Seeing Light And Shadow

By Judith Leitner

It all begins with light and shadow: opulent daylight softly slipping through a window and illuminating a lovely face, deep shadows stretching across wide valleys and cavernous crevices, dazzling light glistening on ice or crafting strange forms along sand dunes, elongated shadows within dawn’s emergent light and dusk’s fading glow, dense light within grey fog, mellow open shade on a bright summer day, harsh and calculating flash light in a dark room: these and an infinite array of other expressions of light and shadow are the primary shapers of meaning in a photograph. Indeed, the word ‘photography’ literally means ‘writing (graphy) with light (photo)’.

The first time I taught children to ‘write with light’ I quickly understood that all they needed – after a very basic intro to the camera and film – was a few lessons in exploring light and shadow. Outdoors, we wandered and observed how time of day, weather, open air and rooftop canopies informed qualities of natural light and shadow, and we played with the flash in daylight. The children were amazed when they perceived the ways their hats blocked light and cast dark shadows on their faces. Indoors, we looked at diffused window light, artificial light from light bulbs, florescent tubes and flashlights, and they were delighted by the eerie, glaring effect of direct flash in a dimly lit room.

How did I write my mother’s story with light? When I began to capture Rosa on film, my vision for the photo-documentary was in its embryonic stage, as was her Alzheimer’s.  I became an intense observer; watching mindfully as she lived her everyday life. I was often profoundly distraught in the presence of this beautiful woman’s devastating spiritual and physical metamorphosis. Yet I was never fearful; my camera held my hand. And so I followed her wherever she went, making pictures.

I photographed her – often with my father or daughters – at home, in various hospital corridors, private rooms and public spaces and on walks in parks and gardens. Ever thoughtful of qualities of light and shadow, I relied on window light, natural or artificial light and direct and fill-in flash when indoors; outdoors I captured her in all seasons and times of day by drawing on sunlight’s temperamental gifts.

Remember, if you will, that 30 odd years ago we were shooting with film, and measuring light with our eyes more often than with our apparatus. And so we bracketed our shots – purposefully pushing and pulling, over and underexposing our film – to ensure that the qualities of light and shadow expressed our pictorial vision. Back then, we would continue to manipulate light and shadow values in our darkrooms- when processing film and developing prints.

Today we have cutting-edge digital cameras and excellent point and shoot cameras with automatic or manual shooting options; we have Photo Shop as our go-to for swift visual tweaks and enhancements. These are all prodigious tools; yet nothing, absolutely nothing can replace ‘seeing light’ at that decisive photographic moment. Light is your picture’s foremost, fundamental design element. As the great Edward Steichen said: “I knew, of course, that trees and plants had roots, stems, bark, branches and foliage that reached up toward the light. But I was coming to realize that the real magician was light itself”.

Gradually, ‘light’ and ‘shadow’ became rich metaphors in Rosa’s narrative, illuminating her elusive memory, the nuances of her inner life and the relentless flow of time. I love the many meanings of the word ‘illuminate’ – ‘to throw light into’ or ‘to clarify’, ‘to enlighten intellectually or spiritually’ and ‘to enable to understand’.  Indeed, light and shadow empowered me to be a poet photographer, an artist with a fearless eye, a daughter intent on enabling understanding of Rosa’s luminous story through my camera’s lens.

Use your eyes!  Explore the light!  Observe how it illuminates your subject and your own inner vision….Edward Steichen also said: “ The mission of photography is to explain man to man, and each man to himself”. I wonder: how would you imagine writing your loved one’s story – fearlessly, with light?



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