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Light can tell a story: street photography, painting, cinema

March 7, 2021

Paint your street photography with a great light and good photos will come to you. I think that it is difficult (even impossible) to take a wonderful photo with a bad light. But you can take a bad photo with good light. We have a lot of examples in photography, painting and cinema that show us the importance of light. In reportage and street photography I have in mind the work of Trent Park, an extraordinary Magnum photographer always in searching for good light. But the first inspiration before photography and cinema is as usual painting. I think to Rembrandt and Caravaggio, masters in chiaroscuro. “Quality” of light is important also in the De Chirico’s works who painted scene set in late afternoon. When I talk about the importance of light I mean different things as color, intensity, direction, contrast…

Light in street photography and reportage

I’m writing about street photography but obviously it is the same for  landscapes, portraits and so on… I’ve in mind the awesome works of Trent Parke, an australian photographer working for Magnum. I love his works with contrasted black and white. As you can see by yourself in the following examples light is always particular and important in Trent Parkes’ photos: it may be essential for the mood or to create silhouettes or can be the essential element in a scene as the last photo posted below.

light street photography cinema painting
Trent Parke, MAGNUM PHOTOS

Shadows and surreal situation.

light street photography cinema painting
Trent Parke, MAGNUM PHOTOS

Silhouettes.

light street photography cinema painting
Trent Parke, MAGNUM PHOTOS

Science fiction?

light street photography cinema painting
Trent Parke, MAGNUM PHOTOS

Again silhouettes.

light street photography cinema painting
Trent Parke, MAGNUM PHOTOS

Rain and sun together.

light street photography cinema painting
Trent Parke, MAGNUM PHOTOS

Mysticism and surrealism at the same time.

light street photography cinema painting
Trent Parke, MAGNUM PHOTOS

Books I recommend for black and white: Dream/Life (out of stock), Minutes to midnight. For colors I suggest the most recent Crimson line (currently out of stock, probably new edition soon available).

Light in cinema

The following frame is taken from Citizen Kane, the masterpiece directed by the legendary Orson Welles. In this case light is used to get a wonderful scene with awesome contrast and silhouettes but it plays also a particular role. In fact it is the real protagonist of that scene, representing in such way “the search for the truth”. 

Mank cinematography
Citizen Kane by Orson Welles

One of my favorite director of photography is John Alton famous for black and white noir movies. I’m referring to titles like The big combo, T-men, Raw deal, He walked by night (probably the movie I most like among these for cinematography) in which he made beautiful play of lights and shadows to create suspence and mystery like in the following frame.

light street photography cinema painting
he walked by night – Bryan Foy Productions
light street photography cinema painting
he walked by night – Bryan Foy Productions
light street photography cinema painting
he walked by night – Bryan Foy Productions

Here is an iconic frame taken from final sequence of The big combo. He used light to create silhouettes in a wonderful minimal and surreal sequence. Scene is essential.

light street photography cinema painting
The big combo – Allied Artist

One of my favorite DOP in making silhouettes against brilliant colors is Rodger Deakins (Award Academy winner for Blade Runner 2049 and 1917).

light street photography cinema painting
1917 -Amblin Partners, DreamWorks Pictures, Neal Street Productions, New Republic Pictures

 

light street photography cinema painting
Blade Runner 2049 -Alcon Entertainment, Columbia Pictures, Bud Yorkin Productions, Torridon Films, 16:14 Entertainment, Scott Free Productions

 

light street photography cinema painting
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert -FordVirtual Studios, Plan B Entertainment, Scott Free Productions

 

light street photography cinema painting
Sicario – Black Label Media, Thunder Road Pictures

These are only few examples about the use of light in cinema as storytelling.

Light in painting

A masterpiece painted by Caravaggio: La vocazione di San Matteo (San Luigi dei francesi, Rome) is one of the greatest example of the use of light in painting. Who is Matteo in this image? A man sitting at the table is pointing himself, Christ is pointing someone but we can’t understand who. Probably Matteo is the man with the money who notices anything. Light is coming from the upper right corner. Does it enter from a window or through a wall? We don’t know this. It looks like a mystic light that represents the divine will that breaks into the scene to show the truth. This is the perfect example I had in mind when I wrote the title of this article: light can tell a story. Like the previous Citizen Kane’s famous frame also in this painting light can represent the search for truth. 

Light street photography
Caravaggio, Vocazione di San Matteo

It’s impossible talking about light in painting without a mention to Rembrandt‘s works. He was a master in “chiaroscuro technique” painting the contrast between lights and shadows to tell a story… Look how light gives drama and life to the following scene.

Rembrandt street photography

 

The impressionists painted pictures trying to represent the different changes of light which is again a great protagonist of the scene. I’m thinking to Monet, for example, the best exponent of this movement.

light street photography cinema painting
Claude Monet
light street photography cinema painting
Claude Monet

What about Vincent Van Gogh? He used colors and light to express powerful emotions and himself. In his paintings light is unreal because his primary function is not the reproduction of reality but the interiority of the artist, his thoughts and feelings about something. He is an expressionist.

light street photography cinema painting
Vincent Van Gogh
light street photography cinema painting
Vincent Van Gogh

Talking about expressionism and light I have to mention a wonderful self portrait with a cigarette painted by Edvard Munch. In this piece the painter decided to paint light as it comes from below giving drama and a spectral aspect to the self portrait. I love the wonderful contrast in this picture created by lights and shadows. Thanks to the particular use of light this painting is able to represent the artist and his style. In this way halo shadow, common also in other Munch’s works, creates a sense of omen and menace.

light street photography cinema painting
Edvard Munch

These are only few examples of how light can tell a story in pictures. I hope you’ll study better the argument by yourself!

 

 

That’s all folks

 

 Stay well, have always light in your life

 

Best, F.S

 

Read previous article about color:

Complementary colors: cinema, photography and art

Red in art, painting and cinema here

Orange in cinema

 Yellow in cinema

 

read also:

Social classes and racism: street photography and cinema

Underground: street photography, street art and cinema

The midnight meat train: cinema and street photography

The wonderful photography in Federico Fellini’s movies

 

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