Mrs. Brandon Right Now

A Mathew Brady is of today.


Mrs. Brandon — Mathew Brady Circa 1860 — 1865

I will do my best not to write art-speak. The photograph of Mrs. Brandon, a print from a wet collodion glass negative taken by Mathew Brady between 1860 and 1865 is striking to me. Let me explain.

Because it is not in colour it seems to be more a picture of today than one of almost two centuries ago. The colour in any picture we see today seems to date it. Lurid colours come from oversharpening and over saturating contemporary digital pictures. Pictures, particularly those taken with colour negatives in the 60s have that faded look. Ektachrome slides tended to be bluish and greenish. Kodachromes favoured oranges, yellows and reds.

Jo-Ann & Alex note reflector on right. The string left lowered paper backgrounds

It is more difficult to read into a b+w photograph.

Perhaps about 20 years ago I went to show of the Magnum agency photographs in Seattle. The show was sponsored by Kodak and now expenses were spared. Within that show I noticed one salient fact. This was that war photographers had suddenly availed themselves of the 24mm lens. This meant that they could get uncomfortably close to the action, by risking their lives! The particular optical distortion of the lens, not obvious in good 28 and 35mm lenses, made it all that obvious.

Tara - Window light and reflector

In Mathew Brady’s time the look of photographs in some ways attempted to copy the effect of one by a formal portrait painter. There was a respectful distance kept and the camera was far enough away to take full-length or knees up portraits. One of the first photographers to get close and to crop was Julia Margaret Cameron.

As I gaze at Mrs. Brandon and having read Robert Wilson’sn Mathew Brady – Portraits of a Nation I know that Brady, like most of his contemporaries had a large skylight over his studio floor. The slow exposures of the photographic materials of his time needed lots of light and even then sitters usually had a metal framework behind them that held them motionless. Not looking at the camera made it a bit easier for the sitter to refrain from blinking.

Tara -Note flash softbox on right. Not too near so shadow on left not too dark

Before photography became the rage that it did by 1840 the most popular light for portraits (paintings) was window light. A window will make the side of a face close to it light but on the other side of the nose the light diminishes very quickly (those who must know can look up the inverse square law of light).

That contrast between one side of the face and the other could not be accommodated by the photographic materials of the time. They had poor tolerance for what we would now call shadow detail.

Tara - Softbox far away. Slow shutter to increase the lightness of background

So photographers “invented” skylight lighting, which really is an indoor imitation of a bright cloudy day. Shadows on a cloudy day are minimal. Paradoxically to the detriment of photography, Victorians used discarded (and not) glass negatives to make sun rooms/green houses so they could grow ferns and pineapples.

Photographers who shot in colour before the advent of digital cameras and in particular the old (old) ones had the terrible maxim of “the sun behind you”. People staring at cameras would squint at those noonday suns and the eyes would come out as empty eye sockets. Eventually some of the photographers caught on to shooting in cloudy days or under trees. But the colour films of the time accurately brought in the blue of a cloudy day or the green from under a tree. These pictures (before Photoshop) could be corrected with great difficulty.

If you happened to photograph businessmen in offices which were lit by overhead fluorescents, the effect in b+w somehow imitated Brady’s skylights. In colour the green made businessmen look sick.

With digital cameras and what is called custom white balance or white balance, the colour pictures in most situations will have clean whites no matter the situation, be it a snowy scene on the mountain (blue) or pictures taking with mixed lights like fluorescent with tungsten (light bulbs).

Jo-Ann - Far from window. Close to window the shadow would be darker.

But the colour and the quality (not as good quality but as a result of having been taken in colour) of the colour dates the photograph.

In Mrs. Brandon the lack of colour, the sharpness of the image, the modern look of the woman’s face in spite of what she is wearing, bring with it all a startling impact of taken just this instant.

For most of my photographic life I would not have been caught dead taking pictures with skylight lighting. For one I never had one. The closest was my Vancouver, Robson Street studio. I had a back wall that I painted middle gray. I painted the side wall white and on the opposite side I had a bank of windows overlooking the Eaton’s/then/Sears building which was one city block tall and wide white wall. If I wanted to increase the bouncing back of the window light from the white side wall I would incorporate a large white reflector as you see here in the portrait with me sitting with Jo-Ann.

But even when I could use this kind of window light with reflection back so that a face would almost be the same shade on both sides I avoided it.

A human face has curves. A photograph has some difficulty in showing curves because a photograph is in two dimensions. Curvature can be suggested by shadows. Flat lighting will flatten the body and the scene. Another quality of what I would call Flemish window lighting (the dark side of the face quite darkish) is that a chubby face will seem narrow.I used and use a small softbox (with flash) very close to my subject's face.

But now, after having seen Brady’s Mrs. Brandon, I will experiment this 2014 with the skylight look. I have no skylight. How will I do this?

I will pick a cloudy day and take one of my gray backgrounds to the garden. I will setup my Manfrotto boom with my 6 foot long softbox and suspend it pointing down while giving lots of room for someone to sit or stand underneath.

As our friend Rachel Maddow often says on her MSNBC program, check this space for more.

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