Photography literally means writing with light. The writing bit is arguable, but without light, there simply is no photography. That holds true for the analogue age, and it hasn’t changed with digitalisation. Everything you or your camera sees, is the reflection of light on something. And if that light isn’t sufficient, you see nothing. Period.
The real challenge of light is getting it right. If the subject is too contrasty, the photographer is screwed. You can hide a multitude of sins with modern equipment and software, but contrast remains an issue. Which probably explains why so many photographers have the hots for difficult light. ‘Rembrandt light’, ‘clair-obscur’ . . . especially technique fanatics consider a well aimed nose shadow the be-all and end-all of photographic quality.
Ok, in all fairness, it is of course the story of the picture that counts. And you can bet your bottom dollar that light plays a big part there. Hard light (the one with the contrasts) brings dynamics and energy to the photo – soft, even lighting brings calm and sometimes even a fairytale feel.
It’s the same old song: technique is means to an end, never the ultimate goal; but without it you’re pretty damn stuck.
And that brings us to a couple of painters who threw themselves passionately at light. Caravaggio and Rembrandt are the grandmasters of clair-obscur, but today I’d like you to meet a few other light magicians. And maybe another time, too, there’s so much beauty to behold! The best way to enjoy these images, is to squint – look through your lashes and you’ll see exactly what the light is doing.
Gerrit van Honthorst, The Matchmaker, 1625. It took me a while to detect the lady in question (far left, she’s pointing). Initially I thought that generous bosom belonged to the matchmaker, and wondered if her male customers would ever settle for anyone else. The lute she is holding provides little cue – it is a symbol of love, but whether it is lust or courtly love is usually determined by the context. And then that cleavage is quite a distraction! In any case, Honthorst’s use of light leaves nothing to the imagination. But then, he belonged to the Caravaggists of Utrecht, Caravaggio’s painting fanclub.
Adriaen Coorte, Gooseberries, 1699. Here you really have to use the squint technique. Oh, I find this crazy beautiful. Coorte made just over 60 paintings, all of them small still lives. About ten years ago two more were discovered under a layer of dust in an attic, I believe in Middelburg, his home town.
Marie-Denise Villers, Portrait of Charlotte du Val d’Ognes, 1801. Some art historians are convinced this is a self-portrait. The light is astonishing, with the back light and the effect of the drawing paper that acts as a reflector with that weird, spooky shadow at the wrong end of the eyes. And can somebody tell me what is going on with that window pane? Is the glass broken? It sure looks like it.
Claude Monet, Woman with a Parasol, Madame Monet and Son, 1875. Can you feel the heat, the burning sunshine? Can you smell the hay? I remember watching a series about the Impressionists, and the scene where Mme. Monet came to fetch her husband for lunch, but he couldn’t stop working. The last shot was a quote of this painting. Recognizing it made me feel very much an insider.
Marie Braquemond, Sous la Lampe (Alfred Sisley et sa femme) 1877. Marie Braquemond, née Quivoron, did not lead a very joyous life. She was dragged around France and Switzerland by her unhappy mother until they finally settled in Paris. There she met her husband Félix while they were both sketching at the Louvre. He apparently was resentful of her talent and the appreciation the Impressionists had for her work. Her health was fragile too, and all these factors may have conributed to the fact that she isn’t too well known. She should be, though – look at this painting of fellow artist Sisley and his wife.
Sir George Clausen, The Gleaners Return, 1908. Ever since biblical times, really poor women and children were allowed to pick up leftovers after the wheat harvest. It was a semi-organised form of charity. For some reason, maybe to glorify the people who allowed this, gleaners are often depicted in sheer heavenly light (check Millet). Clausen was on a roll here.
John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, 1886. My favorite painting EVER! If I had a favorite painting, which I don’t. But it is stunning. Big and gorgeous and breathtaking. The title comes from a song. It took Sargent quite a while to complete this, halfway through he changed models because he was looking for this particular hair color, and he had very little time each evening to get the right dusky light he wanted. Now squint already!