Maybe We Are Not Meant to Understand Light


In a spread in Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski discusses the transformative quality of light with regards to Dorothea Lange’s photograph, Back, 1938. In the text accompanying the picture, he says, “It is easier to make clear photographs on a gray day than in the sunshine, partly for the same reasons that it is easier to paint a subject in diffused light; light without hard shadows describes an object as we know it to be, while sunlight describes what it happens to look like at a particular moment, with its permanent form obscured and distorted by the pattern of accidental darks and lights. It took painters many centuries to begin to learn to paint under the sun.”

Until, say, the Renaissance, paintings were flat-like in their appearance; they lacked the depth and realism brought about by light. Leonardo da Vinci was a pioneering figure on this front, with his in-depth studies of light that gave way to chiaroscuro, which was, very simply put, an effect that brought out the contrasts between light and shadow. The gradation that was rendered by this method loaned his paintings a three-dimensional quality, thereby making them realistic. Caravaggio, who came after him, created his own interpretation of chiaroscuro, with his paintings veering towards the dramatic, with extreme contrasts in light and shadow.

What you need to remember though is that the lighting in a lot of these paintings was conceived from its maker’s imagination. Imagine the ingenuity it takes to not just envision an epochal scene, but also consider the sentiment; the nature of light would decide how dramatic the scene would be. da Vinci, in fact, employed Sfumato—a technique that he used to blur the harsh lines that distinguish light from shadow. When you observe the faces in his paintings, it’s almost as if there are subtle shifts of feeling in them. In contrast, the lines of distinction between light and shadow, in Caravaggio’s paintings, are harsh.

It is difficult to perceive what method was easier or more difficult—conjuring the lighting of a scene from one’s mind or painting in real time. Going back to what Szarkowski had said about painters… Was he hinting at the mastery in observational skills that it would take to paint under the sun, considering its temperamental nature, thereby making it the most difficult?

Owing to its transitory disposition, natural light has a way of imparting specific traits to its subjects. Although, it is not the quality of light itself that is impermanent, but also the various external factors that contribute to it. A landscape, for instance, will never be the same on two consecutive days. Clouds could diffuse what was a bright, sunny day previously. Or, in the interim, a boulder could have witnessed some external suffering, causing the light to portray it differently than the day before.

To most of you reading this, there might not be any startling discoveries in the statements made so far, yet they need to be made as most of us don’t quite understand natural light. Maybe this emanates from our primeval desire to exercise control over something that cannot be reined in. Light can only be observed, and the inferences from these observations can then be employed to make a picture. But what often happens is that we approach light with preconceived notions of how we think it should behave. If what Szarkowski said is true, of painters, then why are we as photographers so sure of our understanding of light, considering the brief time that has lapsed since the inception of photography? Are we as meticulous in our understanding as painters are? Or did that learning stop with film?

Discussing light and its possibilities is a strenuous feat. We may or may not fully understand it, but accepting this, and also continuing the process of understanding it may grant us some degree of humility in the way we photograph. Szarkowski’s statement on light continues with this… “To photograph well in the sun requires an accepting and unprejudiced eye, one that will not be led ashtray by expectation. If one is good enough to handle the sun, to see truly and precisely the ephemeral fact, even when the subject is shifting and gesturing and perhaps about to move off and walk away forever, sunlight is one of the most glorious things that a photographer can photograph.”

Here is a list of photographers and their images that harbour a distinct understanding of light… William A Garnett’s Dry Wash with Alluvium, Death valley, California, 1957; Paul Caponigro’s Ardara Dolmen, County Donegal, Ireland, 1967; Mauel Alvarez Bravo’s Woman Combing Her Hair, 1935; Ralph Steiner’s American Rural Baroque, 1930; Immogen Cunningham’s Leaf Pattern, Before 1929; Andre Kertesz’s Montmartre, 1927; Paul Outerbridge’s Untitled, 1922; and Nadar’s Baron Isidore Taylor, 1872-1875.

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Better Photography.