Some Varieties of Light

by Bill Benzon

Anyone with even a casual interest in photography quickly becomes acutely aware of light. It defines what you do, but your ability to control it is limited, even if you work in a studio with expensive equipment. I don’t work in a studio, nor do I have expensive equipment. But I am deeply interested in light, and have spent a fair amount of time taking photographs where light itself is the subject.

This is one of the earliest such photographs. I’m standing along the shore of the Hudson River looking at the sunrise over Manhattan. For some reason I decided to shoot right into the light and see what happened. This is what I got:

In that photograph the buildings exist to articulate the light.

I took this next shot at sunset:

I have no idea where those dark splotches came from, but I love them. I certainly didn’t see them when I was looking across the river. They’re an artifact of the imaging process.

This is a less dramatic late-afternoon shot:

Neither of those buildings have those colors during mid-day light. The building at the left, the Met Life Tower (featured in Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140), is clad in grey stone, while the building at the right, an apartment building designed by Jean Nouvel, is clad is white, grey, and blue opaque glass.

This next is an early photo as well, taken in the late afternoon beneath the New Jersey State Thruway:

When I got the image out of the camera I didn’t believe what I saw. But I’d taken several shots, at various focal lengths, and all of them showed those glowing weeds.

More weeds, different location, different time of day (noon or early afternoon I believe), and I’m closer to the weeds.

That’s not really what my eyes saw, but when you flood the camera with that much light, color becomes problematic, or, if you prefer (which I do) interesting.

Crouch low to the ground so you can shoot into the sun, crank it to 11, and this is what you get:

You can see the sun above and slightly to the left of center, partly obscured by a sliver of cloud.

Here’s a frame from “The Nutcracker Suite” episode of Disney’s Fantasia:

As you may recall, that episode was set in small clearing in the woods and was focused on plants measuring only inches in extent. I was mesmerized by that episode when I saw it on television as a child (in black and white) and have remained mesmerized by it. That episode and that image in particular inspired this next set of photos:

You can see dandelions in the first two photos. I would love to have photographed one, large, filling the frame, like the shot from Fantasia, but I couldn’t manage it. The building in the background of the first photo is on Ellis Island. I was in a small salt marsh in Liberty State Park, at the southern end of Jersey City. I’m pretty sure I was lying on the ground to get low enough for the third photo.

I worked hard for those photos. This next one came to me in an instant:

I stepped out of my apartment building and started walking north. I looked across an intersection, saw something and, without thinking, raised the camera to my eye and took the shot.

The next two were quite deliberate. The first is a night-time shot while the second was taken during the day. It’s more shadow than light. Same thing, no?

More plants:

And more sunrise shots. The first shows the top of 432 Park Avenue, the tallest purely residential building in Manhattan, at least when I took the shot a couple of years ago. Several more billionaire’s sky-scraping buildings have been built since then.

Here’s the Empire State Building, once the tallest building in the world, but no more:

I don’t know what this is:

I didn’t believe my eyes when I saw it, so I took a bunch of shots, and that darkish beam showed up in each one. At that point the sun was just barely above the horizon, and hidden behind the buildings. That beam must be a shadow cast up into the mist by the sun.

If you look closely you can see the Empire State Building at the center of this photo:

I’m standing in Liberty State Park and shooting north toward Manhattan. The buildings to the left of the Empire State Building are in Jersey City. The Statue of Liberty is more or less directly to my right.

Now we’re several miles north in Hoboken looking at one of the remaining docks. Notice the lens flare at the upper left.

This next photo is badly focused – autofocus doesn’t always work. But I don’t care. I like the light.

These rails are not golden, but in the early morning sun they come alive.

This image is two-in-one:

I’m sitting in a commuter train looking out the window, which is itself mostly invisible. The people are on the other side of the car from me, their reflections in th6 window.

I’ll leave the last four photos without comment.