In praise of shadows

I've been reading a beautiful book called 'In Praise of Shadows'.  It was written by the Japanese author and novelist Jun'ichirō Tanizaki and is considered a classic essay on Japanese aesthetics.

As a westerner, I find reading Tanizaki's book is opening up some thoughts for me about light, the way we use it in the west, and in particular, how varying levels can be employed to create a sense of quietness in our environment. Tanizaki talks at great length about the beauty of shadows.

Although his book may be more related to architecture design, I do feel that as a photographer, it's touched upon something that is close to my own heart: that of how I respond to my surroundings. In the days of old Japan, subdued lighting was used to give a sense of calm or 'quietness' to a space. Areas of shadow were an intentional and appreciated consideration to building design. My feelings are often influenced by the lighting of my environment, and I find that most modern, brightly lit places aren't relaxing places to be.

Shadows are the places where our imagination is given free reign. In Tanizaki's book, he delights in suggesting that the corner of ancient temples where very little light penetrates, allow the mind to find quietness and a space in which to dwell. While reading Tanizaki's thoughts, I couldn't help but feel I always knew this. I think that most of us do.  I just needed someone to spell it out for me. 

For instance, as a child, I remember being afraid of the dark and would ask for the hall light to remain on, because in the shadows I could see many possibilities. This is something most children do, and in my adult life as a photographer, I find I still see possibilities in areas of negative space or where shadows exist.


As I've progressed as a photographer, I've had to open my eyes to what is really before me. I have come to know that I am sensitive to light levels where initially I had no idea that I was. Shining a direct light into my eyes is tantamount to a pneumatic drill crowding my thoughts. I've despised overhead lighting for many years, for this very reason.  Likewise, on overly sunny days I may have the blinds lowered in my home to give the degree of visual comfort that I emotionally require.

This sensitivity to light, is something I try to imbue in my photographs. I think all visual artists should.

Tanizaki's book allows me to embrace this - I know now that shadows are beautiful and used carefully in one's work, they can add depth as well as mystery. They also give me space for my imagination to roam free.

As a visual artist, I understand that my surroundings are important to me, not just because they are the subjects of my photography, but because the qualities of light they possess influence it in ways that I was never truly aware of, until I read this book.

Many thanks to Jeff Bannon for recommending this book to me.