Art of Shadow

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The art of photography grew substantially from 1919 - 1945. The medium was no longer primarily documenting the aftermath of the horrors of war, civilian casualties or composed portraits but was now being explored as a way to document life. Scientist were beginning to take a great interest in the medium as well. Eventually, the Dadaist get their hands on a couple of cameras and the boundaries of what is considered art were pushed. In West Africa scientist Sir Frank Dyson was the first individual to photograph a solar eclipse in conjunction with the work of Arthur Eddington who was working in Brazil at the time. This crazy man in the name of science haphazardly planned this expedition during one of the worst conflicts the world has ever seen, all in the name of science to prove Einstein was right about the laws of physics all being the same for observers in uniform motion relative to one another, the speed of light in a vacuum is the same for all observers, regardless of their relative motion or of the motion of the light source. After many months of further analysis and study the scientist came to the conclusion that “a ray of light grazing the surface of the sun was deflected be twice the angle that Newtonian physics predicted, thus supporting the general theory of relativity that Albert Einstein had published in 1916.”.

In simpler terms Dyson proved Einstein's Theory of General Relativity by observing the behavior of stars seen near the sun during the eclipse. In doing this Dyson provided solid evidence for how light bent in gravitational fields, as stated before Einstein had theorized three years prior. The Theory of General Relativity states, again in simple terms, that what we think of as the force of gravity arises from the curvature of time and space; it explains the motion of planets around stars, the whys and wherefores of black holes, and theories on the origins of the universe. Dyson thought that the best way to test the theory would be by observing light from stars during a total eclipse and it worked. Around the same time that science was using photography to prove theories and document the world around us the art world was beginning to experiment with photography in new and exciting ways.

Dadaism was on the rise during this time as well. The Art of Fixing a Shadow states that the leaders of the Dada movement thought little of making photographs but were not opposed to using them. Many Dadaists would disassemble photographs only taking part and making collages with what they wanted to keep. “Using and appropriating finished photographs made them more conscious of the role of the medium in perceiving the world, but not of the role of the photographer in making the picture to begin with.” They knew how to use a photograph but not how to properly make one. The direction and place of photography was wavering in the art world. Photographer Alfred Stieglitz rose up and pushed the medium into a more metaphysical direction. Alfred spent many years working at 291, a gallery that in the book The Art of Fixing a Shadow referred to as a crucible for artists as visitors alike who were looking to be stimulated by modern art. While working at 291 Alfred used the avant-guard and dadaist movement to inspire him in his photography, but later found his muse in well-known artist Georgia O’Keeffe. Alfred began to study photography in a way that became more spiritual to him and others who viewed his photography. He preceded to take out all traces of landscape in his images and began to photograph clouds. Alfred's cloud photographs after 1935 were called Equivalents according to the book The Art of Fixing a Shadow.

It was also stated that “not only were the images meant to be abstract, but spiritual, a combination that had not been easy to nurture in the nihilistic atmosphere of the dada occupation during the war.” His photographs tried to evoke a feeling of enlightenment from the view which was a new concept for the photographic medium at the time. Another dadaist who later turned to photography later in his artistic career was Man Ray. Man Ray is well known for creating the photogram technique which he dubbed the Rayogram. The Rayogram process is done by taking an object and placing them on to an unexposed piece of paper. One would then turn on the lights exposing the paper for a short amount of time. The object on the paper was then removed and the imaged developed in the darkroom process like any other image.

The Rayogram process allowed viewers to study the dimension and perception of objects. Depending on what is put down on the photo paper the images can become very abstract in nature only producing a silhouette with shadow where the light was able to seep around the edge of certain objects. They were “translucent forms set adrift as if in a timeless void”. Man Ray then began to explore other branches of photography, playing with multiple exposures and the “sabattier effect” also known as solarization. Even though solarization has been referred to as a medium born of surrealism with a perfect pedigree the process was stumbled upon accidentally. Man Ray was working in his darkroom when his assistant, Lee Miller, inadvertently turned on the lights, some would call this a happy accident. Solarization was kept a secret though until about 1932. Because of this discovery and many other contributing photographers, the medium began to lend itself to a more surrealistic direction of study. As time went on photography started to become more about documentation again. World War Two began and photographers were documenting the life of individuals both on and off the battlefield.

Lee Miller, Man Ray’s former assistant, became interested in photojournalism during the years WWII took place. Throughout the war, Miller photographed many incredibly sad moments of destruction, including dead soldiers, destroyed landmarks, and devastating scenes of the Holocaust. Miller also photographed a series of women throughout the war, those who served in the armed forces and others who were accused of being spies. Another noteworthy photographer who was working during this time was Lewis Hine. Hine set his focus on the issues that were not being dealt with amongst the civilians such as labor laws and living conditions of lower class society.

Through his photography, Hine brought forth change in child labor laws exposing the dangerous conditions that made unsafe work environments for children. Hine brought to life the harsh living conditions immigrants were being forced into by society. Many times they were unable to afford an apartment for their own family so often three or four families were crammed into one small room. It became a mission for Hine to bring these social issues to light. In doing so he brought much-needed change to the lives of many. As photography continues to make many leaps in the course of a short time, in the few decades discussed above prove that big changes are taking place in the medium. Cameras are becoming more easily accessible to the masses, people are documenting their loved ones and the memories they share together. Major World Wars are documented, social change to those who needed it the most because of images produced with photography, and medium has continued to prove itself in the art world. 

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Art of Shadow. (2022, Jul 01). Retrieved September 25, 2023 , from

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