Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Light. Shadows. Color.

Plaza Shadow, 2008

A neighbor of mine who has become a very technically proficient photographer is trying to develop his right brain skills. He’s a very detail-oriented person, retired from a career in a highly detail-oriented organization. By his own admission, he’s conditioned to notice a lot of what’s going on around him, but purely as information. He wants to be able to create more contemplative photographs.

In the course of his daily travels this neighbor came upon another neighbor who is a painter. Mostly portraits. When he mentioned to her his desire to become more attuned to the artistic opportunities of photography, she suggested three exercises for him.

The first is this: for two weeks, spend fifteen minutes each day paying attention to the light. Notice where it’s coming from. Notice how the direction from which it comes changes the way things look throughout the day. Notice the color of light at different times and in different places.

The second exercise: for the next two weeks spend fifteen minutes each day paying attention to the shadows. Notice where they occur, how the shapes of things affect them and how they change throughout the day.

Finally, spend fifteen minutes each day for the next two weeks just noticing the colors of things.

Sometimes when people approach photography for the first time, they become obsessed about equipment. They think the right camera or the right lens will make their photographs better. Of course, one must have equipment capable of capturing whatever it is you’re trying to capture in the picture. But I think we all know that it’s the photographer’s eye that really counts.

I was giving some thought recently to trying my hand at conducting a photography workshop at a local community center. I thought I might combine some classroom time with a series of photo walks. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that the most important thing to impart in such a workshop would not be about how to use a camera, but rather how to become more mindful of one’s surroundings.

I used to take it for granted that people who like photography are generally observant. But I know now that this is not the case. Last summer my wife and I were out to dinner with another neighbor, a retired vascular surgeon, and his wife. When the condensation on one of the drink glasses caused the ink on a cocktail napkin underneath the glass to run, the image it created as it spread across the paper was like a river delta. My wife and I were fascinated at how the moisture and the blue ink spread in a pattern so much like something from nature.

The doctor leaned over to his wife and expressed amazement that we noticed such a thing. “Isn’t that interesting that they see such things? I’d have never noticed that.”

I’ll be interested to see if and how my other neighbor’s photography changes as he becomes more attuned to the dynamics of light, shadows and colors. The three exercises the painter suggested may be as close to meditation as he’s ever gotten. But I do believe that if he’s faithful to the exercises he can indeed become more mindful of his surroundings.

The photograph above is one I took in New York some years ago. I was standing at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street and happened to look up and see how the morning light had cast a severe shadow across the eastern façade of the Plaza Hotel.

Light. Shadows. Color. Without them, we’re nothing.


  1. Enjoyed your post and especially your last sentence. I love the play of light and shadows and often see things other people don't... no wait, that came out wrong

  2. Those are great ideas for photography assignments. And yes, many people go through the world without really seeing it. Boy, do they miss alot!