In this essay, I intend to investigate how photographers use reflections and shadows as a way of achieving intriguing and compelling compositions in photography. I also plan to study the opposing theme of light and how that’s juxtaposed with the darkness of the shadow to transform the composition of a photograph, and how this could change the entire message of the piece itself. By the conclusion of this essay, I will have explored a variety of differences between the use of the light and the shadow in the composition of a photograph to direct the gaze of the viewer.
One reason I chose this theme is because I’m fascinated by the myriad ways the darkness of the shadows in certain photographs can be interpreted by the viewer. Depending on how the shadows are constructed in the composition of the piece, the ultimate interpretation lies with the viewer when deciding what the photographer intended when they created the piece. For example, if the photograph was of a person and half of their face was partially covered by a shadow, the viewer might consider the origins of the shadow and the possible representations. For example, the shadow could represent a malevolent side to an otherwise charismatic character.
Another reason is my interest in the way the shadows interact with the world, in particular the infinite possibilities of the symbolism. One photograph containing shadows can mean something completely different and even opposite to another photograph containing the same shadows from a different angle, such as when time passes and the light’s direction moves due to the altered position of the sun.
One relevant example of the use of light and shadow in photographs is in the photographer Rupert Vandervell’s work. Vandervell’s monochromatic photographs are compelling, as the stark use of contrast in the light and the shadow is apparent not only in their juxtaposition, but the people within the compositions. The people appear to be going about their daily lives, walking to a destination in one direction or another. They intrigue me because as a viewer of his works, I am not only curious about the placement of the light and shadow on the people, but I am also left to wonder what their purpose is; Where are they going? Who are they? What are their intentions? These questions I ask myself when viewing his photography are what I think make Vandervell’s photographs more interesting and gripping. Based on the composition and location of the photograph, maybe the person could be meeting an intimidating individual by a derelict and desolate pier to discuss pressing matters regarding an ominous situation.
“Man on Earth” - Rupert Vandervell 
One of his photographs titled “Man on Earth” is a prime example of this. In the foreground, you can see the industrial bridge above a body of water behind a lighter crane like fixture, situated almost in the middle of the photograph. However, this initially mundane composition leads the viewer’s eye in a path to the person in the lightest section of the piece. The eye is automatically drawn to this area with the help of this fixture and the angles of the lines, which also help guide the eye towards the centre. The person in this lightest part contrasts because of the shadow they are practically consumed by. This in itself leads me to wonder who this person is and what their life is like. The only way we see them is here; walking to the left towards an ambiguous destination only they know about, shrouded in mystery by the shadow cast upon them as they walk past this bridge.
This take on the chiaroscuro technique in photography offers an edgier and darker aspect of the inner workings of the photographer’s mind, especially when used for a monochromatic photograph. A monochromatic photograph I believe also offers a darker approach, as there is a perfect simplicity to only using a monochromatic tonal range that builds upon and compliments the possibilities within the symbolism available for this limited colour scheme.
Reflections to me are fascinating, as so many parts of ourselves are revealed within them. For example, I believe it is a pertinent part of how we perceive ourselves. Mirrors are there to reflect to us what we look like every day, and depending on the day it could be either a positive or a negative perception. The use of mirrors in photography is an excellent way of portraying this self-perception. One example of this is in Duane Michals’ photographs of a woman holding a circular mirror.
Heisenberg’s Magic Mirror of Uncertainty - Duane Michals 
These photographs show the many reflections of a woman’s face in different positions. The way her reflection in the convex mirror is distorted is symbolic of how someone could perceive themselves. I like how the distortions appear to show a negative perception of the woman, as though she has an underlying sinister side, warping her potential perception of self in a malevolent fashion. The monochromatic colour scheme also amplifies and exaggerates the negative connotations of this series of photographs, as I believe it forces you as a viewer to wonder if there even is a positive message conveyed. It intrigues me how even though this is what I think and feel when looking at Michals’ work, he perhaps originally meant something entirely diverse when composing and taking these photographs.
His original idea for these photographs titled “Dr. Heisenberg’s Magic Mirror of Uncertainty” was to illustrate “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle”, a popular and widespread theory in physics. This theory states how the position and velocity of a particle cannot be predicted in any certain terms, and that the particles interact in total chaos. Being a person who knows little about physics beyond the basic information, I struggled to understand this theory when researching Michals’ work, although this is my guess of what it could mean. It intrigues me how he used it to add more symbolism, depth and dimension to his piece.
My response to Michals’ work
My response to Michals’ work is above. Using Photoshop, I used the liquify tool to manipulate the reflection in the mirror so that it was distorted and warped. My aim was to create a similar composition to Michals’ photographs, in order to have a similar symbolism. I believe that despite my attempt to do this, the symbolism would still differ slightly due to the difference in the angle of the reflections, which was caused by my height in comparison to the mirror’s.
Another photographer who uses a monochromatic tonal range in his photographs is Karl Blossfeldt, who is famous for his close up photography of natural forms. Natural forms are the main focus of my first photography project, and because of this I decided to study his works as he was one of the first photographers I discovered. Blossfeldt’s photographs show a plant or flower as the subject. However, instead of the plants being photographed as they are, they seem to be in a structured and almost sterile setting given the plain background in his photographs. This influences the viewer to focus on just the plant, and all of its details.
“Feverfew (Chrysanthemum Parthenium)” - Karl Blossfeldt 
This particular photograph by Blossfeldt is just one of many of his works in which he takes a close up macro photograph of a natural form against a minimalist background. There is a variety of tone and contrast, despite the lack of colour. In fact, this photograph only uses a monochromatic tonal range of two colours: black and white.
This monochromatic tonal range, in tandem with his use of contrast shows the plant in such a light that it could have a darker symbolism within the photograph. For example, could the shadows in this natural form lead the viewer to believe this photograph has a sinister implication? Moreover, the use of colour is also important. If this plant had all of its colour within the photograph, would the symbolism change entirely? Especially if the shadow mentioned earlier was not as dark and noticeable. If the darkness of the shadow was changed, would the photograph have a more positive interpretation?
In its current state, I believe there are many ways the viewer could interpret the symbolism of this photograph. One example might be that the leaf somehow symbolises the death of nature due to the increasing amount of artificial architecture, and the effect this is having on the earth’s environment. To me, this is ironic because Blossfeldt’s natural forms are often used by architects to facilitate the development of their work.
Another way this could be interpreted is in the use of colour. If the photograph wasn’t taken early in the twentieth century when cameras could only take monochromatic photographs, then the lack of colour (if it was intentional) could symbolise how some of us might not see the beauty in the little things. Some of this beauty is in the colour of the subject, and the fact that there’s no colour in this photograph indicates a sense of loss. The viewer is struggling to see the beauty within the nature surrounding them and because of this, they only see the darker and symbolically negative part of what is a fantastic natural form.
“Centrepoint” - Abigail Reynolds 
Another artist whose work also inspires me is Abigail Reynolds. Looking at her work, I notice that the spliced pieces cast a shadow onto certain areas of her piece. This three dimensional way of using paper and photographs adds depth to not just her original intention and symbolism but to the piece itself; there is more to look at regarding how the shadows affect the piece. Not only that, but she uses both colourful and monochromatic photographs in her pieces. This also adds an extra dimension due to the variations in tone and saturation in the cut out sections. THe patterns she uses in her work also replicates the patterns found in nature. For example, a blooming lotus flower.
I attempted to create the same effect she did in my spliced pieces, using the same technique. The photographs I used were not only inspired by Karl Blossfeldt’s photography, but they were also of a differing subject matter in comparison, which would consequently affect the symbolism to reflect the subject.
There are also unique ways to portray the appropriate symbolism with the use of colour in photographs. One unique way is in the use of colour spotting, where only one part of a photograph is in colour. For example, a single rose in a bride’s bouquet.
The photographers I have mentioned throughout the essay have only portrayed shadows and reflections in a traditional way, through clicking that trigger on their camera of choice to take a photograph. However, there are more methods and techniques of photography that are not only different in themselves, but they also offer a different style and look to the piece itself. One example of such a method is the use of ultraviolet sunlight to create what are known as “Cyanotypes”. Cyanotype prints also offer a unique way of using a monochromatic colour scheme in the form of blue and white prints.
Cyanotype photograms are a type of print created through the use of photo-sensitive paper or ink that by using light creates a negative print of what was on top of the material. For example, a branch on the paper would create a white print of that same branch in the same way it was placed. I decided to study this particular technique because it used the sunlight in a practical way as opposed to just taking a photograph of it or the shadows. Photographers, artists and printmakers who have used this method have used various different objects in their works to achieve a particular effect in their cyanotypes, whether it be various natural forms from the seaside coast or a number of negative film strips. All of the objects create different effects, although they’re created in the same way.
“Rayographs” - Man Ray 
Emmanuel Radnitzky, or Man Ray as he is most famously known, is a visual artist who used various different mundane everyday objects to create photograms, or “Rayographs” as he called them. These rayographs used the same process as cyanotypes, but the resulting photograms appear to have finished black and white instead of the blue and white that is typical of a cyanotype. This adds a desaturated touch to his works. I assume that he created them in a dark room using normal photographic paper, as well as a projector, an enlarger and photo-sensitive developer. Looking at his pieces, I feel as though there’s a sense of detachment between the objects used and the reality of what they’re for. It’s as though they’re taken in a way that preserves them yet also shows them in an experimental way, as though there’s still plenty of use left in them. The colour and the contrast also affect the overall symbolism, because the way they’re not all completely black and white symbolises how life is. These objects represent what a person would typically use in a lifetime in the past, and nothing in life is ever in black and white. There are always grey areas in which there is confusion as to how a situation should be handled.
I created cyanotypes for both of my portfolio projects. While researching the use of cyanotypes and creating them myself, I discovered a variety of artists, photographers and printmakers who used this printing technique. Two of these people are Mollie Bosworth and Meghann Riepenhoff, and they both create cyanotypes. However, they both have different approaches to their work.
Bosworth’s cyanotypes typically consist of different kinds of natural forms. Her work I believe in contrast to Riepenhoff’s is less expressive and has bolder lines. However, the subjects can be seen easily due to the amount of contrast in some of her pieces.
“Of Shadows and Light” - Mollie Bosworth 
In this particular piece, she has used 45 silk panels with individual cyanotype works on them to add extra depth to her work. Although each piece of silk has a different print, they are not all noticeable due to the blue blocking out certain white areas of the other layers of silk behind. Due to the silk not being completely opaque, the layers underneath still peek through certain sections of the piece. This, along with the natural forms used as subjects in this particular piece remind me of a densely filled rainforest.
“Littoral Drift” - Meghann Riepenhoff 
Riepenhoff I believe has a looser approach to her cyanotype technique than Bosworth’s. As you can see in her piece “Littoral Drift”, the location of the white areas offers an erratic opposite of a symmetrical pattern. Her process for this sees her use photo-sensitive paper at a beach, where she dips them into the sea and lets the water and sand affect the way each individual sheet looks. The end result is a random set of completed cyanotypes arranged into squares, in what is reminiscent of a grid where the pieces seem to be in the incorrect places. This use of the grid reminds me of an attempt to try and keep the disorderly in order. However, with nature this is just not possible. The sea by nature is a pattern of waves going in and out because of the tide. None of the waves created due to this are the same size or the same length. This in conjunction with the nature of the cyanotype creating process adds to the unpredictable look of each square on the grid in this piece.
One of August Strindberg’s Celestographs (left)  and my response (right)
The composition of Riepenhoff’s amazing piece reminds me of the celestographs created by August Strindberg. August Stindberg is a playwright and author who is also famous for creating these celestographs, such as the one above on the left. His belief was that he was capturing the stars with his work, although this is a topic under scrutiny by scientists, who believed that the celestographs were only capturing the surrounding particles whilst they developed. To me, both hypotheses seem plausible, and the fact that both ideas could have been feasible yet veiled in ambiguity suggests there is more to Strindberg’s celestographs than upon first glance.
My response to Strindberg’s work is not a celestograph, but this thought process could also be applied to it. I could have been mistaken about capturing the weather, as he might have been about capturing the stars in his work. There is no concrete evidence to suggest for certain whether or not we both captured the stars and the dull rainy weather respectively, but it is up to us as creative minds to convince and persuade the viewer of our work (who might possibly be more scientifically inclined) that we did so deliberately.
For decades, Strindberg managed to persuade people viewing his work into believing that he actually captured the stars. By convincing the viewer in the same way that the dull weather was for all intents and purposes captured into my own cyanotype, then maybe they will perceive for themselves that I have done so too.
I like the process of creating these cyanotypes, as the sunlight is used in a more practical way than merely using its light for photographs. This way of creating a piece offers a unique approach to printmaking that results in a negative image of the object on top of the photo-sensitive material. However, despite its chemical properties that facilitate the development of these prints, there are drawbacks.
One of these drawbacks is that unless you own an ultraviolet blacklight, then you’ll be unable to develop these cyanotype images unless you had a bright warm sunny day. Being a resident of the United Kingdom (especially Manchester), unless it’s the middle of Summer, these sunny days are unfortunately hard to come by. This made creating cyanotypes a challenge, as I don’t own a blacklight. This forced me to rely on what little natural light there was outdoors to attempt to create the cyanotype.
Throughout this essay, I’ve explained a variety of ways a photographer can use chiaroscuro to manipulate the meaning and symbolism of their work. From the stark contrast used in Rupert Vandervell’s photographs to the three dimensional splicing of Abigail Reynolds’s pieces, there are definitely many ways and means of achieving any composition a photographer has in mind when creating their work.
I have also explored how the artist or photographer describes their pieces to the viewer, and how they demonstrate their thought processes to direct and guide the viewer to the desired symbolism and interpretation of their piece. They would do this within their work by using the visual elements such as line, tone and texture to their advantage. One clear example is in Rupert Vandervell’s “Man On Earth”.
The viewer’s eye is immediately drawn to the lightest part of the piece, the middle. Everywhere else within the composition is much darker in order to make this lighter area more apparent, where the subject is seen walking. I believe Vandervell did this on purpose when creating this photograph, as the lighter area makes the subject stand out against the darker tones of the rest of the composition. By doing this, he has led the viewer to wonder what the person in the middle is walking toward, which he did using brightness, contrast and exposure. Vandervell’s clever use of these visual elements, in particular the chiaroscuro guided the viewer to an ambiguous conclusion by closing off the edges of the composition with a dark foreground, obscuring the subject’s path and destination. Maybe by creating a descriptive explanation of this photograph, he could divert the viewer’s attention to a different conceptual understanding of it, just like any other artist or photographer could do with their work.
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