I used to know a photographer by the name of Roloff Beny. Roloff was responsible for a dozen big-format coffee table books. Persia, Bridge of Turquoise was well known, as well as his famous To Every Thing There is a Season. Roloff picked an area and went through it thoroughly. A friend of the Shah of Iran, he once took a red-carpeted year to travel that country in his Land Rover. Roloff generally arose before dawn and was already set up at first light. The midday sun found him asleep in the FWD. I never did figure out where or when his faithful driver slept. As evening and the “magic hour” approached, Roloff was back on the job. “As an artist you should be in business until the time when you almost can’t see,” he used to say. A few years ago he met an untimely end in his bathtub in Rome.
Here on Lake of the Woods, Ontario, I’m appreciating Roloff’s dictum. Being top-lit, midday subjects are often lacking in form. Foregrounds are difficult to separate from backgrounds. Shadows are short, sharp-edged and dull, often blackish in tone. But morning and evening shadows are long, often elegant and colour-saturated. Cast shadows make for better design and provide compositional connections. Reflected light is more readily apparent. In the darks, greater mystery can be found than at midday. There’s more opportunity for texture, counter-light, chiaroscuro, auras, edge-lighting and increased tonal range. Opposites on the colour wheel interact with greater hue and, therefore, drama. Also, forms tend to become generalized, which can help the artist to see the “big picture.” Furthermore, late and early skies take on energy and animation that seldom exist at midday. Philosophically, beginnings and endings are better than middles, and this may account for some of the appeal.
Roloff Beny (1924-1984) learned to love evening light in the Greek islands. In his early days he was a painter. I once made the mistake of asking him when it was he changed from “artist” to “photographer.” “My photography is the greatest art,” he snapped. You had to watch yourself with Roloff. As I write this, it’s a moonless night and the main illumination is my laptop screen. Now, if we can just get our boat away from this precious island, out of this murky bay and home without hitting an underwater rock.
PS: “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” (Noel Coward)
Esoterica: If you must work at midday, there are some tricks you can use. Calculated glazing or overall toning with warms (such as Burnt sienna, Cadmium orange or Quinacridone gold) or adding a purple passion to your palette can often modify works for the better. Ultramarine blue is another magic bullet. Afterthoughts can be convincing. Having said that, my experience has been that you learn the most and are most moved at sunup and sundown. When my work becomes uninteresting, it’s often just that I’m sleeping in too late or going to bed too early.
This letter was originally published as “Going for the Light” on May 28, 2004.
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“In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.” (Sir Francis Bacon)