There's much to learn from art history, but every now and then comes an artist so avant-garde (Before their time), that it's scary. Case in point: Caravaggio. Here are 3 photography tips you can draw from his paintings.
Introduction: The unknown Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle
I remember when I was a kid (although my wife said I still am one…) I just loved brushing my teeth. I had this cool Ninja Turtles sand timer that I would twist to know how long I had to brush my teeth for. Why am I talking about this? Well, all of them take their names from past renaissance masters: Donatello, Raphael, Michaelangelo, and Leonardo.
Everyone knows these masters, or at least are familiar with one of their art pieces. What's missing though is Caravaggio, a master in his own right but he was more of a black sheep than the rest.
He was hard to get along with, liked to fight and did something the church wasn't too happy about, he took street folks (beggars, prostitutes, etc) as models to represent saints and apostles along with Jesus' family. He had a point because the apostles and all were “regular” people but that's a point for another day.
He's known for many paintings that we are going to look at and draw some tips from. Let's dig in….
1) Use chiaroscuro
When I said Caravaggio was avant-garde, this is what I really meant. His paintings are, of course, paintings but they are lit like photographs. His stuff is dramatic and has influenced many photographers and videographers to this day, including Alfred Hitchcock. I consider him the first photographer. How can he have such nice light? Who knows, aliens probably gave him a camera to play with!…
(For those who don't get the joke, this guy goes out and claims a bunch of human inventions are from Aliens…). In all seriousness though, he had a sense of light direction and contrast that gives his images depth. What is in it for photographers? Well, two important terms: Chiaroscuro and Tenebrism.
Chiaroscuro is Italian for light-dark. Basically it's the interplay of light and dark. It doesn't have to be patterns, but here are two examples below:
Tenebrism comes from the Latin Tenebrae (Darkness). It's when a piece has a strong Chiaroscuro, with darkness being a prominent aspect, and usually with the subject emerging from it. Here are a few examples:
Basically if there is a play of light and dark, it's Chiaroscuro. If the image can fit the description “out of darkness comes light” it's Tenebrism. It's like everything is black but there's an element coming out from it, like a face, a scene, etc.
So this is cool and all, but how do you add drama to your images, save using a flash? Well it's all about looking for light contrast. For the two portraits above, everything was dark and my wife was on the computer. The only light source was the computer, so with the magic of exposure, everything else went dark. Likewise for my self portrait, the room was dark and the sun was shining hard on the window. I just went up to the window and made the image.
It's all about being attentive and knowing the time of day. Forget it went it's overcast outside, but when the sun is shining and there are buildings or whatnot to create shadows, you can get some nice Chiaroscuro or Tenebrism in your images. Find contrast-y scenes and expose for the highlights :). If you don't understand what I'm talking about, get the free photography course.
2) Use metaphors and symbols
Here's a painting by Mr Caravaggio, pretty well-known:
It's just some kid with some basket o' fruits, right? Nopes.
One of the biggest problem photographers face in my opinion is that they don't get past the photographed item. Let's take flowers for example, when you shoot a flower, it's not JUST a flower, it can also represent something else.
There's a whole repertoire of flowers and their meaning that painters know. If a painting shows a soldier that has his eyes closed, there can be two interpretations of the work: He's either sleeping or dead. If there's a lily besides him, that means he is dead, for it's what this flower is associated with.
Metaphor is the key word here, things aren't what they seem to be. A peach can be an image of a woman's behind, a clam a woman's private parts, a phallic flower a man's parts, etc.
So that painting by Caravaggio is not really a painting of a kid with a basket. Fruits are a sexual metaphor (even songwriters use it!) and the kid has his shoulders visible….that is a sexually suggestive gesture. It's the painting of a boy that is guarding his sexuality, but he's probably not that innocent for there's a dead leaf on the bottom right and what is he doing with his shoulders exposed???
In the image above I used the same suggestive naked shoulder…the “For you” with the eagle is the icing on the cake! Likewise you can use symbols and metaphors in your photography. You probably know a skull represents death, a black cat bad luck (culture-dependant), a rose represents love, rust represents decay, etc. Not only can you use your subject matter as metaphor, like below, but you can also put a strategically placed element to influence the viewer's perception of the image, like wine that would represent blood.
Just like you should read things in context, symbols and images should also be read in context. Here's an image:
In this one, the image is about a heavenly scene, or at least it plays on people's idea of heaven. She looks like an angel, with the building in back representing a heavenly kingdom.
In this one, same girl, same attire, but the scene is more about a crowning, with the older woman passing on the throne to her daughter. There's also something to be said about religious symbolism. That is of course culturally dependent, only the western world can understand this image:
That image of course tries to echoe Jesus, but it's really because we have some previous knowledge, not only of Jesus (Or at least the way he's believed to look like) but more specifically of this image:
For the record, the thing the guy had over his head, apparently it was an unfinished hat he saw in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and he just bought it from the seller. Besides Jesus himself, there's the symbol of the cross too. So that could be an electric pole, or the intersection of two lines in the streets.
At the end of the day, Caravaggio reminds us that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to art. So pay attention to the objects you put in your frame, they actually might mean something!
3) Give light meaning
Light is everything for the photographer, but when you combine some Chiaroscuro or tenebrism with symbolism….you get light that actually means something. Let me explain.
This painting is The Calling of St Matthew. Here's the background: Jesus is known as “the Light of the world” in the Bible, a holy man, and incredibly, he surrounds himself with people of dubious character, including a tax collector.
What's the fuss about you say? At that time, the Jews were under Roman rule and they appointed tax collectors to collect for the Roman empire, and of course these usually charged more and skimmed off the top. Not only were they seen as traitors (like the Collaborators in World War 2), they were hated for their corruption. No one wanted to ‘rub shoulders' with them…..Back to the painting.
Matthew was such a tax collector and Jesus called him to be his disciple. In typical Caravaggio fashion there's a good deal of Chirascurio and Tenebrism going on. The scene is dramatic. But what I want to bring your attention to is the direction of the light. The origin of the light is on the right, and it shines to the left.
Jesus is on the right, He is like a light in darkness. Matthew and co. are on the left. The light isn't there for drama only, it's there to give meaning to the painting. Jesus' light is not only shining in darkness, but he's calling Matthew to leave the area that is in darkness (the house), for the area that is in the light (the left). The light coming from the right signifies progression.
In the usual way of representing time, if we have the present in the middle, past is on the left and future is on the right. So the light on the right is not only the light of Jesus, it's the direction of the future.
You can probably see where I am going with this in your photography, you can use tenebrism to add drama to your images but you can also use the light to give your images meaning.
In this image I used the light to tell a story too. Here, a mother cries because she is overwhelmed at her son's seizures. He goes from gentle to violent in a whim. The light is once again on the right, but the son's face is between light and darkness, telling the story of his dual personality, violent/nice. The mother, in her current state does not look at the light but faces in the direction of her son, she has (hopefully temporarily) lost hope.
In this more playful image we have this happy-go-lucky guy going down the street on the left and to contrast him, there is the man on the right going in the shadows, looking menacing. In both images the light tells a story.
Once you have control over your dramatic light, you can, just like Caravaggio, start giving meaning to it. Granted, the image does not need to have tenebrism or chiaroscuro in it, but you can still give it meaning. Overblown highlights like below can be reminiscent of heaven, harsh light can mean something more brutal, etc.
We can summarize the 3 photography tips in one: Be conscious of what you are doing while pointing the camera. Light can add drama but it can also mean something deeper, just like other elements of the frame. Think like a painter, they are conscious of what they put in the frame (because they have to paint it from scratch). Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting.
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