Awash in Black

Awash in Black

Awash in Black

Possibly one of the most frequently-offered pieces of advice to budding photographers is to ‘learn to see light, and to understand it in all its forms and moods’.

I would like to suggest that, in fact, the opposite is true. We need to understand its complement, or opposite, darkness, which of course we render photographically as black. Only then can we understand light.

The great artist, Leonardo da Vinci, once said that, ‘A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light.’  He has a point.

Darkness is not, after all, an absence of light; it exists in its own right, and has its own reality. And it is only when light falls upon it, that space, shape and form are created in a way from which our eyes initially, and minds latterly, can derive meaning. Each relies upon the other to give it substance and meaning.  And it is the contrast of one with the other which allows us first to detect, and then interpret, this meaning.

The great photographer, Ansel Adams, in developing his Zone system around 1940, postulated a range of twelve tones between pure black and pure white, measures of the luminance value of each subject element.

Lazy thinking would lead us to believe that all tones in a scene can be attributed to one of these values. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The tones in a scene can be subdivided infinitely, or at least as far as the limits of the device used to measure them allows.

And so, back to darkness – also labelled and known as black. In the Zone System, black is labelled as Zone O and defined as a tonal area with no discernible tone and/or detail. Formulated in the days of film, it referred to that area of the negative which had had no exposure because there was insufficient light to effect a chemical shift in the emulsion and therefore rendered as a pure black when printed.

Black was therefore a measure of the limits of the medium rather than a statement of visual reality. Now that we use the digital process, where the sensors are far more sensitive than film ever was, it is possible to subtly separate and differentiate between different values of this one tone.

Māori talk about the 12 levels of darkness, and each has its own name and meaning. As part of my own training, I have been taught about this, and to recognise when the first light of day appears. It is long before the sun has risen, and is a very subtle lightening of the darkness, known as te awatea. It is at this time that important rituals take place, the time when night and day are in balance. I have begun to wonder about this subtle differentiation, and what techniques will be required to depict and show it , and if its even possible to do so.

A few weeks ago, I visited Te Waikoropūpū, a famous natural spring at the top of the South Island of New Zealand. It is a deeply spiritual place for Māori, and I wondered how to capture the energy of the water, and the sense of connection there.

I had begun to think about the nature of darkness and light. There, before me, was water which had spent a long time underground, in darkness, and was only now emerging, coming to the surface where light could depict it in a diametrically opposite, and yet complementary, way.

Was it, I wondered, the same water, or had it, in some way which I couldn’t clarify, been changed by its emergence?


This article appeared in the May 2016 issue  of f11 Magazine for Photographers and Afficionados.

A portfolio of my older work published in f11 as a part of the September 2012 issue (pp. 36-60)  can be found here.

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