SPEAKER: So how do we begin to understand light and gain meaning from it? We want to be aware of the figure, what the light is hitting, how it's giving it character, how it's giving it dimension, how it's giving it texture, how the overall environment is being lit, how it's composing the environment, how it's filling the picture out.
We determine what we see through the lighting and then that gives us our impact. The basis for all of our understanding of light is sunlight. It's the barometer by which we judge all other light. It's what our eyes were designed for. Evolutionarily, our eyes were formed to use sunlight and to respond to sunlight. It's the basis for all impact that lighting has on us, a physical, biological impact.
Studies now are out about SAD Seasonal Affective Disorder, the use of sunlight and light to help depression. Light has a emotional impact to us, as in the SAD or just, if we go out on a sunny day, how do we feel? A little better. Or if it's cloudy and gray, as it is in Ithaca often all winter, we have troubles staying happy and look forward to those bright sunshiny days. And even spiritual impact. Again, the sun is a major metaphor in most of the world religions as is darkness.
So let's look at some of the ways that light in its natural context works. Have you ever seen the air when it's so hot that it shimmers and things seem to move back and forth, the heat rising from the sand or from the asphalt? Or that hot haze of the dust that you see in the southwest or in Death Valley? Or the high definition of shadows, black and white, that you get on rocks in the middle of the summer?
Light is heat. I have here a quote by Helen Keller, a blind woman that suggests that. "Suddenly, a change passed over the tree. All the sun's warmth left the air. I knew the sky was black because the heat, which meant light to me, had died out of the atmosphere." Light is heat, light is warmth, light is life.
But light can also be cold. It can be like the sharp intake of breath on a cold frigid morning and a cold winter day, or it can be the blinding reflectivity of a snow scape when the world is white and light is bouncing off of everything. Or the magical, evanescent sparkle of the reflection of ice crystals and snow crystals. Or even the damp chill of light that has been diffused through the fog or the mist.
If you've ever seen an approaching storm where you can see the sheets of rain in the distance as the light hits them, or driven into a storm where you are in the bright sunshine, but ahead is the dark void of the thunderstorm. Or one of my favorite moments in time, which is just before a storm, when the air seems to be crackling and the light takes on an almost greenish tent that seems unnatural or almost eerie.
Or that almost cliched image of the sun breaking through the clouds after a storm and giving that ray of hope. Or what about light as it breaks through the trees and the canopy of a forest? The almost dancing quality of the dappled light as the breeze moves the leaves. Or that glow of light in autumn when it's reflecting off the golds and reds and light greens of the trees changing color?
But the sun isn't the only source of natural light we see. There is another major source that's been with us and it's been tamed by man through the centuries, and that's the source of flames or fire. Fire and flames have an incredibly powerful impact on us as a source of light. There's the almost primal image of man sitting around the campfire that we still have today. We love fireplaces. We love being around the fire.
Yet that same fire that is so warming and gives us shelter can be brutal and cruel, as in the blaze of a forest fire out of control. Yet by the same token, it can have the opposite effect and be quiet and romantic, the proverbial candlelight dinner.
This difference in how one source or one type of light can be perceived is central to how lighting can impact us. It's intriguing, but it can have multiple impacts at the same time. The key to light is contrast. It can be bright or it can be dim. And we only understand the brightness as opposed to the dimness. We only understand the heat of a hot summer day as opposed to that cold crystal in winter. We only understand the romance and softness of the candle light as opposed to bright sunlight or that blaze of the forest fire.
So if contrast is our key concept, we must look at the dark equally as we look at the light. Dark is key to everything we think about. Our primal fear is the fear of the dark. We only understand light through dark. We only understand day as opposed to the night.
But the night and the dark in itself can imbue a quality that has an impact on us. Have you ever looked up on a moonless night to see the millions and millions of stars giving off light that doesn't impact or affect us or hit us as a figure, but gives us a sense of the majesty and vastness of the universe? Or the moonlight, a perfect example. It can be sublimely peaceful and beautiful, or it can be airy and a little bit scary even as it changes everything and drains the color from it.
Speaking of the dark, have you ever experienced a cavern when you go in and they turn out all the lights? The desolation of being in total darkness, total blindness. There is no vision without light. It leads us, when we finally see the light in that cavern, to understand that age old cliche of the light at the end of the tunnel. It is this power of light to give meaning that is so important and that we can begin to use.
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Often we only pay attention to light in extreme cases--it's too dark or too bright. But the middle part of that continuum is where it gets interesting. The quality, color, and amount of light shape our understanding and are used for aesthetic purposes in visual media and in living spaces. Join E.D. Intemann in an exploration of the fascinating use of light.
This video is part 5 of 12 in the Poetry of Light series.