Practice 2: Light and Shadow: Tools, Materials, and Processes
The physical basis of photography is the transformation of light into image. In The Allegory of the Cave, an early account of light as image, Plato describes how prisoners chained inside the cave mistook shadows cast by events outside the cave for the events themselves. The flickering shadows served as a substitute for reality. Later, the magical, changing lights projected inside the camera obscura provided viewers with an alternative, enchanted view of the world. In these examples, light and image were fluid, fluctuating forms. Images can also be fixed, as with a photograph. According to Pliny, painting originated when a woman drew an outline around her lover’s shadow. This act-the fixing of light into imagecould also serve as a metaphor for the origin of photography. This chapter on “light and shadow” explores processes that use light as a malleable material and as a means of casting images. In other words, lighting can be used as a means to an end (as a means of lighting objects and scenes to be filmed or photographed), as a way to project images, or as the goal in itself (as a sculptural material in installation and performance). Light and Shadow: Tools, Materials, and Processes is divided into three sections: the source, the path, and the terminal point. The source of light shapes the implied narrative of an image. For example, a scene where the main light seems to radiate from a car’s ceiling lamp may help to convey the intimacy of the automobile’s interior space and the vulnerability of that space next to the vast darkness of the outside world. The kind of lighting equipment used has specific connotations. For example, we usually think of the sun as a “natural” light, as grand, warm, or romantic. If sunlight seems to suggest a
spontaneous or genuine world, artificial light often refers to that which is human or industrial. Fluorescent light is often used to convey a dreary, clinical, bureaucratic space. In Woody Allen’s film Sleeper, his character wakes up in a future lit with radiant whiteness, a spare efficiency designed to suggest a new, highly developed world with ultramodern technology. The path of light involves choices of level and direction. Light can be manipulated to shape or flatten objects and actors in order to make them more or less visible, to focus or distract the viewer’s attention, to give a sense of the time of day, season, and era, and to influence the mood of a scene. Light and shadow hide or reveal (suggesting knowledge, ignorance, secrecy, or revelation, etc.); convey style (realism, abstraction, etc.); determine composition (symmetry, balance, fragmentation, horizontality, verticality, etc.); and reinforce psychological conditions (jubilance, eeriness, boredom, etc.). In addition, objects and elements that are hit by light within the scene are also implicated. Each of these terminal points, walls, and other surfaces, provides a palette that merges with the color of light. Their texture and placement facilitates or impedes reflection and the bouncing of light. Objects within a scene are opportunities to cast shadow, to mirror or to merge with their surroundings. Each of these actions depends upon the level and direction of the lighting.