Complete texts

Light and Shadow

The light in the photograph was the light that was present around the thing being photographed. Whatever one photographed instantly brought its own light into the image. The lithographer could set light to his own hand, accentuate it, exaggerate it, but a photographer could not. Nineteenth-century contemporary (anti-picturesque) realism in painting, by the way, also inescapably expressed itself in terms of a new light. Painters wanted to capture the light of the subject itself, not drape a stylized light around that subject. What could not have been done otherwise in photography became the policy for painting.

Nineteenth-century picturesque prints used light to create drama. Even the clouds in the sky were filled with lighting effects. Streets and figures were made up of a brightly lit side and an aggressive shadow. The contrast was caricature, as the prints in the Album Pittoresque illustrate. The light cared nothing about whether it was believable, allowing everything to depend on the effect. It instantly let its fictional ambition be seen.

The light in photography set itself distinctly apart from that theatrical creation of light. Here there were no sharp contrasts, but rather a conspicuous coherency in the light across the entire image. Moreover, the sky in 19th-century photography was completely inexpressive. It was an empty, black space without any definition, a vacuum beneath which the subject was all the more exposed in the image. The motif was here not supported by the polarity of contrasts, not borne by a dramatic resonating box, not loaded with the tension of cloud formations, not spread out under the dome of a generous play of light. It was suspended in empty space.

If indeed any light can be identified - the images were mostly photographed in a diffuse, even light, so you never notice it - it was not a fantasy draped around the subject, but light that physically touched it, not a contrived light, but perceived light, perceived on the motif being photographed. The light therefore had a different ontological status. It also shifted from the top of the image down to the bottom, from heaven to earth. It does not hang there, above and around the picture, but is permanently fixed to the building. The light here plays an entirely different role: it sculpts the motif, drills itself into the volume by taking advantage of the contrast between the between the segments in the light and segments in shadow. The light thus becomes an instrument with which to analyze the building according to different strategies, with a decorative surface outlined by shadow. The light does not give drama and atmosphere, but objectifies, analyzes and describes. Daveluy produced am image of this kind of the Bruges City Hall.

Usually, the light was indeed diffuse, and consequently neutral. It had been set to non-active. The subject matter was not, as it were, put into the light. Its vocabulary was not conjugated with light. It was an important instrument that the photographer here stepped away from. The image was therefore more restricted, but - remarkably - actually purer and more concentrated. We do not feel the absence of a pronounced sunlight as a shortcoming. The image sits there, in uniform grey, without preferences or appreciations, without an analytical ambition, describing, and also gathering together, compiling. This diffuse light united all the elements in the image, instead of making them independent and self-sufficient. The precise definition of a classicalist view of architecture, urban and visual structure (one thinks of the late 18th-century tradition of landscape drawing by Valenciennes, Jones and others) was here replaced by a light that slid the various parts together like an accolade, rather than setting one against the other. Diffuse light interpreted a city and its architecture quite differently than bright, focused sunlight.

The photographers did not create the light in their images, but they did make choices in deciding to take their pictures under certain conditions, in diffuse light or bright sunlight, in a certain season, at a certain time of day, when the sun stood at a specific point, or in certain types of weather conditions. The anonymous album by the Amateur-Photographe, consequently, is conspicuously sunny, the Neurdien pictures preferably taken in diffuse light, and those of the Historische Städtebilder in clear weather, but not strong sunlight - enough light for analysis, but not enough for expressive contrast.

The light in 19th-century urban photography does not provide atmosphere, but climate. Atmosphere is explicit and emotional - it promotes identification with a fantasy, as in the picturesque tradition. Climate is an implicit and presumed basis in the image, a given, not an expressive addition after the fact. This light gives the image a clarity that is sooner cold than warm, and that brings out the mineral characteristics of photography, instead of adding sensual texture. Here, light is not the complex storyteller that it was in the prints. It is more about a strict amount of light, a mass, a uniform quality of light in which the motif finds itself. Only around the end of the century, with the Gurlitt album, did light become the great - extremely subtle - constructor of the images.

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