Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Artificial Light: Flash Photography in the Twentieth Century. Diverse examples of flash Photography

Through August 3rd, 2014 at the Philadelphia Art Museum.

I’ve always tried to avoid the use of flash as a key light in my photography. It has a flattening effect on a subject that looks artificial. It results in the opposite of “modeling”, it destroys separation between foreground and background. In the work of Diane Arbus, Bruce Davidson, or Lisette Model, it just struck me as a necessary evil and I tried to look beyond it in their work.

The show currently at the Philadelphia Art Museum caught me off guard. It might be that putting together a collection of photographs that celebrates the use of flash caused me to check my prejudices at the door. At any rate, it’s a fine selection of pictures by artists whose work I already admired, but by concentrating on how each individual used flash, I began to understand the the aesthetics of this type of lighting and how it might be chosen as a way of expression rather than as a last resort.

I’m still not completely sold on most flash photography. I toiled too many years as a gaffer trying to keep the key light as far away from the lens as I could to not have a knee-jerk reaction when confronted with the flat lighting that results from simply affixing a light to the top of a camera.

But in many of the pictures in this show flash was used to isolate subjects from their backgrounds and extraneous elements around them. In the best examples the lighting did not have a flattening effect. Dimensionality, in fact, was enhanced. It accomplished what the best compositions do, it directed the viewer’s eye.

Unfortunately the show in Philadelphia does not explain how technique differs from photographer to photographer and between pictures. A well-curated show which uses a technical conceit as the unifying element is expected to at least mention something of the formal aspects of its examples. This curator does not. Information regarding what types of flash units were used, the placement of lights, and theories about lighting by the photographers would have made this show so much more relevant to the expectations its title set up. 

But the curator did do a good job of selecting photographers and introduced me to somebody new: Larry Fink. I am now a disciple of his. It’s funny how a name or term you’ve never heard of will then pop up again shortly after that first time, sometimes more than once. This happened when I opened a marketing email from the Aperture Foundation announcing a new book by Larry Fink: Larry Fink on Compositionand Improvisation. It is part of a trio of books by various photographers making up something called The Photography Workshop Series

So I bought Fink’s book. It is excellent. Fine printing of his photographs with short descriptions of what should have been in the Philadelphia show. He speaks of how he uses flash lighting, his philosophy of art, how he thinks as a photographer, and has inspiring advice for anyone that wants to improve his or her work.

I’ll speak more of his lighting in a later post, but for now I just want to add that what sets Fink apart from many of his contemporaries is his consistent off-center use of a flash unit. Either through the use of a cable or remote device, the light falling on his subjects is at least an arm’s length away from the camera lens. This is just enough to model faces and bodies and to get lighting variation on different individuals in his pictures. Also, he is evidently using a telephoto setting on his flash unit that is not as wide as the lens on his camera. This creates an irising effect on his photographs that further differentiates his work from most other photographers.

The book is marvelous, both educational and beautiful to look at.

No comments:

Post a Comment