Another approach is to consider how light and dark can work together, rather than being in strict opposition. In chiaroscuro lighting, the balance between what is picked out by the light and what is left to the imagination in the shadows creates heightened mood, depth and drama. There is the understanding that not every single detail needs to be depicted, allowing emphasis to fall only on the more important elements of the piece. These compositions are dynamic and arresting to look at, and the interplay of hard vs soft edges on the light and shadow shapes hold interesting suggestions for visual cues which could be used in this project.

In terms of the moving image, chiaroscuro lighting is used to great effect in styles like German Expressionism. This originated in Germany the early 20th century and “emphasized the artist’s inner feelings or ideas over replicating reality” . With black and white film, one of the key ways the Expressionist filmmakers could increase the emotional impact of their work was in exaggerating the lights and darks and creating stark, unsettling contrasts, as in 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari:

In the 1930s, with the advent of WWII, many of these creators moved to the United States, bringing their visual style with them. As they began working in Hollywood with American writers, the combination of crime and pulp themes and the Expressionists’ dramatic, moody imagery resulted in the emergence of film noir. The composition of film noir shots create interesting shapes and arrangements of light and dark which are deeply evocative of grim, oppressive or secretive emotional tones.

2-stranger-on-the-third-floor[The Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)]

45-big-combo[The Big Combo (1955)]

I think this compositional use of light and dark is also what informs my associations of revealing/hiding. In these images, hard-edged and unrelenting light shapes convey suspense and tension, and strong spotlights aggressively pin down the focal element in the frame. At the same time, what you don’t see is, in a way, as important as what you do see – the deep shadows and soft edges receding into darkness leave part of the story to the viewer’s imagination, which can be far more affecting than showing the entirety of the image. (Consider when horror media, for example, gives the game away and shows the monster or murderer too clearly too early on.) Allowing the viewer to fill in the missing information themselves also helps to personalise the experience for them, as the associations that people bring to the work can be diverse and multi-layered in ways the creator may not anticipate. It inspires me with regard to this project, because it makes me curious to experiment and see what other moods can be suggested with the interplay of light and dark shapes in a composition.

Title image source: [David with the Head of Goliath, by Caravaggio – Own work, Lafit86, Public Domain]

Film noir stills from [One Perfect Shot], “The Dark Beauty of Film Noir in 50 Shots”

Still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, from IMDB