as futuristic in look and approach, she also used a number of traditional photography techniques to form her images. She appreciated Scala film for its accurate representation of black. This was very important in rendering contrast and was particularly essential in drawings using nightscape sources. Frick disliked digital SLRs, due to the pixilation when prints were enlarged.

Her “2D Line Light Drawings,” are clear, virtually free from pixilation or noticeable grain. Frick achieved some of her dark tones using film rated at about 200 ISO. Clarity, sharp colours, and dark accurate blacks afforded by her by preferred films did not come instantly or easily: “I used all kinds of film, always trying to find the better. Trial and error are important. I lost a lot of work.”

This process of trial and error is something that extended throughout Frick’s prolific career and allowed her to achieve the mastery of light and line that figure so prominently in her work. Select traditional inclinations and strong aesthetic philosophies extended to her perspective of artistic integrity as well.

She eschewed glamorization and encouraged developing a unique perspective. Frick stated that commercialization and imitation are problems existing in art — issues that affect Canadian art and its identity.

For Frick, the decision to become an artist was not really a decision at all “There was never any question, I knew since I was a little kid.” She recalled making drawings for friends and family at a young age: “I often say the only money I made was in high school drawing portraits and horses for people… fifteen dollars a horse or a head.” The desire to work with light was present in her youth as well,: “I remember waking up and looking at illuminated floating dust motes and I said, ‘I’m going to work with them some day, just like drawing.’”

She said she was always looking for, “the perfectly imperfect line.”

To see more of Frick's images visit

and follow the links to her work in the Canadian Art Database.


NOTE: This article originally appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of photoED magazine. The 'Abstract' issue sold out quickly. We re-post this article as a tribute to the artist that has since passed. If the Frick Estate has any issues with this revised sharing of the work we will gladly oblige any requests. At this stage, we simply lack contact details to achieve full use permissions.


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