On Depth and Shadow

Life is a three dimension ordeal, at least for us common folk;) We navigate this world with a sense of depth taking us farther from or closer to objects. Depth is also related to time in our life, since we tend to think of the past and the future in terms of it.

Photography, as an art form, tries to depict life as we see it, but it has an inherent limitation in doing so and that is its two dimensional nature. Traditional photography’s output is a piece of paper of x height and y width and that is about it. Depth is lost and the attempt is to recreate it through composition and the use of right lenses and apertures. Lenses are usually praised for their “3D pop”, i.e. the fact that they afford the viewer a sense of the lost depth. Using wider apertures, especially on larger sensor cameras, creates what is called “bokeh”, which separates the (in focus) foreground from the (out of focus) background, again in an attempt to show the lost depth.

So we have a 3D subject (Life) which we are trying to depict with a 2D tool (Photography). Is it an exercise in futility? Hardly, but there are other approaches as well. Instead of trying to overcome the tool’s innate deficiency, sometimes photographers use this very deficiency to their advantage, by employing the services of something called Shadow!

Shadows have always captured our fancy, if anything because of the unknown they seem to harbour. As I was shooting passers by in a busy street corner one afternoon, I pointed the lens downward and shot their shadows and I thought to myself that in the presence of light we all become shadows. Colors, no matter how bright, fade into black. Sizes become all but irrelevant, hard to judge and a function of light itself; not of physical attributes. Directions, whether on land or in life, become meaningless – all of us cast parallel shadows. Shadows are the great equalizer…

Using shadows in photography is nothing new, but it always enthuses me to think of ways to employ shadows in order to (either subtly or in an exaggerated way) state my point.

Shooting against the sun creates deep blacks and essentially sucks the depth out of the image; that is why we were always told to shoot with the sun behind us! People become two dimensional characters and the attempt to depict life is shifted to a different playing field, one that fits photography as a medium, i.e. its home court.

If freezing a moment it time is the domain of this art, taking the depth out of an image goes a long way towards reaching that goal, if indeed we think of depth as a dimension in time as well as space. Again, the photographer can use a weakness of the medium as an advantage.

Also, one can mess with depth and its perception by using shadows, since they have a life of their own, regardless of how we expect objects to behave visually. When I was shooting people of all sorts, sizes and looks, walking in every direction, their shadows were singing a different tune and telling a different story altogether, hence my view of them as an equalizer.

Depth and Shadow can be proxies for life and art, entwined in an endless embrace which can be viewed both as battle and as dance. It is up to the photographer and, of course, the viewer to think, to feel, to create, to design, to see, to decide.