An aesthetic and so much more
There’s an intrinsic satisfaction, an aesthetic pleasure, that comes from the experience of light when it plays a prominent, sometimes dominant, role in a photograph or painting. The works of masters such as Rembrandt, Turner, and Hooper are largely characterized and revered for the qualities of light they depict. Light and shadow are so pervasive in everyday living, we tend not to regard them, but they can be key to an appreciation of the day in addition to artistic contexts.
I have sort of a meditative hypothesis about those moments when we become aware of light and shadow, when we allow ourselves to enjoy and appreciate the forms, contrasts, and gradations they delineate in objects such as this cocktail glass. Just as sports provide an abundance of metaphors for life and living, I think images where light is prominent do this as well—particularly in still images where there’s time to explore the elements and relationships within the frame.
In life, we experience “bright” ideas, “illumination” and “flares of insight.” There’s “light” at the end of the tunnel, the “light” and “dark” or “shadow” side of being human. We have “contrasts” in personality, lifestyle preferences and beliefs. We speak of “color” and “values,” which are properties of light. “Transitions” are equivalent to gradation. “Tone” relates to music and variations in emotional intensity. And “patterns,” both in life and imagery, display the qualities of order and repetition.
Of course, we don’t consciously make these associations when we use these words, not even when we look at a photograph or painting. But I think the subconscious makes these kinds of associations as part of our quest for meaning and significance. Conversely, the role of the conscious mind when confronted with an image is to seek recognition on the way toward analysis and assessment. What is this? Do I like/not like it? Does it move me? Is it curious or provocative? Evocative? Repulsive? Or am I indifferent to it? The objective mind wants to know if something has value or meaning that’s positive or negative. And the subjective mind wants to know how it feels.
Lighting for motion pictures requires the Director of Photography (DP) to begin a lighting design by identifying the scene’s real or studio-replicated environment, including the source of both primary and secondary light sources. Having practiced and taught this procedure, images where light plays an important role call me to “consider the source” of light, what and where it would naturally be. It’s a phrase my students came to use when analyzing and designing images, because it results in more potent and true representations.
For instance, from what direction is the “key” (predominant) light coming from? The answer is found by looking at or imagining the shadows. From their placement, one should be able to point to the light source—or where it should be given the situation. What kind of light was used? Shadows with sharp edges are produced by specular, point-sources like the sun on a clear day or bare bulbs. Images with no shadows or soft edges indicate a source that was diffused in some way. Paying attention to these and other qualities of light in an image—and in life throughout the day—is more than a technical exercise. It’s an attunement that heightens perception, deepens appreciation for the great mystery of light, and teaches us how to manage it more effectively at home and in the workplace. Whether we’re aware of it or not, every image is about what the light is doing.
Regarding the mystery that light is, physicist Arthur M. Young wrote in The Reflexive Universe: Evolution Of Consciousness, “Light, itself without mass, can create protons and electrons which have mass. Light has no charge, yet the particles it creates do. Since light is without mass, it is nonphysical, of a different nature than physical particles. In fact, for the photon, a pulse of light, time does not exist: clocks stop at the speed of light. Thus mass and hence energy, as well as time, are born from the photon, from light, which is, therefore, the first kingdom, the first stage of the process that engenders the universe.”
What’s more, increased awareness of the source, qualities, and functions of light—in our lived spaces as well as in photographic or painted images—deepens our appreciation for the capacity of sight. Had evolution not provided the combination of eyes to collect certain photon frequencies and brains to interpret them, we would only be feeling the radiation coming from the sun—and every other source.
Light created the eye as an organ with which to appreciate itself.
Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Poet, statesman
Light is energy and it’s also information, content, form, and structure. It’s the potential of everything.
David Bohm, Theoretical physicist
Photography Monographs (Select a book. Click on in it to turn pages)