The beauty of Shadows

Shore of Trolls - Iceland
Shore of Trolls - Iceland

One of the nicest places of my living room shelf is reserved to the book "Brett Weston: Master Photographer". I have always loved Brett Weston’s work and consider him as one of my all-time favourite photographers. His bold use of design in his photographs and his almost abstract approach of both the classical and the intimate landscape filled me with awe when I first saw one of his photographs many years ago. If I had to choose a couple of images which particularly represent the aspect of his work that strikes me the most, those would be "Garrapata beach" and "Mendenhall Glacier". These two photographs, taken as wide landscapes with a large format camera and a standard lens, show scenes that defy depth, space and reality and very much become abstract representations of the land, where form predominates over the subject matter and where the visual design becomes the language through which a strong emotion is conveyed to the viewer.

Two suns, Spain
Two suns, Spain
Triangles - Lofoten, Norway
Triangles - Lofoten, Norway
Twilight fjord, Norway
Twilight fjord, Norway

One of the ways Brett Weston achieved such masterful results when photographing the wide landscape was by means of an extremely skilful use of the negative space in his images. Whereas other contemporary photographers like Ansel Adams preferred a more complete representation of the landscape where all zones were present and detail could be seen in all shadows and highlights, Brett Weston opted for a stronger dose of denotation, suggestion and mystery. For this, he frequently made the shadows appear deep black and featureless and used them as central parts of his compositions. The result was often surprising, as big expanses of pure black erased depth and distance and tricked the eye of the viewer by switching their role from negative to positive space.

When I first started using high contrast slide film, I had to get used to dealing with an extremely narrow latitude of no more than four stops from pure black to pure light. Compared to the wider dynamic range of digital sensors and, even more, to the extreme latitude of negative film, the photographic possibilities of the high contrast slide film seem narrow when photographing the wide landscape. With time, however, I realised the beauty of shadows. By not showing it all, a sense of mystery and a sombre mood could be injected in the photographs. By not unveiling everything, the viewer’s imagination needed to "fill in the gaps" and a certain active engagement in the viewing experience would take place. Furthermore, I realised how dark shadows simplified the compositions, drowning insignificant detail and texture in the darkness and turning shadows into graphical elements whose contours and silhouettes could be used in a very striking way to heighten a certain message, mood or both. Very often, by showing less, more could be said.

With time, this initial technical limitation showed me a way of increasing the expressive force of my photographs. I realized that by considering shadows as important elements in my compositions I could make my photographs stronger and more effective at conveying my personal vision of the world.

Nowadays, the technical limitations which seemed to compromise my initial exposures are something from the past.  Current digital sensors allow me to capture 12 or even 14 stops, even more so when we consider the techniques of blending exposures in post-processing, either manually, by using luminosity masks or by means of automatic HDR software. However, I do not need so much latitude to my work, and the fact that the medium allows me to show it all does not mean that I have to. Nowadays in my work, I focus more than ever on suggestion and denotation, on mystery and mood, on questions more than answers... and very frequently dark shadows help me with these goals. As always, technology and tools should be used so that they conform to the vision of the artist and the message of the photograph, and not the other way around.

Bird and Ice, Iceland
Bird and Ice, Iceland

4 Comments

    Landscape Photography Magazine published this exact article in issue 32 about a year ago. I read again now and I must say it is still a joy to read. Well written, Rafael.

    John

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