Light and Photography

Larry Lytle

Oftentimes in books new and old we read about the inextricable link between light and photography. As we all know, life would be greatly hampered without light. We would bump into things, fall off of precipices and live our lives like albino cave salamanders. There would be no televisions, no luminous dial watches and certainly no photography. But, then of course, there would be no art as we understand any of the arts. The painter, sculptor, architect—indeed all the practitioners of the plastic arts—depend upon light and our reaction to it to create their work.

So, what makes photography's connection to light appreciably more important than in the other arts? Every art form uses light in some way to define or describe its message. In its use of light as a subject, each genre's utilization is in some ways similar—in its need for illumination—and dissimilar—in its manipulation of light as a subject. Photography's difference, in its connection to light, is in the way light is manipulated to create the end product, the photograph.

Light, when used in any art, works on a physical as well as a psychological level. For example, when we look at a building most of us see only a shelter, a structure to shield us from the elements. The light from the sun enables us too see its exterior; artificial as well as natural light allows us to see its interior. On the most basic level, light allows us to perceive the structure inside and out. Without some form of illumination we would end up in the dark with perceptions akin to the three blind men who encounter an elephant and attempt to describe it by touch. By allowing us to register the world around us, light is fulfilling its physical function. If an architect uses his site well and melds all of his materials into a pleasing form and then utilizes both natural and artificial light to complete his or her vision, we are able to pass judgment on the structure's beauty. If the architect has gone beyond mere revelation and has manipulated it for effect, we have an example of light fulfilling its psychological function.

All the arts rely upon light, by allowing us to view the work, so that we may understand the work. Light in painting is always present both as a direct function of a reproduced light from a light source, such as sunlight on a landscape and as an indirect feeling, the lightness or darkness of colors. Even when the painting doesn't include references to a light source our emotional, cultural understanding of color tonality and values persuade us that we are looking at a type of representation of light. Part of our response may be due to the fact that the ambient gallery light that illuminates the viewed painting is also responsible for our ability to perceive the color tones and values of that painting at all. Imagine looking at a Rothko with only a red light to illuminate it.

For most of our lives we are wholly unaware of how the light that surrounds us affects our ability to see colors in the way that we see them. We blithely go from outside sunlight to indoor tungsten light without any apparent perceptual problems. Our brain, coupled with our expectations of how things should look lets us, for the most part, view our surroundings unimpaired. For general purposes we filter out much of the yellow when looking at something illuminated by a tungsten light. However, many of us have had the experience of looking for our car in a parking lot illuminated solely by sodium vapor lights. All the silver, light blue, gray, white and yellow cars look the same color and the darker colors—reds, greens and blues—take on ghastly other world tones. Such is the physical nature of light, most of the time we don't realize or experience the conflict between what we see and what we think we see.

Photography resolves that conflict. Photography overcomes the question of what we see with what we think we see by fixing the event in an unambiguous way. As stated above, the photographic image, as with images created by all the other arts, manipulates light. Although, none but the photograph actually records it. This ability melds the role of the physical with the psychological aspects of light. We are amazed, disappointed, and perplexed when we get back photographs of a joyful family event, taken indoors, with all the room lights on, and everyone and everything is bathed in an unhappy orange glow. The film faithfully recorded what our brains and expectations never saw, the yellow tint of the tungsten bulbs in our lamps.

The camera and film, as tools, have the ability to register light in an unfiltered way. Left to physics, optics, and chemistry, the photograph does not romanticize, does not alter, and catalogs only what the light reveals. It at once sees more than we do and sees less than we do. The tonal range of light that film and paper is sensitive to is less than what our eyes can ascertain. Yet, the photograph fixes a moment of light's revelation for our scrutiny resolving more detail than the eye can see. Due to that ability, it has the emotional conviction of truth—more than a painting, more than a sculpture. Photography has become the ultimate interpreter of events, and we turn to it before all other art forms.

Perhaps it's this assurance of the photograph coupled with the way it controls light that makes their relationship unique. All the arts use light for psychological purpose. All the arts manipulate their particular way of representing light for an ideological purpose. Dance, theater, architecture, and even sculpture rely on a source being present, and then choose to manipulate it, abstracting that light source for effect or not, to illuminate its goals. Only the graphic arts use abstract representations of light to achieve their internal purposes. Of the graphic arts, photography alone records the actual light that creates both the image and the idea. Photography doesn't represent, it presents. Presentation of actuality is actuality and the record of light is light.

© 2001 Larry Lytle

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