SPEAKER: Beyond the power and meaning of light in the natural context, does light have power in a cultural context? Can we identify light with a culture, either historical or current, like we do with music? We can understand music as having a period, as being from a certain time, or from a certain culture. Can we do the same with light?
Well, first, let's look at light in a historical sense. Before the mid 19th century, the only real sources of light were those natural sources I discussed, the sun and flames. Was the sunlight really any different 100 years ago, 500 years ago, 1,000 years ago than it is now? Probably not such that we could perceive it with our human eye.
But we can begin to glimpse how people perceived light in different historical periods or different cultural context, and we do this through how they documented the light, how the artist portrayed the light. And by extension, we can understand and get insight into that cultural, historical period by how they view the light.
We can look at the Baroque and the masters of chiaroscuro, that looking at light and shadow, and how shadows play an equally important part in forming what we see, as does the light. Or a little later, we can look at the Rococo, the lightness and froth of the Rococo light, that everything seems to be light and cheery, almost. Or the impressionists, the masters of light. The masters of light's ever changing nature. Of its lack of any solidity.
Once we get into the 20th century, we get into the world of film, and it has a unique place in documenting light as an art form because not only does it show light in very specific ways that give it a cultural, historical context, or even other more powerful emotional meanings, but it is in itself light. We are seeing light, so it becomes almost self-referential. We are seeing the source that's also portraying the source of light.
But film itself has given a stylistic vocabulary of light, and it's given us styles by which we can understand both period and a cultural context of light. We have the glamorous lighting of the black and white films of the '30s into the 40s '40s that were masters of light and shadow and making the figure look absolutely stunning. Or on the darker side of the '30s and '40s is the film noir, the shadowyness of those black mysteries.
More recently, there is the epic films of the late '60s and '70s of David Lean, in which he uses all of those natural contexts of light that we spoke about, the vast snows of Doctor Zhivago or the deserts of Lawrence of Arabia. On the other hand, there is the hyper-stylized reality of Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now or Cannery Row.
With the introduction of these new technologies and new sources of light, we enter a whole new way of seeing light in the modern age. It begins with sources of light such as limelight or gas light that went by quickly, but the real revolution comes with the incandescent light. The revolutionary nature of the incandescent light is that it suddenly gives us so much more control over the light. We can begin to control the color, the brightness. We can turn the lights on and off. We have sources that are portable and easy to use.
Also, it becomes the barometer for all of our other modern sources. It's the way we judge interior lighting and define interior spaces now. We can look at some of those other sources that begin to play off of incandescent light, most notably, fluorescent lights, more and more coming into use. But the sterility and openness they have, we feel like we're in an office space or a hospital space, whether we are or not, when we have that sterility in that blue green color of fluorescent lights.
Or neon lights, that garish color that they produce, that we see only in bars or big cities, such as the neon jungles of old Las Vegas and the Fremont experience. And when we look at cities like Las Vegas or New York, we see that chaos of multiple lighting sources. The light seems inescapable. We're barraged by millions and millions of lights of all different types-- blinking, solid, bright, dim-- and it becomes an almost urban jungle of light.
The newest source to emerge is the LED and, with it, the huge video screens that we see in Times Square. It's becoming the light of the future, inescapable, moving, incredibly versatile. And it itself gives a sort of a context, has a sort of a meaning that says modern, hip, together, 21st century.
But by contrast, there's always the back alleys, those dark corners that you find in any urban environment where the light escapes. Which brings us to the suburbs, those mercury vapor and sodium vapor lit areas where light becomes a refuge, and all the streets are well lit, as are the houses, as is everything. There is light everywhere. It becomes totally inescapable.
I wonder sometimes though if this in its capability of light is numbing us to its impact, to its power, that the omnipresence of light in our world and our lack of being able to get anywhere where it's truly dark to understand the light by contrast, is diminishing its meaning and its impact on us.
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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 6 of 12 in the Poetry of Light series.