After 2 years in Europe I went from moody November darkness to … well, as we drove out of the airport parking all I could think of was how bright everything was. See I knew I’d miss the sun while in Europe – everyone warns you of that. But it’s not just those piercing hot rays – it’s the actual light.
It took time for my eyes to adjust and every morning I’d wake up and to my surprise the brightness was still there. Outside Table Mountain would loom over me, seeming so much nearer than it actually was. An artist friend had mentioned this when I moved to Germany, but I had not fully understood. See in Northern Europe the light is softer. The shadows have fuzzy edges that melt into the lighter areas. In South Africa the edge between light and dark shadow is so sharp and intensely contrasting that everything looks hyper-real. Like somebody has drawn crisp outlines. It’s like going from wishy washy watercolour to hard edged graphics, with an incredible 3-d effect. I felt like somebody had finally cleaned the hazy window I had been looking through all this time.
I realise now that I have experienced this before, but at the time I didn’t quite comprehend it. My husband and I had been travelling in Malaysia. Although it was hot and sunny, the humidity and haze must’ve softened the light. We climbed Mount Kinabalu and as we reached a certain height above the cloud cover, I felt as if the plants and shrubs were surreally 3-dimensional. I snapped away at the plant life around me, finding it all really beautiful. I was not hallucinating. What must’ve created this effect was the sudden clarity of light at the higher altitudes.
I recently came across an interview with a German photographer moving to South Africa in the 1950’s (my memory! I think it was Schadeberg). He explained that his biggest photographic challenge was coming to terms with the intense contrast between bright light and dark shadows and instead of trying to “fix” this problem, he chose to embrace it and make use of it in his photographs.
We are often encouraged to take photos in flattering light of shady areas, early morning or late evening, when there is less contrast and the colour isn’t bleached out by the harsh sunlight. But maybe now & then we should remember to break those rules and just embrace the brightness. Now there’s a challenge.