Here in Finland we know about darkness. After all, in parts of the country the sun doesn’t rise for weeks on end. Even in the south of the country, we have on average only 29 hours of sunshine per month in December. Ok, “south” is relative here. Helsinki lies at about 60° latitude, the same as southern Greenland or Kenai in Alaska. No wonder then that many around here suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) coming from light deficiency or simply loath the onset of the season of constant twilight. But not all darkness is created equal and I do think darkness has its upside. Especially also for photographers.
In 1933 the Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki wrote his famous essay “In Praise of Shadows”. Some of the fame of the text might have to do with the fact that it sings the praise for the Japanese monastic outhouses (among other things). Still, Tanizaki explains in the essay how Japanese aesthetics embrace, and have evolved from, use and appreciation of dim lightning. He finds in reduced lightning the same suggestiveness that seems to permeate also, for example, Japanese literature and especially poetry. And I think he might have a point there.
As a long-time user of Apple products I have seen my share of Apple flagship stores. It has often been said that the sparse design of these stores, like so much of Apple’s designs, has been inspired by Steven Job’s fondness for Zen aesthetics. Only, I can find nothing “zen” in these glaring glass palaces. Every time I entered one I had the feeling I wasn’t hip or rich or good enough to buy there. Whoever thought it a good idea to intimidate customers was in my view a bit out of whack. But then, what do I know? The company seems to do well enough. But personally, I’d rather buy Apple products anywhere but in an Apple store. My point here is that I think a combination of clean lines and aggressive lightning easily create a sterile rather than a humane atmosphere.
Tanizaki, I think, would have seen Apple stores indeed as an example of the malaise of excessive light that he attributed to Western culture. This juxtaposition of Eastern and Western values in Tanizaki’s text, however, is in my view somewhat problematic, especially considering when the essay was written and how this juxtaposition then was politicised. But I also think he is wrong in constructing these juxtapositions. Also Western culture developed in candlelight and overall we find the first human art creations in dark caves. One glance at a Rembrandt painting tells us that also in the West we have this connoirsseurship of shadows. Here we have called it “chiaroscuro“.
As I wrote earlier, plasticity in two-dimensional pictures is a function of the interplay between shadow and light. That is what the renaissance masters taught us and what chiaroscuro is about. In Rembrandt paintings the figures seem to virtually pop out from the canvas. It always amazes me how a Rembrandt painting in a museum despite its darkness seem to lighten up the whole room. This, I think, comes from the light accents and the strong contrast in these pictures. But the darkness around the figure has another effect too, that of suggestiveness.
And there is where I agree with Tanizaki. Where our eyes fail, our imagination begins. Early film and photography used this aspect of chiaroscuro to great effect. Imagination also rules the dark season in the north, where folks told each other fairy tales and legends around the dim light of an open fire-place. This suggestiveness of darkness makes it one of the tools to extend the inner depth of a picture. With inner depth I mean here an openness in meaning, something where also the viewer’s imagination finds its own space in a picture.
This suggestive power of shadows, however, seems to have become underappreciated in our culture. In that, again, I agree with Tanizaki. So there is something to be learned here. If we want to engage not only the viewer’s senses but also her imagination, the use of chiaroscuro is still one of the most powerful tools in the artists’ arsenal. Tanizaki said rightly, darkness holds both mystery and immutable tranquility. Who’s then afraid of the dark?