This exercise is dealing with artificial light. I understand that what is being talked about is ambient artificial light of some sort rather than light produced by a flash. I assume that what we are therefore concerned with is light from, for example, street lamps, domestic lights, signage (as is the case with the work of Sato Shintaro referred to in the course material), and so on.
As an aside, although I looked at Shintaro’s work I did not derive much inspiration from it. Although I can see what he was doing his work does not appeal much to megrim a compositional point of view. My immediate impression is of random assemblages of illuminated signs with no particular form or structure to them. I do though accept that I have perhaps not analysed them in as much depth as no doubt they warrant.
Coming from that starting point, an issue I have with this exercise from the outset so far as research is concerned is that it is not always immediately apparent whether a given photograph was taken under ambient artificial light or whether it was lit by flash. I have focused on work that as far as I can tell has used ambient light rather than flash, but obviously cannot be certain. Nevertheless, I am not sure whether the distinction is ultimately that important so far as what work has influenced me and my final choice of what to shoot is concerned.
The extent to which any of the work that I am going to consider below can realistically be a significant influence is tempered by the reality of where I live. I live in a dark village – it has no street lights. There is as a result little in the way of ambient artificial light. What light there is is limited to localised house lights, both internal and external. What I therefore decide to try to capture is going very much to depend on finding what light I can locally, unless I travel further afield. I do not propose though, for example, to travel into the centre of Newcastle, the nearest city, where there would no doubt be plenty of potential subjects, not least because of the distance involved and the need to be out late. In any event I feel that such a subject as the Quayside in Newcastle in particular has, although quite photogenic at night, already been done to death. Any Google or Bing Images search on the internet will bring up so many examples that the subject matter is in danger of becoming, if it has not already done so, thoroughly hackneyed and over done. The Abbey and Market Square in Hexham, which is a good deal closer, do though offer some more practical and interesting opportunities.
The first two examples of work that has caught my eye are fairly extreme and are doing quite different things. One is the work of Gregory Crewdson, whom I first came across in Cotton (2014, pages 67-68) and then again in Bright (2005, pages 80-83). This really is extreme! His work is more filmic than anything and compresses a dense and richly allusive, although not necessarily easily comprehensible or decodable, narrative into a single frame. These pictures are very clearly artificially lit (apparently using film lights) and bring a light to the scene that is unnatural, dramatic, and even on occasion hyper-real. The artifice is always evident and is presumably key to what Crewdson is trying to achieve. This is one of my favourites, not least because it is so redolent of so many sci-fi movies!
The other extreme, of a different nature, is represented by the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto, particularly his Theatre and Drive-In Theatre series. Here the artificial light of the films projected onto the featured scenes is all important, and indeed pretty much all that these pictures show. As Crewdson is perhaps compressing a longer narrative into a single frame, so Sugimoto is here compressing time into a single image, the exposure for each lasting the entire length of the film that happened to be showing.
“Union City Drive-in”
Both of these I find interesting but from a practical and technical point of view neither are really achievable, and therefore capable of being emulated with the equipment that I have (not to mention the lack of technical skills!).
Thomas Ruff’s Nachtbilder series also caught my eye, not least because of the air of unreality that he has captured (Campany, 2012, page 122). Nevertheless his work generally is not something that inspires me and his effect are not really what I am interested in.
I like some of Nan Goldin’s work that involves interior scenes, presumably lit with ordinary lights. To take just one example shown in Campany (2012, page 179), Self-Portrait with Brian from The Ballad of Sexual Dependancy, is striking because the warmth of the light is at odds with the uncertainty and uncomfortableness that the scene itself otherwise presents. As so often seems to be the case with Goldin’s work all is not well nor everyone happy!
Some of the work of Rut Blees Luxembourg has a similar air of unease, and possibly lurking threat given the nature of some of the places where she has photographed, as is the case with the example shown by Campany (2012, page 108) – such a public stairwell is not somewhere that I would want to be after dark. The examples shown by Bright on the other hand (2005, pages 202-204) do not seem to carry that same sense of menace. Rather, by photographing the city at night, in this case Dakar, she produces somewhere that is unreal (the predominance of green I find surprising and although it has a somewhat alien air it is nevertheless strangely comforting) but nevertheless warm and almost magical. What impresses me most is the way she creates a different way to see the place, and this is something that I would be interested in exploring.
The one picture though that I have most in mind when thinking about this subject is this:
This is the work of Julian Germain that originally appeared in an issue of Ashington District Star, the community led photographic project that Germain helped establish in and around Ashington. In daylight this scene (based on a painting by Fred Laidler, one of the original Pitmen Painters) is probably unremarkable. The ambient light though, presumably from sodium street lights as well as the signs over the shop, adds a comforting and welcoming warmth to the scene. Although the light inside the ship is harsh and cool (in contrast to what was no doubt a warm, close atmosphere within the shop) it is nevertheless also welcoming, contributing to the over all sense of community and inclusion that the picture projects. Again I am not sure that this is something that I nevertheless want to emulate but I am sure it will still be at the back of my mind when I make my attempt.
The last work that says something to me about this exercise is Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Hartford, 1979 used by Stephen Shore (2007, page 67).
Here the artificial light is inside and does not really illuminate the exterior of the buildings. This serves to frame the subject and draw the eye and centre of focus to him. Given that locally at least I am probably going to have to depend on light coming from inside buildings this is an effect that I intend to explore.
Bright, S, (2005). Art Photography Now. London: Thames & Hudson.
Campany, D, (2012). Art and Photography. London: Phaidon.
Cotton, C, (2014). The Photograph as Contemporary Art. London: Thames & Hudson
Shore, S, (2007). The Nature of Photographs. London: Phaidon.