I just read a book on Japanese Aesthetics titled: “In Praise of Shadows.” It was a beautiful book that helped me reflect on the beauty of darkness and shadows (Japanese aesthetics) while we in the west love white, the brightness, and light.
Lately I’ve found my photos to become darker and darker. Photographers call this “low-key.” For me, I see a sense of beauty in the dark— kind of a melancholic beauty.
What I seek through my photography is to make some sort of connection to my subjects— both emotionally and spiritually. As an extrovert at heart, I love talking and engaging with others. This is why I’m shooting fewer and fewer candid photos— and more photos with permission, while engaging with my subjects.
How do I pick my subjects?
For me, finding an interesting or a unique subject is one of the key things I focus on.
For me, I look for those who look alone, those who seem to emit some sort of inner-strength, as well as those who look isolated or lost.
Even though I am an optimistic person at heart, I still feel a lot of the sadness, pain, and misery of people in the world. I feel one of the reasons why I’m put on the earth is to promote strength and positivity— through this blog, through teaching, and also through photography.
People just want to feel acknowledged
I took a photograph of a guy named Mikey recently— he was a security guard at the coffeeshop in Downtown Berkeley I was working at. I saw him instantly— his braided hair, and the fact that one of his eyes were pitch-white.
I found his face instantly interesting — a bit spooky, but at the same time something showing strength.
I first didn’t know how to approach him, but I just took my camera, walked up to him, and said, “Excuse me sir, I love your look— do you mind if I made a few photos of you?” He said yeah, sure, and I first took a series of images of him. I realized the background didn’t look so good, and I asked him to move into the hallway, where there was more beautiful natural light.
Through the whole process, Mikey got quite excited, and told me that he also rapped on the side, and if I could shoot a few photos for a mixtape cover. I told him I’d email him the photos (and I did instantly afterwards); and the whole process made him feel excited and empowered.
We all want love
I genuinely believe that a lot of people are just wanting to feel some sort of love, acknowledgement, or connection with the rest of the world. Many of us work jobs that we hate, and we feel like cogs in a machine— especially those working minimum-wage jobs, those working service-industry jobs (where everyone treats you like a robot, not a human being), or “knowledge workers” (where we spend 8-10 hours a day in front of a computer, answering emails, and looking at Excel spreadsheets).
Technology has advanced so quickly— but human nature hasn’t changed much.
What we need is more love, intimacy, and connection with one another.
The irony of the darkness and the light
One of the reasons why I find myself shooting more black and white recently is because I feel that there is some sort of aesthetic beauty and bliss that comes from the simplicity of a monochromatic image. I feel that distilling an image into black, white, and shades of grey is better able to convey emotion, mood, and the soul of a person.
So the irony is that while the photos I shoot nowadays are quite dark and involve a lot of negative space, and shadows— I feel that there is more love, optimism, and soul in the images.
Relish the spaces in-between
A lot of musicians say that music comes from the silences in-between the notes. A lot of the appeal of writing is the breaks in-between the words (punctuation marks, periods, commas).
I feel in photography it is the darkness, the shadows, and the negative space which makes an image. The more negative space you have in a photograph, the more focus you can give your subject in the frame.
While the trend in photography is to make photos more and more complex; I am a lover of the simple, minimalist, and uncomplicated image. I like having one strong central subject in the frame, and few distractions. These images give me a sense of inner-calm, peace, and Zen.
My favorite photographers are the simple yet emotional ones. I love the work of Josef Koudelka, Anders Petersen, and Richard Avedon. They employ the use of black-and-white, flash, and clean backgrounds to add focus to their subjects. Their images bleed of authenticity— through the dark monochromatic film they imprint the souls of their subjects on.
All black everything
“Colors blind the eye.” – Tao Te Ching
I want my life to be “all black everything.”
I love wearing black clothes— less complication in terms of “matching” outfits.
Even with electronics nowadays— we have too many choices. Do we really need a “rose gold” iPhone?
When buying cars— too many models, makes, and colors.
If you stick to “black” as a default option— it helps you spend less on making these pointless decisions, and helps you focus on what is truly important.
I feel the same goes with photography. While I do enjoy color photography (both shooting it and looking at it)— one of the downsides I’ve found with color is that you’re more a slave to the light, as well as colors.
For example, a colorless scene isn’t very interesting when you are shooting color. If you want to make a great color photograph, you need great colors in a scene.
When I focused shooting color photography (film, Kodak Portra 400), I found I was spending more time looking for interesting color-combinations (rather than scenes of people with emotion and soul).
When I switched to shooting black and white, there were fewer complications to worry about. I was less dependent on having amazing light, interesting colors, and other factors like this. By having fewer concerns— I was able to focus on emotion, composition, shapes, and forms — which is what interests me the most in photography.
Life isn’t always so cookie-cutter
What are some other ways we can embrace darkness and shadows in our photography, and life?
First of all, if you’re stuck in the office all day, you probably don’t have nice light to shoot in when you finish work. So perhaps you can use this opportunity to shoot more night-time street photography (most modern cameras produced 2016 onwards have amazing high-ISO capabilities, 3200+ ISO no problem).
I look at the work of Junku Nishimura— and I love how he photographs people at bars, and mostly at night. There is so much to explore at night, when it is dark— and there is a kind of energy that comes out of the darkness (just think of bar culture and nightlife culture).
I also think that in life, we always think that we need clarity and certainty. This is why we try to plan our days, create schedules, “business plans”, and other things to eliminate randomness and uncertainty from our lives.
But I feel that having some darkness, confusion, and “un-knowingness” in life is what makes it so exciting and fun. Whenever my entire day is scheduled hour-by-hour; life seems less fun. It feels like eating meat without any salt.
Even when traveling— my favorite days are when I have no plan— that I take everything as it comes. Uncertainty, randomness, and chance is also what street photography is all about. Serendipity is about not knowing what is going to happen, or what lies around the corner.
So let us praise ambiguity in photography and life.
We don’t always know what direction we are heading in with our photography. We don’t know what kind of “style” of photography we will shoot in 1-5 years from now. We don’t know what kind of lifestyle changes we will have 1-5 years from now.
The solution is to make the best of what we have now— and to take each day as it comes.
Embrace the darkness
So in terms of aesthetics, let us learn to love having more darkness in our images. Crank up the ISO, embrace monochrome, and love the grittiness that comes with grain. I feel the grittier an image, the more authentic and natural it feels. Uber-sharp and high-fidelity images lack a certain soul and naturalness to it.
Furthermore, let us try to simplify our images and lifestyle. Let us have fewer complications, fewer variables, and fewer distractions. The less we have to concern ourselves with— the more focus, clarity, and purpose we can have in our photography and life.
Eric Kim is a photography teacher currently based in Berkeley, California. His life’s mission is to produce as much “open source photography” during his short tenure on earth.