In Praise of Shadows in Street Photography

To write a blog post I enjoy switching on my computer in the morning and be greeted by another splendid landscape from Microsoft on the start-up screen. Mostly, the photos are well chosen: spectacular icebergs or beautiful rolling countryside. But today’s image of trees on a tropical beach was almost entirely devoid of shadows, even in the deepest shade. In this age of HDR (high dynamic range) it’s time I leapt to the defence of shadows.

I would not, of course, be the first person to do so. Most famously, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, in his 48-page essay “In’ei raisan,” (In Praise of Shadows, 1933-34) wrote poetically of the rapid disappeance of shadows from the Tokyo cityscape. All the shadows fled before the onslaught of electric light, a Western invention that destroyed the conditions necessary for viewing Japanese paintings, houses, theatrical performances, and even the rice served in lacquerware bowls.

Wrote Tanizaki: “…only in dim half-light is the true beauty of Japanese lacquerware revealed.” “Our cooking depends upon shadows and is inseparable from darkness.”

The Mystery of Shadows
In photography, shadow is every bit as important as light. Deep shade makes us appreciate the well lit areas of an image; it provides essential contrast without which the illuminated parts make very little sense. Even in a high-key portrait, there has to be a hint of shadow, here and there, to delineate the face and show that lips and eyebrows are darker than surrounding skin.

The fashion in photography for HDR will probably disappear when people become tired of it. Nine times out of ten it looks wrong, whether in landscapes, cityscapes or interiors. This is because it’s almost entirely artificial, generated by computer calculation.

While it’s OK to “lift the shadows” so we can see in the photo what the eye sees in reality, it’s not often acceptable to banish shadows completely. They contribute more to the image than you may at first suppose. They set free the onlooker’s imagination, stimulating a vital response which is fundamental to the appreciation of any work of art.

In his novels and short stories, Tanizaki liked to leave as much as possible to the reader’s imagination, guiding it with hints and suggestions rather than directing it with detailed description. There is no reason why the street photographer should not do the same, even though a modern digital camera captures detail with utmost precision. Mystery can occupy parts of the photo, replacing some of the extraneous information that gets revealed when we chase away the shadows.

Shadows in Chinatown
In homage to Tanizaki I’ve called my featured image (above) “In Praise of Shadows.” It’s one of my favourite images from Chinatown in Bangkok, partly because the subject is clearly not typically Chinese. In itself, this fact gives the image (in my eyes, at least, because I know the location) a sense of mystery. But the mystery is accentuated by the deep shadow which conceals another figure and the interior of a shop.

The bright sunlit area on the left becomes connected to the deep shadow by the roll of purple material on the beat-up scooter. Light and shadow need each other in this picture!

When I took the photo I was very conscious that the man’s face was half-concealed by shadow. That and the purple roll are what attracted me to the subject. Fortunately, the image is balanced by the scooter’s illuminated handlebars and the sloping bamboo cane. They draw our eye to the scooter’s unusually capacious bag which leaves little room for the rider’s legs. Whatever does he carry in such a bag?

Go Where the Shadows Are
It would be easy to ruin the picture by dampening the highlights and filling in the shadows so that we can see more detail in both. With my love of shadows I can resist this temptation and leave you wondering about the missing content. The man with the beard has raised his sunglasses to see more clearly in the shade, but we don’t need to do the same. The shop has no artificial light so why should we make it brighter than it really is?

Here’s another image (above) which conceals more than it shows. On first glance you can see only the orange pillar and the main subject who is resting her arm on a box. As your eyes become accustomed to the shadow you may become aware of two other figures: a woman with a colourful dress and, in the background, a man silhouetted against the pale light of the interior.

In this case, there is no balancing object to stop our eyes wandering off to the left, but it doesn’t seem to matter too much. We’re anchored to the right by the pillar against which the subject is leaning. It gives the impression we’re “on her side,” whatever thoughts she may be having. Do those thoughts include the man in the distance or someone even further away? When an image raises lots of questions it holds our attention and goes beyond the superficial appeal of visual entertainment.

At the end of his essay, Tanizaki writes: “I have written all this because I have thought that there might still be somewhere, possibly in literature or the arts, where something could be saved. I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing.”

So my advice to street photographers is this: don’t just go where the people are. Go also where the shadows are.

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