Light has been fundamental to art for centuries predating the camera. However, utilizing realistic and impactful light — an objective of many photographers and artists today — wasn’t always the case.
Photography has seen many labelled “masters of light” over the decades; Henri Cartier-Bresson, Fan Ho, Richard Avedon, Sabastiao Salgado, Bill Cunningham, Ansel Adams — and these are just off the top of my head. My knowledge of the art world, insofar as painting in particular, is almost nonexistent, but I suspect there have been as many or more in the same time frame. Nevertheless, Renaissance era art didn’t necessarily treat it in the same way. Many scenes were what we would regard today as flat, or if they have contrast, many seemed unrealistic. That isn’t to say photo-realism (a term that obviously didn’t exist at the time) was the goal of the painters, though some appeared to aim at it. There was one artist, however, who seemed to master light — particularly dramatic lighting — before many others: Caravaggio
In another wonderful video essay by Nerdwriter1, we are shown the work and life of Caravaggio, one of Italy’s most famous — and infamous — artists of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. His style of painting is much discussed, and that is an interesting topic, but what’s more interesting to me, and more pertinent to us as photographers and videographers, is his use of light and shadow. His masterful and realistic application of golden hour light and low-key scenes gave mood and drama to his images in a way few others had. As art historian Andre Berne-Joffroy put it: “What begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting.” Curiously, it also shares many characteristics of successful photojournalism and street photography over the last 100 years.
Was Caravaggio the first master of light? Was he drastically ahead of his time with his approach to how scenes are lit for mood and drama? Art History majors, now is your time. Share your thoughts in the comments section below.