28 Pages



From the expressive, soft-focus images of Pictorialists such as Henry Peach Robinson and Gertrude Käsebier, to the clear and sharp “straight” style of Paul Strand and the modernist photographers of f/64 in the 20th century, to the invented worlds of Anna Gaskell or Gregory Crewdson, photographers use the basic elements of light and shadow to create and reinforce sense of time, place, and mood. Other artists address light as a subject in its own right, such as Alvin Langdon Coburn or Christopher Bucklow. Filmmakers Stan Brakhage and Paul Sharits have produced “flicker films,” in which individual frames in solid colors, or hand-painted segments of film, appear to pulse and vibrate, testing the perceptual limits of the eye and mind. In all these examples, light and shadow also carry profound cultural associations, which will also be discussed in this essay. In his Republic, written between 338 and 367 bc, Plato relates the famous allegory of the cave. He describes a group of prisoners shackled for their entire lives so that their only view was of the daily procession of shadows cast on a wall directly in front of them. Having only ever experienced these shadows, Plato argues, the prisoners would assume that what they were seeing was, in fact, reality-flat, colorless, and without weight or dimension. If (Plato argued) a prisoner was freed and left the cave to experience daylight and the world of color and form, he would recognize how limited his view of reality had been. Those who have never experienced the truth will ridicule the freed prisoner, who grasps at last the incomplete nature of his vision, much like the philosopher who attempts to discover and explain truth to an ignorant public. For Plato, the shadow was a metaphor for the incomplete, and therefore flawed, nature of human knowledge. He argued that, like his imaginary prisoners, we are

prevented from understanding the true nature of reality, limited as we are to experiencing only our immediate world of imperfect forms. For Plato, as Victor Stoichita in his book A Short History of the Shadow writes, “The shadow represents the stage that is furthest away from the truth.”1 While shadows provide us with important information about the world (or, rather, they allow us to infer important information about the world), they are nevertheless suspicious entities; shadows keep us at a remove from truth, and thus foster ignorance and fear. As John Bloom writes, “Plato’s parable continues to inform human consciousness in its struggle with objectivity-in discriminating between appearance and significance.”2