Tenebrism, a term often intertwined with Chiaroscuro, is a manner of using light where — as I like to think of it — darkness is a character in your image. Tenebrism, perhaps, went further with it. More entirely about darkness, not only a character, a theme. Chiaroscuro, for me, is the detail. Tenebrism, the commitment.
Many simply like to categorize these styles as the contrast of light and dark, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Contrast can be applied to any image, what we’re talking about goes beyond image into intent.
For the emotive qualities of true Tenebrism or Chiaroscuro, the photographer I believe begins with a desire to delve… many talk of darkness, few truly walk into it.
What is darkness’ role? What is it accomplishing? What form of unknown are you depicting? What’s back there? You must know, even though your audience may never. Tenebrism is a study of the unknown, as much as the known.
Poor Light, Strong Light
Instead of focusing on quality of light, shooting Tenebrism begins somewhere much different. Lighting is simple because it’s poor light. Not in quality, in scope. Three and four light set-ups are for the rich. Painters have no luxury. Caravaggio had no luxury.
An attic is where you’ll find Tenebristic lighting. In your bathroom — maybe — if you’re on the floor. The farm house. It’s not broad daylight inside, but it may be outside. Being cooped up indoors while the brightness and warmth of day stings from outside is the real contrast. It begs the question of why you are here and the light there? Why don’t you go? If you know why you don’t go, then you know Tenebrism. You know fear.
Poor light is still light. It’s not that it’s not bright, but that it’s not complicated. Your best bet is from above. If you had your way, it would be sunlight through a sky light. A crack in the barn is fine, too. If you go for studio light, that’s fine, put it on full power. Because you’ll be upping your shutter speed to ungodly levels in order to shoot wide open. f/1.4 is nice. f/4.5 is fine too. Depends on how much and of whom you want in focus. There’s no bonus points for bokeh here. It’s not that kind of thing.
So, full blast from above. But stopped way down — or at least down to taste. The point is you’re recreating the sun from above. The touch of God. Hope, life, but maybe accusation. What we do in the darkness is not always meant for people’s eyes. But it can be said that God sees all. And so this is the clever eye.
But it’s hard to be both bright and dark, isn’t it? So, if you’re light is too bright, for you strobers, don’t turn it down, diffuse it. Move it higher or a put a scrim in front of it. Maybe two. I’m not afraid of two.
Shine a Light on What
If the light finds its way, somehow, from the heavens into your depraved little world, let’s hope it uncovers something juicy. Something odd, something off. This is not a safe place for formal models. Many will argue that. I stand firm. Tenebrism is to beauty as rain is to cooking mac ‘n’ cheese. It has a deeper purpose. I don’t know what terrible underbelly of life exists in your private dungeon, but I sincerely hope that when the light finds its way in, it shines on the lumpiest part of it.
This is the well of flesh. The harbored fear. The plea and the bargain. This is where wives kill their abusive husbands — in basements. It obscures the pickle jars and dusty linens, but somehow finds the pale skin, the horror-striken eyes, the internal pain, the sorrow, the guilt, the shame and the fear.
The hardest part about our darkness is that in it we feel alone. That’s also darkness’ power. The light reveals the thing we thought nobody saw. And maybe — maybe — there’s a ray of hope in being discovered.
On Fable, On Myth, On the Darkness You Feel
The art of writing fables is largely gone — as contemporary humans are too confident to want to need them. Our great myths emanated out of a deep human fear of the unknown. To explain, we invented. It’s the best we could do without science, without physics to over-expand our rational brain and fill up the hours we once spent cowering in the dark. Churches were the patrons because churches owned the fables. But while we photographers may not get the call from the House of Medici, we can still pull from the fables. And humans still must confront their darknesses, somehow, sometimes, sooner or later.
This is about how deep you are willing to go into the dark. Because the further you push in, the more you will discover in there — about yourself. About everyone.
Caravaggio was the second choice to paint The Calling of St. Matthew, named after the church, as well as the Cardinal who commissioned it. Il Giuseppino was given the assignment, but was too busy and it went to a then-lesser known. The style of the day was Mannerism, which accentuated beauty, harmony and balance. With one painting, Caravaggio changed the course. Here, it’s not just the use of darkness but the moment captured. With Jesus and Peter on the right (and Jesus, hardly illuminated and already headed toward the door), the light shines severely on Matthew (left slightly ambiguous — God may call on any of us) who, prior to the calling, was a man in need of a second chance. A tax-collector, a gambler, greed and glut. A choice of the artist to turn his attention on the fallibility of humans. It was a revolutionary concept in style, but even more, in subject. It was the choice of the artist. Where to shine the light and on what.
Young Sick Bacchus above was a self-portrait Caravaggio did after his own early bout with illness. 6 months in a hospital, probably malaria. Try to imagine. The painting is a reckoning. In it we see the push and pull of all of it. Dionysus is a symbol, a god, a myth. But of wine and celebration. To depict him sickly? That’s not a dark painting, it’s a dark mind.
Caravaggio was a notoriously troubled person. A drunk. He painted at least 12 depictions of decapitation. He tried to castrate a man after a tennis match. The man died and Caravaggio was smuggled off to Naples by his wealthy patrons before he could be sentenced for murder. You do not need to be a drunk or a murderer to shoot in the Tenebrism style, but you need to feel what it’s like to be one. Which is to say, what it’s like to be human.
Find a dark place and shine a light into it. You’ll find it. It’s in there. It’s in you.