Festival All-Star: Reid Godshaw, Creator of Harmonic Light

Article by: Graham Berry|@Festival_Writer

Thu April 26, 2018 | 08:50 AM

The great art icons or our time like Alex Grey, Carey Thompson and Android Jones are hailed as visionaries because their pieces boldly transcend the mediums which attempt to contain them. Among these, few can be pegged as a paragon of creativity and imagination quite like the festival-going founder and champion of Harmonic Light, Reid Godshaw. Far from your run-of-the-mill festival photographer, Godshaw has established himself as a long-exposure photography virtuoso who puts his own spin on a traditional photobooth by setting up a large tent with props and seating, then proceeds to use his on-the-spot "painting" techniques that make every photo look like a magic trick as much as a masterpiece. You'll find him at festivals like Desert Hearts, Lightning in a Bottle, Northern Nights Music Festival, Enchanted Forest Gathering, Sonic Bloom, and even at Burning Man.

To Godshaw, the air around his subjects is his canvas and his brushstrokes are textured streaks of light based on the energy and mood of his subjects, who must sit still in poses of their choice while he paints around them. His work is some of the most inventive and recognizable in the entire pantheon of festival art. In a rare sit-down with the light painting legend, we learned more about the art that he gives (for free!) to festival-goers all over the world. Here’s what he had to say.

How the $#%@ Does He Do That?

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“If you’ve ever seen a photo of traffic with streaks of the lines going down the freeway, it’s basically very similar to that,” said a beaming Godshaw when we asked about his technique. “It's basically the same type of capture technology. The shutter of the camera is opened throughout the whole time I'm painting. And basically, I'm drawing with lights the same way that the car's headlights are streaking down the freeway. The difference is that I use a lot more advanced tools that play back images, and those images are far shorter exposure times, where I use normally about a minute to a minute and a half of exposure time.”

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The process tends to stump even more experienced photographers. “Even ones who are longtime photographers who are 30, 40, 50 years old, they see my work and say, 'Oh, so this is obviously a video,' or 'This is not long exposure because you'd be in the frame,' and this and that…Harmonic Light is about exploiting the parts of long exposure that are less known,” explains Godshaw. The resulting images are one-of-a-kind works that most wouldn’t believe were created without Photoshop, Illustrator or some other design program.

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Choosing the designs and color schemes takes a bit of creative panache and an array or flashlights, flow toys and other illuminable devices. To ensure his photos are an accurate reflection of his subjects, Godshaw developed ways to get to know his subjects with a brief chat before each shot. “I realized that if I were to just kind of put people through a short process of trying to get in tune with who they are and what they love, then I'd be able to make a picture that was way more personal.”

The process is so intimate to some people that a lot of them walk away not even believing it's a gift until they get home and check their email and see a full resolution unwatermarked copy in their inbox.

The Gift of Light

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Some photographers charge for photos at festivals, and most artists will ask a price for a print, but early on Godshaw set out to break the mold by offering his one-of-a-kind portraits for free. “I realized that it made people really, really happy.” he said. “But the reason it’s free is because I really want to tear down that wall in people’s minds. The idea that if you can charge for something then you should. Not everything needs to be commodified, you know? I want them to know that there really is no ulterior motive to what I'm doing other than to see the big old smile on their face.”

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Another difference between other great photographers and Godshaw is he doesn’t aim to be the best photographer, or even a photographer. His aim is to be a great light painter. “Ninety-nine percent of my photos that I've shot on any of my cameras that I've ever owned have been light paintings.” Godshaw explained. “I've taken portraits of 100,000 people or more over the last six years, but they’ve all been with the express purpose of refining my skills as a light painter. In other words, it’s the knowledge and understanding of all these effects that are underutilized in light painting that enable me to create an experience that’s so infinite and unique.”

See the Light

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If Godshaw’s philosophy about the art of giving sounds Burning Man-esque, that’s probably because it was the event's ethos that inspired him. He once reached out on Facebook to his closest friends in search of a name that could adequately represent his Burning Man camp. Knowing his affinity for gifting, a friend named Preston Smiles chimed in with "Hello...We love you." which he almost dismissed. But then, another friend looked at him and said, "Dude, no. It's, like, HELLO. We Love You!" and he almost fell out of his chair. “I knew this was it, because the reason I do what I do is because hello, I love the people that I do it for.” Last year they were set up at 630 and A.

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With “Hello, We love you!” as a mantra for life, Godshaw says he’s learned more at festivals than he ever thought possible. We asked him for a bit of wisdom he’s gained during his tenure at events. He thought for a few moments, leaned back in his chair and said “Treat everybody with the utmost respect and never let your own frustrations keep you from creating a moment that’s special with a stranger. Give  every single person the benefit of the doubt, no matter what. Let go of all your Default World speculations and make an effort to be your best. If you do, you’ll find that others will make the effort, too.”

While it’s true that inimitable art is a hallmark of the best festivals in the world, it takes a little extra to elevate the entire vibe of a festival. Luckily there are people out there, like Godshaw, shining a metaphorical – and literal – light on the most memorable experiences of our lives to help us remember them long afterwards, when shadows loom over the Default World.