George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak Company, once said, “Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” Light, along with time, is a key ingredient in the photographic process.
Many photos posted on social media seem bland–they may have interesting subject matter and location, good colour, even a good moment, but what they often lack is good lighting. I have heard that Lee Friedlander chose not to shoot on overcast days because he didn’t want to take lifeless photos.
The photo at the top of this blog was taken in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1980 –my early days in photography. It shows a certain type of high-contrast light that I was photographing that day for, as far as I can remember, the very first time: sunlight, directly overhead, shining on pavement. The effect is even more pronounced if the pavement is wet. This lighting situation is great for silhouettes and good for isolating people and cars and seems to work best in black and white. Any time I see this king of light, I’m eager to capture it. (Yes, thirty-five years later.)
For me, then, this is a well of inspiration that never dries up. I go back to this high-contrast light again and again, always stopping to get my camera out, always pulling over to the side of the road and standing on the line down the middle, checking over my shoulder for cars coming. How is it that something can so capture our imagination that we never tire of it?
I think it’s partly that photography, even when it’s pretty much taking the same photo for the hundredth time (as my family likes to remind me) has an always-fresh quality. This photo is, by definition, not quite like all the other photos, no matter how similar they may be. For the person holding the camera, and later looking at the image with attention, the details add up to something wholly different. The balance, the atmosphere evoked, the contrast, the mood of the moment–these are all going to vary.
Moreover, for the photographer, there can be great satisfaction in dealing with the learning curve. This is essentially a private endeavor; that’s why my family isn’t really able to appreciate it when I stop the car. Sure, if I show my wife a photo I took as a student side-by-side with one I took last week, she can observe, “You’ve really improved.” But the incremental changes, the tiny little notches of achievement or refinement in being able to capture what I’m seeing, are perceptible only to me.
Photography is a way to share your vision, but it’s also an individual journey. No one else is on it with you, or not in quite the same way. It’s important for us to honour where we are in terms of what we’re discovering for ourselves over the years.
Light is a key part of every photo we take. The hard, brilliant light on a wet pavement is for me, for some reason, one of life’s great joys. It fills me with happiness to see these black-and-silver vistas stretching in front of me. I think I would reach for my camera in my sleep, confronted with such a scene.
Whatever impels you to reach for your camera again and again, it’s worth paying attention to why you’re drawn to it, how you’re photographing it, and how your photographic eye for the subject you love is improving over time.