By Anita Sheih
Light enables all vision, sometimes the visions of photographic masterminds. Whether soft or harsh, natural or artificial, diffused or dramatic, the lighting of a photograph can be what makes it. When utilized astutely, light can be bent and shadows can be manipulated to create drastic, otherworldly effects. In these photographs, each created by a different esteemed artist, the power of light allows these images to shine.
A deep expanse of rich black, Ray K. Metzker’s Philadelphia is punctuated by moments of light. The doorway of the parking garage opens to natural sunlight, and a single man is silhouetted against the overblown wall of a neighboring building. Two fluorescent lights on the ceiling run off the left edge of the image, leading the eye toward a dark vehicle, where the various sources of light reflect, shimmer, and slide down the sleek exterior and windows.
Metzker’s asymmetrical composition plays with light, both natural and manmade, as well as echoes of light in darkness, which create a mood of mystery and drama. The contours and curves of the reflected light reveal the shape of the car, showing how the light in this dim setting does not just enhance but actually exposes the image.
In Jeff Wall’s After “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue, a man sits in a room under a tapestry of lightbulbs. He leans over, gaze directed downward as he polishes a pot. Clutter surrounds him, and the ceiling erupts with light. In an underground dwelling where bulbs take the place of stars, a lone man lives. While this scene is inspired by the prologue of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the visual translation is still entirely Wall’s own.
Expanding on his signature approach of mounting photographs in lightboxes, Wall brings the light into the frame as a key element of this photograph. The sporadic placement of the lit bulbs creates a painterly effect, as Wall illustrates with energy in this image. The bright bulbs and dark furniture surrounding the lone figure in his underground setting create a powerful tonal contrast, and the exquisite details illuminated by the multiple light sources allow the eye to travel across the composition, never failing to find something new.
A single hand reaches into the top-right corner of the almost-square composition to gently grasp the thin, patterned cloth of the curtain as natural light from the window flows forward. The hint of a window sill or ledge peeks through the fabric as the eggshell white turns to a light cream hue. An imperfectly scalloped edge of shadow takes the bottom third of the composition, like a cartoon rim of a dripping ice cream scoop on a cone, interrupted only by the folds of cloth tugged gently upwards by the grasping hand above.
The gradient shades of white that appear in this bright, textured image are simply an illusion of changing color created by the shifting light moving down the photograph. While most elements of this photo create strong horizontal lines, the pattern of the fabric includes vertical fibers. These echo the single strong vertical line of the lifted fabric, which folds and undulates under the hand, mimicking the way the shades of white unfold and undulate throughout the photograph in the varying states of the dreamlike lighting.
Whether through dramatic contrasts, well-placed reflections, subtle shifts, or celebratory sparks, light plays a significant role in the work of these photographers and countless others. It is not only a fundamental component for vision but also a powerful tool for a skilled photographer to communicate their concepts and create intense, intoxicating, illuminating effects in their images. Ray K. Metzker, Jeff Wall, and Uta Barth show that any lighting can be good lighting with enough creativity and intent. Their work may inspire others to play with light too because whether in photography or in life, light can make it a bit brighter.