Monday, July 2, 2018

Light is Beautiful

I went camping with my family this weekend. Including our large dog, who loves playing in the water, and chewing sticks. The lake at the campground was full of sticks, so it was basically heaven for the dog. Thus, I spent a fair lot of time watching the dog, which equals standing quietly and noticing when the dog has rambled out of view. Then you call her back.

I spent some time being present. Which is perhaps an organized way of spacing out.

A common theme over the years, as I mull over the act of photography, and what makes photographs good, is some sort of search for something mystical. There are Buddhist ideas in my back catalog, I looked at Miksang in a little detail once. Periodically I circle back to the ways people in traditional cultures connect to their environment, are aware of the world immediately around them. I don't know if it's mystical or neurological, and I don't much care. It's something I aspire to, something I practice, and something I occasionally get a little flash of insight in to. It's diametrically opposed to my education, my former profession, and that's on purpose. Software engineers take the worst photographs.

In a small way, that's what I was practicing. The weather was overcast and drizzly. The kind of weather with the ceiling a few hundred feet up, and a couple miles of thin fog above that, enough humidity in the air to scatter the light around you. There was no directionality to the light at all, except that the ground emits no light, and the clear space over the lake allowed a somewhat brighter region that-a-way. The sides of trees away from the lake were slightly darker than the sides facing the lake, and this never changed all day. There was a sort of silver blue cast to the light.

The light wrapped absurdly. Small details on the tree trunks showed no shadow, no modeling whatever. Larger forms were modeled very very softly, very little contrast from the shadow side to the light side, and the change from light to shadow an almost imperceptibly slow shading.

It struck me that this would be rated as Very Poor Light by most photographers, and that many would then ramble on about The Golden Hour and the differences between Beautiful Light and the other kind.

But that's all bullshit. All light is beautiful. The harsh mid-day sun. The wildly diffuse foggy stew I spent the weekend in. And, of course, The Golden Hour and The Blue Hour and all that crap. The world I was inhabiting, that I was working at being fully present in at that moment was painfully beautiful, rich. To say the light was bad would be to utter a vile slur, an absolute falsehood.

But let's be precise. Light is invisible. We don't see light, we only see what it reveals. Light passing through empty space is nothing, light striking things, now that's something. Light is beautiful and interesting because the world it smashes in to is beautiful and interesting. The revealed things are beautiful, and also the way in which they are revealed.

What The Golden Hour does for photographers is that it reveals the world in a way that is photographically congenial. The contrast range is manageable, there's strong directionality to the light, so that the the use of chiaroscuro reveals shape, depth, there's probably a little diffusion to smooth out the skin a little (all photographers basically want to shoot pretty girls in, or out of, bikinis. On the beach. At sunset. So making skin look smooth is a concern.)

What this means is that for me in the fog, looking at this maze of mossy tree trunks in the silvery blue light, is that I had a photographic problem. I did not attempt to solve it. In reality, there are a host of problems to solve here. Making a picture that does justice to that moment is very very difficult, because the moment was sublime, but the view was in the end just a bunch of moss covered sticks. Photographically it looked flat, so among the many photographic problems was how to represent the depth of the forest receding into the distance. But that, surely, is almost as nothing compared to the problems of revealing the sublime moment, the awe inspiring beauty that a repetitious bunch of vertical mossy sticks illunimated by a soft silver light evokes.

How do I tell you about the 100 year history of these trees, the way the air felt, the sense of time suspended? How do I tell you about the woodpecker pair rat-at-at-atting behind me? How do I tell you about the wild unbridled joy of the dog descending like a Valkyrie to the lake below, and racing back up what seemed a vertical slope at my call? The delight of my children at the campfire, and at smores?

It's all there, somehow, in these flat sage-gree tree trunks marching away forever and ever into the endless distance to the road a few hundred yards away out of sight.

These are the problems that the photographer must solve. That they are hard does not mean that they're not to be solved. I did not, could not, on that day and in that moment solve these problems. I didn't try. But I knew then, as I know now, that the job of the photographer in that moment was to solve those problems.


  1. A couple of unrelated remarks:

    1. I was also fascinated by Miksang photography. However, as was also discussed on your blog, it doesn't address how to transport something like meaning with the pictures. Probably this is because its advocates regard it more like an alternate process of picture-making. So it is all too easy to end up with empty exercises in aesthetic form.
    In order to gain some insight into what's "meaning" and this mysticism thing, I'm currently reflecting on mythology and especially the conjunction between myths and art. My aim is to get a deeper understanding about our connection to certain places and natural phenomena, their subliminal "meaning" for us, so to say. Clearly our rational, positivist view on the world is useless for this, so myths might offer an alternative way to gain insight into ourselves and our surroundings.

    2. The conditions you described (drizzle) are in fact my favourite light. In fact, I avoided the blue hour and sunny conditions for my recent work. But probably this is just another partiality against a certain kind of light.

    3. A suitable format to dig out what's special about a places and situation you described is, again, the photographic series (or body of work). The pictures that one makes under these conditions tend to be "small" pictures, so no "wow" effects. I believe a combination of many inconspicious, but thematically and aesthetically related pictures, is able to convey this meaning. But, as you pointed out, this is not doable within a single day.

    Best, Thomas

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