Capturing the Light

By Jenni Mann

We all know the feeling of being blown away by an image; photographs have the power to stir something inside us, they can light a spark of nostalgia, of longing or even intrigue. Photography simply could not work without light. The light that touches the back of the inner workings of the camera and mixes with chemicals within the film to expose an image, the light that touches our eyes, and the light that illuminates the world is what makes the magic happen. Without the glare of light, be it artificial or natural, we wouldn’t be able to have the photos that are so ingrained in our lives. Capturing the light explores some early visionaries in this field with some newer talents emerging now.


The addition of photography to human life has enabled scenes to come alive that we could only begin to visualise through painting and storytelling before. photography saw one of the greatest step-changes in society allowing for the first time a completely accurate reproduction or person place or event.


Throughout photographic history we see the mixing of realism and fantasy, we understand that they all offer a view of the world through someone else’s eyes. They light the way for us to share their world.


Exposure and contrast was used from the earliest of days. the use of duality is important with light in photography: The glare of light and the depths of shadow to enhance the drama of the image. A beautiful balance.


From the earliest days of photography, the creatives that looked at light as core to the process were the pioneers of the movement. Light and dark created the drama of the image.


Man Ray said “I have finally freed myself from the sticky medium of paint, and am working directly with light itself”


He said this when he graduated from painting to experimenting with photography. It seems this feeling was captured in the hearts of many creatives at the time, where black and white photography was all about the relationship between light and shadow. And its good to remind ourselves to begin with there was no real colour photography. True creative expression cant limitations gave way to experimentation.


Man Ray showed us that you don’t always need a camera to create a photograph… or rather a ‘rayograph‘. This was Man Ray’s unique approach to creating photograms; placing objects on photosensitive paper and exposing them to light, therefore creating an image without a camera. He used objects like interesting materials, tools, combs and sometimes parts of his own or a model’s body, that would later show up on the paper.


Light was an essential part of the recipe for a rayograph; 100 years later the clear, sharp, black and white contrasts of abstract compositions are still powerful and influential. In the image below, the shapes appeared to float in space, as modern now as they seemed at the time. The way that Man Ray experimented with light in this medium reinvented photography, and created a technique that enabled him to experiment many times over.

Born five years after Man Ray was László Moholy-Nagy, well known for his contributions to modern art and surrealism. He recognised the impact that light had over his work, and described the relationship between light and photography as ‘the photographer is a manipulator of light; photography is a manipulation of light’.


Intrigued by the ways that light could be distorted and experimented with, Moholy-Nagy made a film in 1927 entitled ‘Ein Lichtspiel schwarz weiss grau’, or in English ‘A Lightplay: Black White Gray’. His interest in movement and light led him to create what he called the ‘Light-Space Modulator’, which you can see in this abstract film. 


Viewers are shown dizzying glimpses of light and shadow playing out, looking at the ‘Light-Space Modulator’ from so many different angles. Drawing us in, the abstract piece captures a light show that seems ahead of its time. It’s easy to see that the relationship between the glare of light and depth of shadows was at the forefront of Moholy-Nagy’s interest, he recognised the mystique and importance it still holds to us all now. 

Maholy – Nagy had a distinctive and interesting style of photography, his famous photo ‘Dolls on the Balcony’ shows his distinctive work with light and shadows (picture to left). We can see how the placement of the light and shadow forms the criss-cross over the dolls, adding a surrealist element he was so well known for.


A love for manipulating light and showing the intricacies of life has continued with photographers through the decades.


Photographers in the modern day have so much more equipment at their fingertips than photographers from Man Ray’s era; yet still, the glare of a sunbeam is an essential part of creating that magic of photography.  Moving forward 50 years to the 1970’s, the influence of light in photography is still ingrained in many of the image takers art, take for example Sally Mann


Sally Mann has manipulated a mood or theme through her use of contrast. Known for her photography of her family, she portrays them in a way that looks beyond the surface level at childhood nostalgia and family life, and captures raw emotions and spontaneous moments of their personal lives. Mann uses light in all of these photos to set a mood and tone. 

In both her photos ‘Candy Cigarette’ which can be seen in the above video, and ‘The Perfect Tomato’, her use of shadows and exposure sets one person apart from the group. In both, her daughter is drenched in light, a spotlight on her intriguing pose. The rest of the family members are shrouded in darkness, drawing the viewers attention to the main subject of the image and adding to the moody aesthetic that is shown in much of Mann’s photography.


Today the photographer Vedran Vidak, from Croatia, travels the world and captures the spirits and different lives of the people he has met. His work is full of energy, he strives to show the story behind an image and says that “ if the technical imperfection might emphasise the atmosphere and the story, I will gladly leave it imperfect”.


His work is filled with contrasts of light and dark, whether that be in colour or black and white. Vidak’s portraits often are highlighted by the contrasts in light. Vidak’s vision is that “a photographer has the ability to change the world and needs to work under that premise. They must be self-critical, while also being able to free their soul and cadre of everything unessential, and hope to get a good light”


Using fractured light to create a mesmerising piece of work, ‘Portraits VIII’ is a great photograph of his that echos so much of what has gone before, yet is still modern.


This shows a young boy with light pooling over his skin in lines. The way the light falls is both the main focus of the image and an obscurely interesting point. Vidak has used powerful contrasts of exposure and darkness, and manipulated the illumination on top of that.

The adoration for experimenting with and manipulating light is timeless. Light is more than just the technicality of making a photo work; it’s a whole other element of energy. Light is so much a part of any photographer’s art. Light can change our perception of an image so drastically. It can fold us into the scene and make us a part of another person’s imagination. What power the light holds over us all!


If you enjoyed reading Capturing the light, why not read a short story by Brindley Hallem-Dennis here the Tinkerbell Conclusion


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