Light in the Landscape Photography of Peter Schlör

by Milan Chlumsky

Modern Photography and the Role of Light

A characteristic feature of Peter Schlör’s photographic oeuvre is his remarkable sensitivity with respect to the play of natural light in landscapes. In his works of the past decades, the role of light – alongside the photographic realization of individual landscape elements in black-and-white tonality – has been of crucial importance. In his earlier work, though, he focused mainly on sharply defined areas of deep shadow that shape and structure landscape contours.

In his more recent photographs, Schlör’s principal concern has been the quality of light itself. Analogies to Old Master paintings in which light plays a vital role in the pictorial composition are unmistakable. In this respect, his work is set apart from the output of the vast majority of today’s photographers, in whose images the phenomenon of light is only occasionally the explicit focus of interest.

In recent years, painting has shied away from any serious consideration of the role of light in the way we perceive the world; as a result, many photographers are also content to minimize its role or at least to ‘neutralize’ it as far as possible or simply to ignore it. Photographic images are meant to look as though they were taken using flat natural lighting. The principal focus is on the subject itself. As such light usually has a neutral quality, it ceases to be a factor shaping the resultant image.

For example, the diffuse light that characterizes the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher (and of their followers) is symptomatic of a concentration on the object being photographed. (1)
By consistently opting for neutral lighting, the subject of the photograph becomes the exclusive point of interest, while the lighting (whatever its origin might have been) is not intended to attract any attention.

Applied photography also generally avoids the application of natural light. Ironically, the photographic series to be found in many glossy magazines utilize a wide range of technology and techniques to convey the impression that the images were taken using natural light. In movies, too, most scenes are shot using artificial (or mixed) lighting. In the products of everyday aesthetics, one can trace an ongoing loss of sensitivity regarding the quality of natural light. Only extremes of light are registered – too bright or too muted.

It was at the same time when artificial light first began to illuminate public spaces in the 19th century that photography was invented. At first, the main problem confronting those applying this new medium was how to control light. It was primarily a question of determining the precise dosage of light (with the light intensity demanding particular attention) required to allow a ‘drawing’ to appear on the surface.

The first-ever photographic image which Nicéphore Niépce (the real inventor of photography) succeeded in making in 1826, depicts the façade of a house. When two of his friends and fellow artists, Louis Daguerre and François Lemaître, looked at the result of this heliography, though, they observed the following: “We noticed that, in the picture, the two sides of the house that, in reality, run parallel to each other were both illuminated, which is actually impossible […]. Our explanation was that, during the exposure time, the sun must have changed its position.” (2)

The earliest photographs were unable to record either details of objects in motion or movement itself. After the patenting of the daguerreotype process in 1838 and the development of the negative-positive method, exposure times became shorter and this problem steadily diminished in importance. It is significant that the two persons who spotted the ‘light problem’, Daguerre and Lemaître, were both originally painters and graphic artists. At the end of the 1820s, Daguerre was best known as the painter of ‘illuminated dioramas’, while Lemaître was one of the most important engravers and lithographers of his age. A crucially important concern of both – along with a highly attuned consciousness with respect to the quality of light – was the precise rendering of objects in nature because both were well aware of the ‘inexactness’ of painting.

In its early days, photography set out – with the help of light – to render objects visible that had, up to that time, remained hidden from human sight. The brothers Louis-Auguste and Auguste-Rosalie Bisson would spend hours in front of a subject (for example, a sculpture or a façade of the Louvre or of Heidelberg Castle) waiting for the light to fall from precisely the right angle to lend the desired ‘plasticity’ to the architecture or sculpture.

The problem faced by the Bissons when taking such photographs was the poor light-sensitivity of their photographic materials. In their images of the Alps, the areas of shadow are almost entirely lacking details; although not always completely black, they are invariably very dark. Both of them were painfully aware that it was the light which was ‘registered’ on the negative that alone decided on the quality of the image.

Auguste-Rosalie Bisson: Vallée de Chamonix vue du Châpeau, 1860

The French architect and restorer, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who played such a major role in the conservation and restoration of medieval buildings, held the architectural photography of the Bissons in the highest esteem. Faced with the disappointing quality of his own photographs, the architect himself felt obliged to intervene in order to ‘improve’ such images. Thus, he applied inks and aquarelle paints to correct the problems arising from the inadequate sensitivity of the available photographic materials. In his photographs of mountains, he particularly emphasized those sections whose photographic reproduction had proved to be either impossible or disappointingly inadequate.

During the early days of photography, the difficulty of “faithfully replicating” (Wilhelm von Humboldt, 1839) nature was as good as insuperable, because the necessary exposure times were extremely long, with the result that moving objects were either blurred or not registered at all. For Humboldt, the exactitude of an image was the overriding priority. When examining a daguerreotype using a magnifying glass, he was even able to distinguish a single blade within a tuft of grass. This highly differentiated reproduction was a source of immeasurable delight to Humboldt, and it provoked a discussion among experts as to how such an exact rendition had been achieved: after extensive consultation, the Paris Académie des Sciences concluded that “light has painted it on the silvered copper plates of Louis Mandé Daguerre” and initially termed the procedure héliogravure (‘painted with sunlight’). It was widely accepted that light had played the decisive role in shaping such images.

Light in Painting before the 19th Century

In Flemish painting of the 16th and 17th centuries, a great deal of importance was attached to variations in light and the illumination of the subject of the picture. In contrast, Italian Renaissance painting always sought a fine balance between ‘atmospheric’ and ‘ideal’ light that was meant to determine the composition. In the earliest phase of the Renaissance, the main concern in this respect was to master the technical requirements of combining colours in order to overcome the previous ‘absence of light’. (3)
For example, Piero della Francesca was able to create ‘atmospheric’ light above all by applying several layers of paint – this required preparing in advance large amounts of oil mixed with colour pigments – allowing the lower layers to ‘shine through’ the upper layers to differing degrees. (4)

Piero della Francesca, Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels, c. 1460–70, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, USA

The fact that such light could indeed ‘shine through’ represented a gigantic step forward in the depiction of real light. It meant that, for the very first time, it was possible via the modulation of colour to render light of different intensities. At the end of the 16th century, Caravaggio was able – also thanks to his acute sensitivity to the fall of light – to utilize these colour modulations to guide painting back into the real world and to end the manifestations of Mannerism.

Above all, in Flemish painting, landscapes are no longer evenly illuminated, and more dramatic elements like cloud formations and the indicators of an imminent storm increasingly find their way into such pictures. More and more frequently, the play of light found in nature itself begins to determine the composition of paintings. Patches of sunshine breaking through clouds often illuminate several parts of a landscape, thus delineating the points intended to attract the viewer’s attention. At the beginning of the 17th century, the role of natural light as part of the observer’s perception of a landscape begins to attain central importance, especially in the work of Salomon and Jacob van Ruysdael. In addition to a subtle division of the horizon and sky achieved solely by the use of different blue pigments mixed in oil, the use of several specially lit areas is often a determining element of their landscape paintings.

Salomon van Ruysdael, A Wooded Landscape with Cattle, Carriages on a Track and an Inn, a Church Beyond, 1644, Tokyo Fuji Art Museum

In Salomon van Ruysdael’s painting of 1644 shown here, the use of light is an attempt to render observed reality as accurately as possible. The animals and the travellers in the open horse-drawn carriage in front of the inn are brightly lit, while the slow-moving coach on the left is in shade. One gable of the inn is also caught by the light, just like the church located in the far distance. In this way, Salomon van Ruysdael draws the attention of the viewer to several parts of the picture.
A number of details force the viewer to look more closely at areas that, at first glance, seem like abstract patches of colour until one notices another figure behind the coach as well as the two houses in front of the church in the background. Thus, with dimensions of 64 × 96 cm, the painting needs to be looked at from close up if the viewer is to appreciate not only individual compositional details but also the full effect of the mild early evening light on the scene.

In his Wheat Fields (c. 1670), Salomon’s nephew, Jacob van Ruysdael, opted for a larger format (100 × 130 cm). Seen from a distance, the separate wheat fields look like three large bright areas of colour; only gradually does the viewer make out the figure of the husband returning home and the woman with a dog hurrying to greet him. In the background on the left, two large sailing ships can be discerned; the house and the flat, elongated hill rising opposite it are bathed in a gentle light. In both paintings, light is the essential element that differentiates the various areas of colour. The aim is to achieve a rendering that is as true to life as possible of the sky and clouds, through which the sunlight is breaking in a manner that is anything but arbitrary. As a result, the line of the horizon is the product of skilled play with light and the differing intensities of the light falling on it.

Jacob van Ruysdael, Wheat Fields, c. 1670, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Photographers of the 19th century quickly recognized the potency of light as a creative and compositional factor, and they were to make abundant use of it. In the first half of the 20th century, experimental photography – for example, the painter Man Ray’s rayographs and Christian Schad with his ‘schadographs’ – utilized light’s ability to shape an image in completely different ways. The close link between photography and painting, which was maintained until about 1910 by the Pictorialists employing carefully managed lighting effects, seemed to have become a thing of the past. On those occasions, when light was afforded a more important role in photographs of the 20th century (mainly in black-and-white images), it was in its capacity to lend a picture a particular atmosphere.

The Slow Return of Light as a Shaping Element: Willy Ronis

Towards the end of his photographic career, the French photographer, Willy Ronis (1910–2009), was asked: “How important are the shadows in your photographs?” His answer was: “It wasn’t light that inspired me but that which it illuminated.” Yet he took two of the most exquisite light images at the time when he moved into a house in Provence in 1949. This building lacked running water and electricity. Perhaps this is why two legendary photographs were taken here: the rear-view nude portrait of his wife (Le nu provençal) and the portrait of his son, Vincent, who is seen drinking yet at the same time squinting at his father. The warm and piercing light of Provence is of overriding importance in both images. One of the light sources is a hole in the roof of the house, which Ronis repaired while always ensuring that his camera was within easy reach. Ronis was always prepared to devote a great deal of time in order to achieve an image in accordance with his poetic-reflective temperament. “Observer, ressentir, recevoir” (“observe, feel, capture”) was the guiding principle underlying his photographic work.

The Rediscovery of Light: Peter Schlör

Considerations relating to the role played by light in the shaping of images not only explain the most recent developments in Peter Schlör’s works but also lend them a new grounding. In critical discussion of his work to date, particular emphasis has been laid on links and parallels to such Romantic artists as Caspar David Friedrich and Karl Friedrich Schinkel. While such an interpretation is by no means unwarranted – principally owing to the photographer’s choice of subjects and his tendency to use a raised standpoint for his landscapes – it does overlook the importance of light in Schlör’s images. For all of their dramatic nature and seemingly romantic stance, though, they are entirely devoid of any sort of artificiality or romanticizing tendencies.

The photographer’s latest images taken on Gran Canaria, the small neighbouring island, El Hierro, in Cappadocia (Central Anatolia) and on Iceland are the product of Schlör’s awareness of the sheer compositional power that natural daylight can lend to a scene: “At all of these places where I have been taking pictures, the light can sometimes change very quickly indeed and illuminate sections of the landscape in a highly differentiated manner: the clouds with their highly varied repertoire of forms interact with the sun to achieve the effects of diffusers, reflectors, spotlights, brighteners, shades, masks and cropping frames. Together with the light of the sun, they combine to give the landscape its plastic form, and they are what render visible the different contours and their structures with their broad range of tonalities … At one and the same moment, this light lends individual parts of a landscape a spatial plasticity, while other areas appear quite flat in contrast to sections that seem to have an almost infinite depth. Sharply focused and diffuse light alternates within a single image, so that the transitions from light to shadow tend to exhibit very subtle nuances. Considered in this way, my photographs are ‘snapshots’ – analogous to sketches by those painters who, when looking at their drawings, always needed to have an internalized account of the play of light in its entirety before their eyes in order to transfer this into their compositions.” (Peter Schlör, 2013)

Over the years, Schlör has refined to perfection his ability to capture intuitively these rapidly changing light conditions and to translate them on the spur of the moment into visual compositions of remarkable intensity. To achieve his ends, he now employs exclusively the medium of modern digital photography in order to capture the fleeting changes of light at the ‘decisive’ moment. While sophisticated image-editing programmes now offer seemingly endless possibilities of manipulation so that – regardless of by whom, where or when they may have been taken – the most diverse elements can be assembled into a desired image, Schlör has chosen to not deviate from his approach to photography, and his images show only what his camera was able to capture at the moment when its shutter was open 5.

Schlör himself is well aware that his use of light is not dissimilar to that to be seen in the works of Flemish masters of the 16th and 17th centuries, most notably those by Jacob van Ruysdael, in which the differentiated lighting of a landscape includes two or three separate areas in which the light is especially strong. In Schlör’s photographs, just as in such Flemish paintings, the effects of the differentiated lighting only gradually yield their secrets. Details and objects located in dark sections initially elude the viewer’s attention; only after closer perusal do they become increasingly evident. It is precisely because they initially seem to have been ‘blotted out’ in areas of shade that certain objects attract the viewer’s attention: after all, the hidden is usually more interesting than the obvious. This principle of ‘decentralized lighting’ can also be found in Flemish paintings. Here, the transitions from light to shade are devoid of any artificiality, not least as a result of the skilful translation of colour images into black-and-white photographs and the moderate heightening of contrast.

As in the landscape paintings of 17th-century Flemish artists, it is light alone that separates the earth and the sky, mountains and clouds, the valley landscape from the mountains in the composition as a whole. The point of departure for ‘taking’ pictures is no different today than it was then: contemplation, careful observation and a mode of looking free of definite expectations in which the self is pushed aside in favour of clear-headed honesty.

Seen in this way – and also against the background that, nowadays, many exponents of contemporary painting base their compositions on photographs and thus are content largely to abstain from acquiring their own first-hand impressions – Schlör with his intuitive gift for employing light in his work is much closer in spirit to earlier painters than to the principal representatives of the photography of our time. In spite, or because, of the current flood of images taken using artificial light, Schlör’s photographs pique our interest. They stand in stark contrast to the tediously bright and cheerful world of most colour photography, evoking in us an echo of past times – of times long before the appearance of electric (i.e. static) light.

“Observer, ressentir, recevoir” is a motto that could, without doubt, be applied to Peter Schlör’s photographic work. His pictures reveal a profound critical examination of the creative and shaping power of light which raises them to a new type of landscape photography. As a result of his intense preoccupation with the source of life, light, Peter Schlör has lent the original name of photography, i.e. heliography, a meaning and expressive power that it had long lost.

Dr. Milan Chlumsky, Heidelberg, Germany in August, 2013

(1) For the two founders of the renowned Düsseldorf School, it was of great importance to achieve a photographic documentation (typology) of industrial buildings that would be as comprehensive and objective as possible. Single images exhibiting pronounced shadows or containing people were thus inappropriate to their aims. For this reason, they generally preferred the diffuse light of a cloudy sky, while they always opted for a frontal view of their subjects. The industrial building is placed (without converging verticals) in the centre of the picture. “But it is only within the series, in the typological comparison of forms of prototypes of a structure, that the individual photograph acquires meaning and significance.” (Eric Aichinger, Kunst der Dokumentation, Zum Tod von Bernd Becher, 26.10.2007, Artnet)

(2) “Nous avons remarqué que les deux faces de la maison, qui doivent être dans la nature parallèles et opposées, se trouvent dans votre sujet éclairées en même temps, cela est un contresens d’effet […]; nous avons attribué cette circonstance à la durée de l’opération, pendant laquelle le soleil a nécessairement dû changer de direction.” (André Gunthert, Daguerre ou la promptitude, Archéologie de la réduction du temps de pose, in: Études Photographiques, No. 5, Paris, November 1998)

(3) The term refers to the very even lighting of faces and the venues of biblical events; although these do, of course, include some shadows and shading, these are subordinated to the overall composition.

(4) Whereas Raphael used strong light-dark contrasts and, as a result, turned away from the generally accepted harmony between line and colour, Leonardo da Vinci developed the sfumato technique: in landscapes, the sharp outlines of persons were replaced by subtle colour modulations. In contrast, Titian abandoned the mutually delimiting lines of drawing and achieved (especially in his pictures depicting religious subjects) a supernatural light that is particularly striking and effective in combination with a low horizon.

(5) After taking a photograph, Peter Schlör first goes to work on the ‘raw material’: “Here, I make use of the available technical possibilities that allow an image to be reworked in order to join together single images taken in series over a short period of time precisely in such a way as I found them at the place where the photos were taken. Thus, nature not only provides the light but determines the format of the image.” (Taken from discussions between the author and Peter Schlör at the end of July and in early August, 2013)