Stan Brakhage called Jim Davis “the first man who had shown me reflected light in film.” Davis was a painter who had worked on canvas and glass for three decades before he began making mobiles of curved plastic elements in 1940. Seeking to make a new kind of art that used the minimal elements of light, motion, and time, he set light sources against mirrors and through filters so that his sculptures engendered a series of abstract reflections on the walls of his studio, and began filming the results in real time. Between 1946 and 1953, he made dozens of abstract films in this manner with a 16mm Bell and Howell camera. Davis also made a series of nature films, including Jersey Falls (1949), The Sea (1950), and The Flow of Water (1957), using the camera to distort and abstract scenes of flowing water in Maine, West Virginia, and New Jersey.
Davis said that his work was rooted in the aesthetic tradition of Thomas Wilfred’s lumia, and his abstract films often closely resemble the more horizontal compositions of Wilfred’s. On the other hand, Davis contended that his project was realist at its core, and that abstraction was “suggestive of the causal properties of nature.” As with so many of his progenitors and contemporaries, Davis felt that traditional easel painting and static sculpture were not up to the task of representing the complexity of contemporary life. As Len Lye wrote to Davis in 1958, “we deal in the aesthetics of actual kinesthesia in terms of light and motion. And kinesthesia is, of course, the twentieth century area of discovery in the fine arts.” The layered, shifting play of light in Davis’s films seems to suggest the depths of space, the coursing of electrical currents through clouds, or oceanic wave patterns.