The word 'chiaroscuro' is borrowed from the Italian and comes from 'chiaro' (clear) and 'oscuro' (obscured), though it is usually (and not very helpfully) translated as 'light and shade'. Demonstrating the difference between chiaroscuro, and the mere presence of light and shade, is an essential part of this module.


Originally, chiaroscuro was (and still remains, outside photography) a characteristic style of painting that relies on dramatic contrasts of light and shade. It evolved rapidly in the 17th century: Caravaggio (1573-1610) is normally held up as the first master to use it; Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) further developed the technique, and gave his name to the style when used in photography ('Rembrandt lighting'); and Wright of Derby (Joseph Wright, 1734-1797) arguably took it further than anyone else.

William Mortensen made strenuous efforts to contrast chiaroscuro with notan, a word borrowed from the Japanese which refers to a flat, graphic style of representation -- such as, for example, a Japanese wood-block print -- but it is disputable whether true notan exists in any but the tiniest percentage of photographs, simply because it effectively requires absolutely flat, even lighting from the direction of the camera. Flash might seem to provide this, but the falloff means that it is not flat for deep subjects, and for shallow subjects, there is always the risk of shadows on the background.


This module is related to, but surprisingly different from, Perspective and the Illusion of Depth. It makes sense to read them one after the other, though it probably does not matter very much which one you read first. It contains 18 pictures, all but one in colour, and including an unprecedented six digital shots (all taken with a Leica M8). They were shot in England, China, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania (Transylvania) and France.


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© 2007 Roger W. Hicks