“Light is to the photographer what words are to the writer; color and paint to the painter; wood, metal, stone, or clay to the sculptor,” the 20th Century photographer Andreas Feininger once wrote, “Yet most photographers take light for granted, evaluating it quantitatively but not qualitatively, paying little or no attention to it except to make sure that its level is sufficiently high to permit a hand-held exposure.”
In the digital age, his passage holds true. It’s easy to forget the role of light when most pictures are no longer made with light-sensitive silver salts.
Still, the best photographers are those who heed the light. We asked seven contemporary photographers across different genres to tell us about their favorite spot to chase shadows. From Beirut to NYC, Madrid to Guatemala, these artists shared their most sacred sites for high contrast, dark shadows, and bright light.
Melissa Breyer: A canyon of skyscrapers may seem an unlikely place for exciting light, but I love what the sun does in lower Manhattan, especially within the buildings themselves. The public spaces inside some of the offices and other towers are a playground for light.
Lofty lobbies and a lot of glass allow light to sneak in and ricochet around, and the spaces are complicated enough that they become a crazy mosaic of shadow and illumination: silky spills of black and spotlights. Add in some people, and the scenes become wonderfully, unpredictably dynamic. Sometimes the light is assertive, sometimes soft, but it’s always at play with shadows. It never fails to make my heart race a bit.
Mirko Saviane: If I have to choose just one place, I would choose the square (“campo” would be the right term) of the water tower in Burano, Italy. It is one of the largest squares of Burano and is far enough away from the more touristy areas. The water tower projects its huge shadow on the field. It’s like a clock hand: with each passing hour, it’s always creating new, large areas of shadows and constantly changing the “playing field.”
This place is special because it can add an additional element to the picture: action! The huge area of the square is in fact sometimes used by children to play soccer. Going to this place when schools are closed for holidays increases the likelihood of having all the elements to make a shot like this one.
Eric Mencher: One of my very favorite places for making high contrast pictures is San Marcos La Laguna, Guatemala. This tiny Mayan village, where I’ve been living part of the year for the last seven years, is on the northern shore of Lake Atitlan, an amazing body of water surrounded by three volcanoes. From sunrise to sunset, almost every scene facing south along the water’s edge is backlit. And it often looks into a hazy backdrop created by low lying clouds and a micro climate that sees strong winds cross the lake every day at noon. It’s a dramatic scene that easily lends itself to high contrast photography.
Jason Peterson: My favorite places for capturing shadows are concrete skate parks in bright midday light. I love overexposing in broad daylight. The mid-tones go white, and the shadows go black. People always ask me how I shoot these. It’s pretty simple really.
José Luis Barcia: My favorite place to take these kind of photos is the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid. I love shooting in the courtyard of the Nouvel building. It is a very open space, with incredible entrances and frequent traffic. The light passes through the openings of the roof, projecting rectangles of light and large spaces of shadow, which scroll through the walls and floor of the courtyard, creating a unique atmosphere.
I especially like the harsh midday light, which emphasizes lines and angles, and I used to take underexposured shots to get those contrasted, deep shadows. The predominant color of the patio is red, and the materials of the facade range from stone to steel to glass, aluminum or composites, so you can also play with the textures of the walls and with the reflections.
Richard ‘Koci’ Hernandez: My favorite place is not really one specific place but anywhere with a high perspective, looking down during the right time of day. Early morning and late afternoon usually create great shadow play and provides really strong geometry and composition. The great thing about always thinking about shooting from a higher perspective is that it can be done almost anywhere. The perspective is always interesting.
© Alan Schaller
Alan Schaller: I feel the Tate Modern in London was almost built with photographers in mind. The architecture varies from smooth curves to severe edges, and it is completed with dramatic lighting. There is plenty of glass and concrete, which helps create nice textures and layers. There are no shortage of subjects to place within the backdrops. It’s a bit of a playground for me, and whenever I’m in London, I check in there a few times.
Serge Najjar: I remember the first day of 2014. I had spent New Year’s Eve at home with my wife because we had no one to take care of our newborn while all our friends partied. I went to take photos early morning around 7:00 AM, and I found myself under two bridges, with light passing through.
Two little boys were with their father, playing with balloons. The scenery felt magical because they were emerging from the darkness and creating a strong contrast with the morning light. As the younger boy was reaching for his balloon, I took the picture, and I remember thinking that the coincidence couldn’t’ve been better because my wife had just given me the most beautiful gift of all. This little boy was the symbol of my new role as a father.
I got into the habit of going under this bridge every New Year, perhaps in search of other moments like that one. But coincidences cannot be anticipated, of course. I take a few shots there because the light is as beautiful as it was that morning in 2014. Capturing moments of innocence and joy are a blast for a photographer, especially when these scenes are as meaningful symbolically as they are aesthetically.