Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography. – George Eastman
[one_half padding=”4px 10px 0 4px”]I chose today’s quote quite carefully and with deliberate intention. I’m not sure anyone has ever understood light in relationship to photography quite as thoroughly as did George Eastman. When a friend suggested he make a photographic record of a trip he was about to take, Eastman found the wet plate camera and equipment so bulky and difficult that he ended up never taking the trip! Born from that frustration, though, were innovations such as fixed-lens cameras, rolled film, and a chemical development process that was significantly less likely to kill the photographer. Eastman saw what photography could become and then took the steps to make sure it got there. The bulk of his contributions to our profession are unparalleled and quite likely will never be surpassed by any one person.
Eastman knew, among many other things, that photography needed to be accessible, that people needed to be able to capture all the moments of their lives, not just those for which people had time to sit and impatiently wait. When he introduced the Brownie camera in 1900, it sold for a mere one dollar and while a dollar was still of significant value at that time, Eastman’s invention put cameras in the hands of more people, and made it possible to capture more images, than anything or anyone had done prior. In his opinion, Eastman felt that there was absolutely nothing, no single aspect of the human existence, that was not worth photographing.
One of the challenges Eastman faced, though, was the fact that many of the people buying these new cameras of his had absolutely no concept of what photography was, how it worked, or how to take a good picture. Those early Brownie users had no idea that a subject sitting fully in the sun was likely to be over-exposed, while those sitting in the shade were going to be quite in the dark. A very high number of unrecognizable pictures could have very easily caused the new inventions to fail in the market. One of the most under-recognized aspects of Eastman Kodak amateur film was its ability to balance out some of those lights and shadows so that errors of ignorance would be less severe.[/one_half]
[one_half_last padding=”4px 4px 0 10px”]Over time, we’ve come to understand more about highlights and shadows and how to manipulate the two so as to achieve different styles and tones and ranges of depth in our photographs. We are able to meter with relative position the best camera settings for images such as today’s photo. Our highlights are high enough to be bright, but not out of gamut. Our shadows have nice, measured gradients that gently define curves and muscles. Eastman would have unquestionably been amazed by the ability of contemporary cameras to translate and manipulate highlights and shadows to such accurate levels.
Highlights and shadows are not only part of photography, though. They are part of business and they are part of life. Eastman Kodak has struggled to adapt and find its way in a digital world. The company that once defined photography for a large number of people around the world is now but an afterthought and many younger photographers don’t even recognize. George Eastman had his own shadows as well. Faced with increasing pain from a spinal disease that made it difficult to walk, on March 24, 1932, Eastman penned a short note:
Dear friends —
My work is done.
He then shot himself through the heart, ending an era of some of the greatest innovation photography has ever seen.
Natural light is an amazing tool and certainly the more we understand light better able we are to create stunning photographs. We do well, though, to mind the highlights and shadows, to use them effectively and be careful to keep them in balance, both on camera and off.[/one_half_last]