The Shadow Photographs of Wang Ningde

The “photographs” of Wang Ningde are pure light, or more accurately, pure shadow. Each is created from over a thousand rectangular film transparencies attached horizontally, like rows of tiny awnings. Each cell drops a shadow beneath, forming a complete work of art that is both sculptural and intangible.

Thicket No 4, 2017

Currently working and living in Beijing, Ningde is presenting 10 of these medium-defying works in a show titled “Form of Light” at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in New York through February 17th. And it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

Polarized Could No. 5, 2017

Polarized Could No. 5, 2017 (detail)

Polarized Could No. 5, 2017 (detail)

On closer inspection, these are far more complex than they first appear. The rows of film extend at different distances depending on their height. For example the top row is a full 1 inch deep, where the bottom row extends less than half of that (about 3/8 of an inch).

Installation – Wang Ningde at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery

Color Filter for a Utopian Sky No. 21, 2017 (detail)

The reason for the depth-difference has everything to do with the light source. Every piece begins with a standard photograph that is fed into a computer. Custom software divides each image into “bricks” AND calculates the degree of compression for each cell based on the angle of light. With a single light source, the angle of light will be slightly different at the top than at the bottom, so every row must be distorted differently to compensate, and result in equal-height, non-distorted image-shadows.

Once the computer does its work, the result is printed on clear film transparency, before the labor-intensive process of hand-cutting and hand-assembling the finished works.

Installation – Wang Ningde at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery

Thicket No 4, 2017 (detail)

The images themselves are well considered – each playing with the qualities of this particular method. “Thicket No. 4” (above) for example, is an image of sunlight hitting the top of leaves. But when standing close, it mimics the effect of light filtering from a forest canopy. The viewer is both inside and outside the forest simultaneously.

Water Ripples, 2017

Water Ripples, 2017 (detail)

“Water Ripples” is an image of light hitting the surface of water, but standing close, the light mimics the sensation of swimming underwater.

The gallery lighting is incredibly precise, with no skylights or windows, but I heard that the pieces take on a new effect with the addition of natural light. Works like “Polarized Cloud No 5” and the “Utopian Sky’s”, will fluctuate and shift with real passing clouds and different times of day.

Color Filter for a Utopian Sky No. 21, 2017

Thicket No. 5, 6, and 7, 2017

Thicket No. 5, 6, and 7, 2017 (detail)

Thicket No. 7, 2017 (detail)

Ningle’s work is a hybrid of mediums – it’s simultaneously photography, sculpture, and perhaps even film. It’s also the combination of meticulous hand-work and mathematical computer-precision. But standing in front of them, all I really notice is the magical quality of color in a photograph made of pure light.

Color Filter for a Utopian Sky No. 9, 2014

What: Wang Ningde: Form of Light
Where: Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, 505 W 24th St, New York, NY
When: January 11 – February 17, 2018

All images photographed by the author, David Behringer.

David Behringer visits over 200 galleries every month to uncover and share the most exciting contemporary art in New York today. Subscribe to his exclusive weekly newsletter at and learn about his private gallery tours. And be sure to check out his YouTube.