In Praise of Shadows

I noted before that I've seen several themes show up here and there in my image library: the wide use of doors, windows, shadows, and others.  Surely, loving the pursuit and writing with light, these are bound to show up once in a while, how could they not?  But they appear quite a bit in my images and I've wondered why.  If I were to recline on a couch and have a psychotherapist draw out my earliest memories would they find untold treasures or horrors pertaining to these themes?  Probably not.  I tend to think that they show up so much, not only because of their obvious positives for capturing light, but also because of their cultural and narratival associations.

Plato's The Allegory of the Cave

Plato's The Allegory of the Cave

Enter Plato, stage left.  When I was in high school, I remember going over The Allegory of the Cave in literature class.  It was a good time, but being a rank materialist at the time, all I could do is see that the enlightenment spoken of was some further scientific truth or something like that.  To be honest, as neat as I found the story, I probably didn't ponder it too deeply.  So for those who've never heard of it, here's the essence of it. 

The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.
— Michelangelo

Imagine being chained closely to a wall at your back.  In front of you is another wall with shadowy figures on it.  This is all you've ever seen, thus the reality you know.  Hypothetically, if one were to ask you, "What's the reality of the world?", then you'd reply, "Well, you see, there are these dark two-dimensional figures that dance around with a glow around them.  There they are right there!" as you point to the wall in front of you.  But as you can see above, in the artistic depiction of the story, there is a higher or deeper reality than those two dimensional images.  There are some folks behind the wall at your back that are holding up three-dimensional figurines and your reality is merely but a faint image of the truth.  The truth is made known by the fire casting light on those people and their figures, thus causing the shadows.  That's the real reality, right?  Not quite.  If you were to break loose from your (epistemological) shackles, you would not only see the fire pit, but you'd proceed to go to the light even further higher than that.  Up and out of the cave you'd go, making it to a whole 'nother reality.  That light is that of the sun and it's radiance is bouncing off a multitude of created things.  Thus, Plato had his forms in the Ideal world, and all the things that you and I touch and feel all day all long are not as real, to say it loosely. 

Of course, this image reverses my point, but you get me, right?!

Of course, this image reverses my point, but you get me, right?!

Do you get the point here? Shadows are not the main thing, they are...well...shadowy at best!  If you saw the shadow of a hand on the wall, even in our world with all our experience of hands and shadows, you know very little of the reality causing the impression on your retina.  Is it a small or large hand?  Is it a male or female hand?  A young or old hand?  A black or white hand?  Rough or smooth?  You get me?  Or worse, is it a real hand? I mean, is it a cardboard cutout?  Or to drive my point home to the uttermost, is it the top of a rooster's head making the shadow?  If so, I misstated the original scenario, didn't I?  It should have been, "If you saw the shadow of what appeared to be a hand on the wall..."  As you saw the light about an unknown and later matter, it changes your perspective on the original issue that led you to the new and improved truth in the first place.  Hmmmm. Welcome to the puzzles of philosophy, but I digress.

How could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?
— Plato, The Allegory of the Cave

What am I getting at with all this?  It's that, there's an inherent mysteriousness in shadows.  That is, there seems to be a disclosure of sorts, but not the full story.  Thus, imagination is kicked in gear, and the viewer is invited to write a fitting story.  Not all images with shadows have the same degree of mystery, nor do all provoke the same degree of story.  Nevertheless, there's a prompting.  This is part of the wonder of art and image.  It's not propositional in nature, even if the artist thinks they are really breaking you off some deep thoughts.  They are not.  It's been said that a picture is worth a thousand words.  This is only sort of true.  The way I see it is that, a picture has no words, thus, it's worth an infinity of words.  That is, if it's a good one.

Shadowed Gravel of Beatty

The idea of shadow and reality is not only employed in visual arts, but as hinted at in our talk of Plato, literature and philosophy.  In Christianity for example, there is the idea of typology.  This is where events, persons, places, and institutions can foreshadow, by divine appointment, later things to come.  So, for example, you have the Passover lamb as a shadow of what would happen in the redemption earned by Christ.

These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.
— Colossians 2:17

Not only is there ambiguity and unfinished story embedded in every shadow, but often, a physical (electromagnetic really) leading of the eye to the subject proper.  It can be used since, for some reason, our eye tends to follow lines when looking at images.  They may be invisible innate reasons (nature) or socio-cultural reasons (nurture), but we do it.  Any discussion about composition worth its salt will explore, and exploit, this truth.  With shadows, then, we can get a trifecta: leading lines, a way to express something we'd like to "say", and via ambiguity, the invitation for further "dialogue." 

Three shadows that are but pale indications of flesh and blood lives.

Three shadows that are but pale indications of flesh and blood lives.

Shadows show up in a couple of other ways too, albeit, not as imagination inspiring.  For instance, they can accentuate pattern and texture.  But still, I wonder if there's some hint of mystery or story provided in such graphic elements of an image. I think of a pattern created by texture, or from shadows, as different from patterns inherent in an object.  Think of a zebra.  That's about as patterned as they come, and while light is most necessary to see anything, the pattern of a zebra is not a derivative of a light hitting matter at a certain angle.  The latter is reminiscent of Plato's cave, isn't it?  An emanating light source must be behind the object in order for us to see the created pattern, but in the case of the zebra, light only reveals the, already there, pattern.  I'm reminded that shadow patterns created by a light source are transient, unlike those of the zebra. 

As the sun runs his course from east to west, the shadows turn.  Think of it.  In the morning, the shadows lean long and west.  As noon approaches, the shadows and pattern disappear, as a vapor.  But hope is held out, for in a few hours the shadows will lean to the east.  But they are different shadows and other textures.  A new world to be seen, but only for a time.  You can see them tomorrow, though, right?  Wrong.  It may be a bit cloudy and so the diffused light is not direct enough to create shadows.  It can only reveal.  And too much at that, for the light exposes the peaks and valleys equally.  That's no fun!  Even more, as to the transient nature of shadows over inherent pattern, is that the sun strikes the earth at differing angles throughout the year.  In June, here in the northern hemisphere, we get our longest day and most directly-overhead sunlight of the year.  Shorter shadows.  Contrarily, in December, the opposite is the case and long shadows show up throughout much of the day.  Good times.

I make a proposal: one of irony and overstatement.  Have you ever heard the term "golden hour"?  It's just after sunrise or just before sunset.  Clearly it is characterized by rich warm hues and, often, crisper light.  But ya know what else is so wonderful about it?  Long long shadows!  Hence, I propose that hereafter and henceforth, because of the aforementioned thus and such, we call that glorious time by another name...shadow hour.  Not that catchy, I suppose.  Ok, I'll settle for the established name.  But what I will not take, is another week going by without you dusting off your camera and getting out there to snap up the elongated obscure shadows waiting on you.  You'll see them just inside the wonder-inspiring bookends of nature's library that we call dawn and dusk.  Go get 'em!

Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.
— MLK