Light is not only a basic condition for photographic process but also a versatile tool for photographic image-making and a metaphorical agent for photographic expression. In a cross-cultural context, there are universal but complex religious interpretations of light phenomena; light has been associated with mystical experience and alchemical process and has been symbolic of enlightenment or salvation. In literature light implies many ideas, e.g. the "colorless all-color of atheism" (Helville) and the "inexplicable" human condition (Beckett). Current attitudes toward light, generated by advances in technology, dominate fading religious concerns.
Among twentieth century photographers, C.H. White and George Seeley used light to express traditional values which Alfred Stieglitz discarded in favor of personal, unverbalized meaning; Minor White evolved a systematized approach to the meaning of light. Edward Weston, in comparison, considered light in a utilitarian context: light was not a subject in its own right but instead aided the explication of the subject's essence.
Two artists who have expanded current understanding of light in art in general are Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Dan Flavin. Moholy thought of light as a separate medium for artistic expression and as a link between technology and the arts. Flavin, using common fluorescent tubes, directs the viewer's attention away from the glowing object and toward the viewer's own reaction to light as phenomenon. In both cases secondary meaning is eliminated in favor of utilitarian and phenomenological considerations.
Among contemporary photographers, Ray Metzker uses light, based on perception, to elicit nonverbal, visceral understanding of eternal human dilemmas. Roger Mertin, using light in an intuitive, responsive way, switches attention from the meaning of light in the photograph to the effect of light on the film. The dichotomy between light as utilitarian but noteworthy tool and light as agent of perception and meaning continues, although traditional connotations of light have dwindled.
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UNM Department of Art and Art History
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Van Deren Coke
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Seiberling, Christopher. "Aspects of Light in Photography." (1975). https://digitalrepository.unm.edu/arth_etds/88