The Shadow Knows

“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”

Intro to “The Shadow” radio show

Imagine if you will a world without shadow. I don’t mean guys in capes with creepy laughs, but rather, those places where light does not fall and where our vision cannot penetrate. Only our imagination can reach into those dark places. Our imaginary world without shadow would look very flat because our eye and brains use shadow to identify depth and form. Texture, too, would be difficult to see, and we would have to do much more touching of surfaces to understand them. This thought experiment is an absurdity, but it does help to show how shadow works in our visual perception, and how difficult it would be to do without it.

I have been thinking about the role that shadow plays in our photography, and I found myself drawing some analogies from other disciplines such as psychology and cinema. Shadow does at least two vital functions in a photograph: it helps to define form and it establishes a mood. It is this second function, the emotional impact of shadow that interests me the most, although the definition of form and depth is equally important.

In the psychology of Carl Jung, “the shadow” was a metaphor for the unconscious self, that part of our identities which operate beyond the management of our conscious minds. The shadow is the hidden part of us which is the repository of memory and experience, and the source of our dreaming, creative activity and neurosis. We can’t look directly into our shadow to see what is there. We have to use indirect methods such as dream analysis, art, religious practices, and intuition to get a sense of what the shadow holds.

Instinctively, we fear the unknown and that which we cannot see. Our imagination tends to fill those unseen spaces with fantasies and imaginations. Scary things may lurk in those shadows, and yet it may be only our fantasies. Regardless, shadow activates our imagination, and pulls content from deep within us to project it into those hidden spaces.

In a photograph, shadow performs a paradoxical function: it establishes form and depth, and also conceals them. For this moment, I am most interested in the concealment. When shadow conceals part of a form, it introduces incompleteness into the photo. Incompleteness engages our imagination to visualize what might be there. Photographs in which there are deep shadows and perhaps only a part of the subject is illuminated are often characterized as “poetic,” “brooding,” and even “erotic.” Photographers who have used shadow effectively would include Brassai, Cartier-Bresson, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Yousuf Karsh, and Alfred Stieglitz, and this list is woefully incomplete, but they are some who come to mind immediately.

One of the reasons that the movie Casablanca is regarded as such a classic is its photography. The cinematographer was Arthur Edeson, a veteran who had previously shot The Maltese Falcon and Frankenstein. Film Noir and expressionist lighting is used in several scenes, particularly towards the end of the picture. Rick is always emerging from the shadows in his white dinner jacket. Shadows suggesting bars of imprisonment fall across the characters. Shadows seem to constantly crowd in on the doomed love affair between Rick and Ilsa. The lighting of the scenes is stunning. The use of shadow in the filming of Casablanca does much to create the drama and intensity of the film.

I am deliberately avoiding the light/dark, good/evil dualities because I think they are inappropriate and irrelevant to this discussion. Shadow is a function of light. We couldn’t talk about shadow were there no light. Darkness only takes on a moral character for me when I’m trying to find my way to bed in the dark, and I stub my toe on a piece of furniture. Then it is the essence of evil. Otherwise darkness, dark color, or deep shadows do not automatically carry moral content for me.

By way of contrast, a photograph that has full and even illumination is often described as “high key,” “bright,” “cheery,” “happy,” and “light.” For me, these sorts of photographs do not tend to engage my imagination and feelings in the way that a photo with rich shadows will. The bright “high key” photograph may be technically excellent and succeed at visually portraying its subject with great accuracy, but I usually dismiss them as “ad stuff” in my own mind.

Any photographer worth his or her salt is engaged in a life-long love affair with light. We chase light. We study it. We wait for it, and we cherish it. We spend enormous energy in learning to artificially apply light when the right light isn’t available to us. We are lovers of light. We also seem to wage war on the shadows. In the days of film, there never seemed to be enough light. We used techniques like pushing our development to get an extra two or three stops from the film. We would “dodge” and “burn” on the enlarger to darken highlights and open up detail in the shadows. The digital revolution brought a whole new set of powerful tools such as Photoshop and Lightroom which allow us to tweak our exposures after the picture is shot. Today’s digital cameras have such high ISO sensitivity that one really need never have a deep shadow in a photo if it is not desired. The war on shadow has been won, at least in the technical sphere.

And now to the turn-around: I have this gnawing, hungry unconscious that I scarcely understand. By night it feeds me troubling dreams and in the waking hours it fills me with passions and obsessions to put a shape and a word to what I feel. Sometimes it tosses up images and feelings that make my writing richer. I need my shadows. I need those places of uncertainty and incompleteness where my imagination and intuition can go to work. I need the unknown.

In my photography, these things are found in the shadows. With the vast arsenal of digital tools we now possess, I find myself in the odd position of needing to be intentional about getting shadow into my photos. I have to find those conditions where the wonderful fugue of light and shadow play back and forth against each other in the image. And I have to remind myself to be comfortable and accept the shadow, and not be too quick to Photoshop it out, because somewhere in that magical interplay of tones are some answers for me.

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