© Hilary F. Marckx, all rights reserved
This is an extract from a manuscript I used
in a class on spirituality and photography
at the Pacific School of Religion,
and the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA
So many things are hidden from my view. There are so many secrets this earth keeps well hidden from me, that in my lifetime I will not see them all. I do savor what I see. Sometimes it is the light. I suppose that because I am a photographer, light has a special meaning for me anyway, because it is what makes photography, photography. Yet, light is so much more than just a tool to use, it is a way to see.
There are different kinds of light. Reading photography books I note there is a Westcoast light, an Eastcoast light, a mountain light, a light unique to the Southwest, a desert light, and on and on. It seems each section of the country is affected differently by how the sun comes through the atmosphere at that particular locale. I suspect too that these areas act as magnets for particular kinds of people, and these people interact in predictable ways with a type of light that is peculiar to that location. The photographs therefore become more or less of a kind and descriptive of the area, but this still does not negate the effect of the light.
Backlighting is when the light source is directly behind the thing photographed or into the eyes of lens, and rims what is before it with a halo of light. Sometimes, if the backlight is also in one’s eyes, there is a diffusing, softening effect called flare in photographic circles. Flare can ruin a photograph, but it can also enhance it. Ansel Adams looked at an image of mine and said, “Nice image, but it”s too bad about the flare.” I had not seen the flare at all—very disquieting. Backlighting many times can add to the mystique of an image by putting the majority of the image onto shadow and hard to see.
Light coming from almost directly overhead, high noon, is harsh and stark—not very gentle. This is the light between around eleven o’clock in the morning and two o’clock in the afternoon. Many documentary photographers use this light as well as axis light because it offers the most visual information possible. Axis light is light that is the exact opposite of backlight. Instead of coming directly into the lens, it comes from directly behind the camera making the scene textureless and flat to the eye. I use these two forms of light the most when I do my own photo documentations, because I want the most detail possible in my documentary images.
Cross-light, or side-light offers texture and drama to a scene. The light source is at the side and catches each rise in the surface of the image. Rough surfaces seem rougher; soft, flat surfaces, pick up nuances of texture that were not to be seen in flatter light situations. Cross-light combined with an atmospheric haze offers contrast combined with a painted effect. Here everything in the scene stands out in soft contrast. The shadows are still very dark as in a back-lit scene, but colors and textures appear present but muted. Sometimes this effect looks almost like a Rembrandt painting.
Another type of light, one which I enjoy, not for its ability to offer information, but its way of rendering the image soft and ethereal, is overcast sky, or the light of an open shady area. This light seems at first to be flat, but it offers a texture that molds the scene to seem as a soft edged sculpture. Wrinkles on faces that would be accentuated by a cross-light almost disappear in the broad, open light of the diffuse sky. Hues and shadows blend together into a wash of light that has no hard edges or lines. Boundaries between light and dark seem to disappear gently and gradually.
Some of these lighting situations seem that they might be better than others. This is not so. Having them all in the course of the day offers ever new ways of seeing. Many times it is possible to just stand in one spot and simply turn around to see them all at work. Light lets me in on the secrets of my world.
The day of the summer solstice is the one day of the year when the light is most present. The sun is in the sky the longest of any other day. The angles of light possible are extreme. From northeast at sunrise to northwest at sunset, the light does a slow wrap around the things we see. The north facing side of a tule bulrush will eventually be light on all four sides with a light that moves from a low early morning hazy cross light to a stark overhead noon light and again to a low afternoon hazy cross-light. This is all from a southward facing view; if I were to move my position I could see a back light as well as an axis light. To my way of thinking, the summer solstice is a tribute to the one day of the year having the most light—a day celebrating light.
Twenty years ago, as I drove along a remote and rough hard-packed dirt road in the sierra, I saw a pair of snow plants growing up through the decomposition of fallen trees. Snow plants are rare. They get their energy from humus that is decaying, and so they are classed as saprophytes. They are found in conifer forests that are shady and have a thick layer of humus. I did not seen a snow plant again until 1991. Oh, I looked hard enough, but to no avail. I have been told stories of whole meadows, blood-red with snow plants, glistening in the sun like fire, but no snow plants for me. If I had not photographed them in 1971 when I saw them, and if I did not pull out the transparencies from time to time to marvel at what I had once seen, I might begin to think snow plants were fictions, and once hearing the fiction, dreampt a life-like snow plant dream.
Sometimes I think I must be contented with the gifts as they are offered. I attempt patience, but nonetheless, I keep an ever watchful eye for things not seen. Sometimes it pays off.
In 1991, as I drove around a bend in a high Sierra road, my eyes saw and fixed, like a trout to a fly, on a red flash under a small roadside pine—I saw a trio of snow plants. As I turned my car around and drove back to park, I was almost afraid I had imagined them. When I did indeed see that they were really there, my desire to see them had been so great that I almost could not believe what I saw. I sat before them in reverence. I started to draw them and Cherie went ambling off into the forest. Moments later she called to me that there were more snow plants where she was. I went to look, and there it was, the fable come true. A clearing, not a meadow, but full nonetheless of snow plants.
I sat in their midst. I felt awe to be where I was, and it seemed as if we were old friends gathered for a reunion. The roadside three were sentinels waiting to show me the way to the gathering. A gathering of snow plants and one who revered glimpses of rarity, chance visions of the planet’s secrets. Some were grown to their full twelve inch stature. Others only just beginning to break through the crusty, snow-packed-now-dry-duff. All were red as fresh blood. I feasted, vision-glutton that I am, on great eye-fulls of mystery and color. I sat in the presence of life-forms alien to my own and communed on a divine vision. This life is rare and ephemeral, for by mid-summer they will be gone. Yet here I slaked, momentarily, my thirst for visions of mystery—until next time…
I ask again, if you have comments please enter them here for the benefit of all. Thank you, Hilary