One of the things I’ve learned about since I started shooting architecture is that light sometimes behaves in unexpected ways. Light is predictable, but the way it reveals itself through the camera can be deceiving. Capturing visible light through the lens is difficult, and it requires patience. In some settings, communicating the feeling of being in such a space requires an appropriate portrayal of the light. This week, I bring you a photo from Gary Heller titled RM 2-091, which does a great job illustrating light to effectively communicate his design intent.
To fully understand the light in Rm 2-091, we need to break the light up into two categories: Direct Light and Ambient Light. We will first discuss the Ambient Light which is most commonly present in a photograph.
Ambient light can set the mood in its intensity: A darker setting creates drama or uncomfortable feelings while a brighter setting is safe and comfortable. It can also affect our perception of a place in its uniformity: While a uniform light level is more comfortable and more common in the built environment, fluctuations in light intensity (a poor uniformity) often indicates abandon, uninhabited or poorly maintained spaces. In short, poorly and unevenly lit spaces are far more creepy than bright and uniformly lit spaces. In the case of Heller’s photo, the room is not uniformly lit and as you can see on the ceiling tiles, it’s not very well lit either. The far left corner tells the story of the light, it’s clear that the primary source of light is from the window and the ambient light is created from it bouncing around the surfaces in the room. As if the peeling walls weren’t enough, the ambient light makes for a creepy scene.
Direct light is the most obvious, but often the most difficult to capture. You can easily catch the incident light – the light that falls directly on an object – quite well. I am not trying to downplay its importance. The incident light can cast some interesting and some fantastic patterns on a subject. The light cast through the window onto the cluttered floor and the shadows it creates are fantastic and important in the telling of the story of this room. The often overlooked side effect of incident light is shadows, such as the shadow cast by the jacket on the hanger (cast onto the wall near the right edge). However, the more fascinating aspect of Heller’s photo is the light rays traveling through the air. As we know, light rays are invisible in the air. The only way light rays become visible is if there is something in the air such as dust, water mist or something that will obscure, but not fully obstruct, the light. Since the light rays are clearly visible and since nothing appears to be wet, that gives us a clue that the cleaning crew hasn’t been around in a while. That is at least the story that Heller is telling (quite effectively I might add) and this adds to the aesthetic and feeling of the room. I suppose it possible that Heller stirred up some dust, intentionally or unintentionally, but that would not detract from the photograph. In fact, drumming up dust for the sake of a photo’s ambiance is a pretty common and respected practice (somewhere there is a video with Joe McNally’s assistants stomping and kicking dirt around a horse barn for a shoot).
Lighting aside, there is an intriguing composition within RM 2-0109 that really captivates the imagination. Ruins, especially modern ones, are always intriguing subjects for photography. But ruins are even more disturbing when, as is the case with Heller’s photo, the ruins seem to be still in use. There’s something about the placement of the coat rack and trash can that seems less indicative of a ruin. And the pattern of the dust in the floor raises some questions as well. Such as why is there a relatively clean spot? Or why does it appear as though there’s a path up to that clean spot? It’s almost as if someone, or something, set up a makeshift camp spot for an evening. The hint of such a use is haunting, but that’s why it’s intriguing.
If you like Gary Heller’s photo, Rm 2-0109, I would encourage you to browse more of his works. He is of course found on Flickr, but the best place to observe his work is his personal website, Gary Heller Photography, where his personal style is communicated most effectively. Heller’s works feature a number of modern ruins and a very interesting series, View From Within. Across the board, his use of natural light and his choice of subjects is inspiring.