Learning Fashion Photography
From the Masters
In my first year of art school, in 1982, I had to take an Art History class as a requirement. I was pretty unhappy about this, feeling like it was a waste of time as I wasn’t going to learn anything about photography. I remember the class to this day. The teacher used a text book and showed us slide shows of the art as we went through the different periods of time and the art of that period. I was bored, restless, and just plain annoyed with being “made” to sit in this class. I arrived late where it was usually dark because lights were turned off to see the slide show. I sat in the back, slouching with generally a bad attitude. Until one day, up came a slide of Donatello’s sculpture, David, and I nearly fell off my chair.
A world opened up to me that day. I became familiar with the likes of Da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, Van Eyck, Carravaggio, Gentileschi, Rubens, Velazquez, Hals, Rembrandt….the list goes on. You think I understand light? Just look up Carravaggio’s The Martyrdom of Matthew. Now this guy understood light! Look at the incredible depth he was able to paint because f he understood light. Or check out Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes. Her knowledge of light creates such an impact to a fairly “dark” painting, dark in both her style and her subject matter. There was a movement at the time she was painting called tenebrism which literally meant, “dark manner”. It described the kind of dark that is mysterious and gloomy in feeling. Incidentally, Artemisia Gentileschi was a woman. Social conventions, virtually no education and guild rules tended to exclude women from both training and practicing in the arts!
There were strobes, no beauty dishes, there weren’t any websites like this one or the strobist. They had candle light (fire), gas light and the sun. Imagine that! And these painters didn’t paint from a photograph taken from a scene because there was no such thing as photography in the 14th century. Yet they understood how light creates not only the mood and depth of a painting, they understood how it created the form of the human body. They studied light to understand it. They also studied anatomy. Understanding muscle and skeletal structure is SO important when lighting the human figure.
Light is as important for the perception of form as is the matter of which form is made. One function of light is value. Value refers to lightness, or to the amount of light that is (or appears to be) reflected from a surface. Value is the basis of the quality called chiaroscuro: chiaro (light) and scuro (dark), which refers to the gradations between light and dark that produce the effect of modeling, or of light reflected from a three dimensional surface.
There was a wonderful post on digitalphotographyschool.com about what the Mona Lisa can teach us about portrait photography. Leonardo Da Vinci used chiaroscuro to subtly play the light and dark, not only in the physical realm but also the lights and darks of human psychology. Modeling with light and shadow and the expression of emotional states were, for Da Vinci, the heart of it all. I won’t say too much more because you really should read the post at some point. I was amazed when I found it while stumbling around on dps.
Some good books on chairoscuro and anatomy would help develop your eye as a photographer. I suggest the following:
1. The Annotated Mona Lisa: A Crash Course in Art History from Prehistoric to Post-Modern by Carol Stickland
2. Leonardo Da Vinci on the Human Body by O’Malley
3. Caravaggio: A Passionate Life by Desmond Seward
While I believe it’s important to keep reading about the technical realm of photography, I can’t emphasize enough how it is equally important to read and study subjects outside of that realm such as books on the master painters or the history of fashion. ALL of it adds to your knowledge of fashion photography.
Why did Donatello have such a huge impact on me? After all, it was one of his sculptures that opened my eyes! I can honestly say that I don’t know exactly why that particular piece drew me in. Perhaps it was the form and physique, the anatomical perfection of the young boy’s body that blew my mind. Or maybe it was the beauty he captured, that was apparent and obvious in the boy’s face and stance, that took me by surprise. It doesn’t matter really why the piece stopped me in my tracks. What it did was change a bad attitude about art vs. photography into one of unquenchable thirst for knowledge about light, form and emotion. Three extremely important elements in photography. That thirst unquestionably helped open and develop my eye. And truth be told, David, the sculpture of Donatello’s, was the catalyst and inspiration for my Boys show that took place 23 years after first laying eyes on it!