For a photographer there is nothing more important than light. Everything about photography relies on it. Too much and a photo can become overexposed. Too little and it is underexposed. Composition, structure, texture all rely on light. Tricks of the trade such as aperture and shutter speed can manipulate that light. Freezing motion in place or utilizing shadows only works well with an understanding of light. It is the one aspect of photography that I continue to learn about every time I pick my camera up. After all light is never exactly the same on any given day or situation so it is a constant learning process.
Consider too the masters of paintings who created their own light studies by painting a series of still lifes. Usually by way of a bowl of fruit, a vase of flowers or in the case of Claude Monet, with a haystack. Painters have long used these types of studies to hone their craft. When I studied art in college we learned why this sort of simple subject matter was so important. Along with shape and form, the subtle difference between light and shadow may drastically change the overall effect depending on time of day. Experimenting with the same subject matter reveals new textures and nuance.
Lets use the example of Monet’s haystacks for instance . A simple cluster of hay stacked in a field is by no means a particularly exciting subject. But in capturing the different looks to the haystacks throughout the day Monet made it intrinsically more interesting. Playing with the light such as that comes with careful observation and analysis. Is the light more pleasing at noon, or does it give off more of a glow at sunset? Does the halo of light over the entire field look best at sunrise, or at mid-afternoon? Is a summer sunset more vibrant than one in fall?
I was thinking recently about how important light can be to our mood. The occasional dreary rainy day at home sipping tea or a glass of wine gazing out the window can be very enjoyable. Too many of those sorts of days in a row start to weigh on me however and I find myself eventually craving light. That might be the first hints of sun in the morning, with golden light rising and reflecting over the buildings of my neighborhood or the clear blues of a bright and sunny day. Or the soothing tones of sunset-red, pink, purple and orange immersed in the clouds. Even the glow of the city at night or the light from the stars can be pleasing.
I don’t know about other people but I have favorite times of the day. Times when I feel most at ease and happy. For some that might be morning, for others it might be quitting time from work. Thinking about this further, I came to the conclusion that the real reason we have a favorite time might just be about the light one expects to see. We feel energized when we get a warming sunrise or a calming sunset. As if the very qualities of color variations that occur on a single day make us feel connected to that light. I started to wonder if that was why painters and photographers are so drawn to capturing the shifting of light. Perhaps artists feel the need to study light as a way of seeing our response to those shifts.
In deciding to do my own light study, I wanted something that I could take a photograph of on a regular basis, at several different times of day over a period of time. I chose a water tower perched above my favorite old brick building in our neighborhood. I liked the contrast between the brick of the building and the wood of the water tower.
I was not methodical about this. I did not take a photo at 6:47 every day to compare. Instead I tried to hit key times of day. Sunrise, midday, late afternoon, sunset, night time. I tried to take it more or less from the same position each time. I experimented with the tools at my disposal-shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. I made adjustments each time. Some I deemed right away to be unacceptable. Others I put in the maybe category. In the end I probably took about 50 photos of this water tower and only sat down to write these words when I felt satisfied with my final choice to feature. *
Thinking of how to fit music into this equation I gradually came to realize an artist works on variations of a theme in a light study and tweaks them by altering the approach and final look as desired. So too does a musician go into a recording studio with a song, and adjusts it. You start with the song. Perhaps it was written with the idea of being a fast paced rocker. Or maybe it was written solo on a piano. Maybe it was meant to have only one singer. Yet so many times the song, the instrumentation, the tempo, the vocals change when the approach to the song gets altered. That rocker becomes a ballad instead. That solo piano becomes an electric guitar riff. Or the song intended to have only one singer now has a 20 piece Gospel choir and a horn section.
At their peak, REM were arguably doing all of this sort of experimentation, and quite successfully too. The early albums especially were rife with this sort of tinkering around, such as the song Time After Time (Annelise) from their second full length album- Reckoning. It may be dark and a little bleak, yet it is quite captivating precisely for that darkness. The recording of Reckoning apparently happened quickly, but choices and decisions still had to be made for each song, much like the moment a painter commits brush to canvas, or a photographer makes adjustments before clicking the shutter release.
The end result may not be satisfying to everyone. An artist or musician might consider it their best work while the general public rejects it outright. Some may consider it a step back while the artist considers it a step forward. In R.E.M.’s case Time After Time is viewed both with a mixture of regard and disdain among fans. Regardless of how it ultimately plays out, artists experiment in the hope that it will push their work further. I realized in doing this light study that this was the common thread running in art and music-the desire to continually challenge oneself and find new ways to express ideas. For musicians it comes in the studio, recording a song several times and making adjustments. For me it comes from being patient and really thinking about what I ultimately want to present. In taking a series of photos of the same exact thing I learned what works and does not work for me aesthetically.
*In the gallery below are some of the shots I liked, but did not quite satisfy me in the end. The photo at the top of this post however is my favorite of the series. I took it as the sun was rising one morning. Ironically 15 minutes later the day turned out to be cloudy and overcast, but for that brief moment, the sky had contrast and the rays of sun shone vibrantly on the water tower and the building.
Time After Time (Annelise)-Written By Bill Berry, Mike Mills, Peter Buck & Michael Stipe
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All Photographs By Robert P. Doyle