Ode to sunlight

I had one of those “aha” moments recently. Like so many of those, the actual moment was mere confirmation of something I already knew, but had never (or rarely) articulated. The more I reflect on it, the more I appreciate the insight I just had. Also, the more I ponder what I realized, the more I understand that even at the ripe “old” age of 53, I still have plenty of things left to learn and understand.

So what was the realization behind the “aha?’ Simply put, I love sunlight. Who doesn’t? But for me the realization was more specific than thinking how I need regular doses of sunlight to have my skin make the vitamin “D” that I need.

What happened was that I just finished a month in Singapore and Vietnam with little or no real sunlight. After four weeks of humid skies and shadow-less days, I was all but blindsided by the deep blue sky that greeted me in Ahmedabad. Upon landing in northern India., I wanted to write an ode to sunlight.

During the first few days after arriving, the long sharply cut shadows, sculpted by the clear, harsh sun jolted me every time I went outside. Of course the strong sun felt good on my face, but more importantly, my eyes feasted on the magical dancing shadows only found in places with strong sun and deep blue skies.

The tropical weather of Singapore and Vietnam was certainly an improvement over the bitter cold gripping much of the Northeastern U.S. No question there. But after the fourth week of clouds, mushy light, high humidity and drizzle, I think I started to forget what good, strong sunlight looked like.

I have lived I places where much of the year there is with limited sunlight including Brussels, Belgium and Syracuse, New York. Only years later did I learn the term SAD, for Seasonal Affective Disorder, something I now know I experienced when I was living in those gray places. That may have also been what I was starting to experience as my time in cloudy, tropical Asia wore on.

On a certain level, forgetting the magic of sunlight would be impossible for me. First of all, I am a photographer! Also, I coined the term, The Wells Point, to help photographers track the movement of the sun so they will know when the light is good (or bad) in terms of making interesting photos with dramatic shadows. If you watch the podcast at: you will se that I am almost obsessed with sunlight. I now think of myself as something of a connoisseur of the stuff.

Similarly, much of my best work involves the play of light and shadow, usually but not always sunlight. So much so, that one time, an editor remarked that an assignment of mine was not really finished till I turned in at least on “Wells shadow” image.

On top of all of that, I came of age as person (and as a photographer) in Southern California. That is a place so famous for its beautiful light that an entire industry, motion pictures, was built there to exploit the great light. When I lived there year round I was not as cognizant of the magical light. But now that I am on the East Coast I visit California mostly in winter. There, I all but celebrate the magic of a winter’s day in Sunny Southern California. I love the combination of deep blue sky, minimal humidity and angular sunlight resulting from the sun spending most of the day low relatively lower on the horizon.

Places I have lived on the East Coast, including Philadelphia, New York City and now Providence, have enough of a mix of cloudy days and sunny ones that I thrive on the weather there. Too many sunny days, like in Los Angeles and I become inured to the power of that light. Too few sunny days, Like in Vietnam and Singapore and I get a bit desperate for some good light.

And there I was recently, ending four weeks of flat light and grey skies in Vietnam and Singapore. I hadn’t realized that as much as my skin missed the sun, it was my photographer’s eye that was deprived and then reinvigorated, when I did encounter “real” sun.

So what did I learn from my hiatus away from sunshine? Well, of course, I missed it. But, in Singapore, and to a lesser degree, Vietnam, I got my fix of dramatic light by photographing at night and at twilight. Singapore in particular is an incredible place for night photography, since so much of the city-state is amazingly well lighted.

In all the times that I have been to Singapore, I have rarely photographed there in any depth. At first, I thought it was because the place is so modern, but there are plenty of parts that have interesting visuals, whether older or from a culture I am not that familiar with. Then I thought it might be the fact that I was there so often that made it visually un-stimulating. Going to Vietnam, which I found almost equally visually un-stimulating, started the ball rolling on what became this latest “aha” moment.

(I need to note I made plenty of photographs in Vietnam. They were uniformly not about the light. They are all about other things that I reacted to in that fascinating country. Because of the war and my own close encounter with the draft, the country takes up a disproportionate amount of space in my psyche, so I tried to draw on that to inspire me as I photographed. In Sai Gon (two words is their proper spelling) I tried to draw on my emotional reaction to the frenetic pace of life and business there. This approach worked particularly well because I am experimenting so much with multi-media these days.)

The “aha” moment I recently had goes like this: “I really am a photographer, someone who draws with light.” Take away my sunlight and you’ve taken away a part of me. I know that is obvious now, but I can be a little slow. It took four weeks in the mushy light of the tropics followed by a few days in bright, wonderful sunlight to really appreciate it. Better late than never.

One response to “Ode to sunlight”

  1. very powerful point.

    I was afraid, however for a moment, that you were going to say you missed sunlight so much that you were abandoning the wells points and sunlight at all hours of the day was now good 🙂

    I was just looking at photos by walker evans and wynn bullock this week, and shared with someone that I thought that these were two photographers who were not afraid of dark and shadow; in the context of your ode and epiphany, I think they were photographers who often painted with shadow and dark. It an interesting inverse.

    I leave you with a song for your ode:

    Ode to Sunlight

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GHoYrr_TybI

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