In Praise of Shadows by Michael Dees

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“The Allegory of the Cave, Plato”

(Guest post today is by California based photographer and lover of Philosophy, Micahel Dees.I don’t want to spoil this further with my words, go ahead and enjoy his words and images! All the photographs and words by Michael Dees.)

I was recently introduced to a quite ugly, but most necessary, phrase: “You gotta kill your babies.” After having been summarily spanked through my recent workshop with Eric, I realized that have a lot of murder to commit. In editing my images, I happened to come across a few recurring themes. Namely, use of doors, windows, shadows, and even feet.  Paging Doctor Freud, right?! Surely, loving the pursuit of writing with light, these are bound to show up once in a while, how could they not?  They are elements of our world and we use ‘em a lot, especially feet! Shadows in particular, appear quite a bit in my images and I’ve wondered why.  If I were to recline on a couch and have a shrink draw out my earliest memories would they find untold treasures or horrors pertaining to this absence of light?  Probably not.  I tend to think that they show up so much, not only because of their obvious positives for capturing dramatic light, but also because of their cultural and narratival associations. Here, I’d like to focus on shadows.

“Compton, 2016”
“Compton, 2016”

“San Francisco, 2014”
“San Francisco, 2014”

­­Enter Plato, stage left.  When I was in high school, I remember going over The Allegory of the Cave in a literature class.  It was a good time, but being a rank materialist at the time, all I could do is see that the enlightenment spoken of was some further scientific truth or something like that.  To be honest, as neat as I found the tale, I probably didn’t ponder it too deeply.  For those who’ve never heard of it, here’s the essence of it.

The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection. — Michelangelo

Imagine being chained closely to a wall at your back for your entire existence.  In front of you is another wall with shadowy figures on it.  This is all you’ve ever seen, thus the reality you know.  Hypothetically, if one were to ask you, “What’s the reality of the world?”, then you’d reply, “Well, you see, there are these dark two-dimensional figures that dance around with a glow around them.  There they are right there!”, as you point to the wall in front of you.  But as you can see above, in the artistic depiction of the story, there is a higher (or deeper) reality than those two dimensional images.  It’s not that you stated a falsehood by asserting the reality of the dancing silhouettes, but the problem is that is stops far too short to be said to be comprehensive. It’s superficial.

“Quebec, 2013”
“Quebec, 2013”
“Long Beach, 2015”
“Long Beach, 2015”

More accurately, there are some folks behind the wall at your back that are holding up three-dimensional figurines and your reality is merely but a faint image of the truth.  But how could you know this, should it not be revealed to you? This truth is only made known by illumination. That is, the fire casting light on the figures, thus causing the shadows.  That’s the real final reality, right?  Not quite.  If you were to break loose from your (epistemological) shackles, you would not only see the fire pit, but you’d proceed to go to the light even further up the rabbit hole than you’ve ever been.  Up and out of the cave you’d go, making it to a whole ‘nother world.  That light is that of the sun and its radiance is bouncing off a multitude of created things.  Thus, Plato had his forms in the Ideal world, and all the things that you and I touch and feel all day all long are not as real, to say it loosely.

“Of course, this image reverses my point, but you get me, right?!”
“Of course, this image reverses my point, but you get me, right?!”

Do you get the point here? Shadows are not the main thing, they are…well…shadowy at best!  For example, if you saw the shadow of a hand on the wall, even in our world with all our experience of hands and shadows, you know very little of the reality causing the impression on your retina.  Is it a small or large hand?  Is it a male or female hand?  A young or old hand?  A black or white hand?  Rough or smooth?  You get me?  Or worse, is it a real hand? I mean, is it a cardboard cutout?  Or to drive my point home to the uttermost, is it the top of a rooster’s head making the shadow?  If so, I misstated the original scenario, didn’t I?  It should have been, “If you saw the shadow of what appeared to be a hand on the wall…”  As you saw the truth about an unknown and later matter, it changes your perspective on the original issue that led you to the new and improved truth in the first place.  Hmmmm. Welcome to the puzzles of philosophy, but I digress.

“Los Angeles, 2016”
“Los Angeles, 2016”
“Long Beach, 2014”
“Long Beach, 2014”

How could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads? — Plato, The Allegory of the Cave

What am I getting at with all this?  It’s that, there’s an inherent mysteriousness in shadows.  With shadows there seems to be a disclosure of sorts, but not the full story.  Thus, imagination is kicked in gear, and the viewer is invited to complete a fitting story.  Not all images with shadows have the same degree of mystery, nor do all provoke the same degree of story.  Nevertheless, there’s a prompting.  This is part of the wonder of art and image.  Strictly speaking, it’s not propositional in nature. Even if the artist thinks they are really breaking you off some deep thoughts, they are not.  It’s been said that a picture is worth a thousand words.  This is only sort of true.  The way I see it is that, a picture has no words, thus, it’s worth an infinity of words.  That is, if it’s an inviting one.

“Compton, 2016”
“Compton, 2016”
“Long Beach, 2013”
“Long Beach, 2013”

The idea of shadow and reality is not only employed in visual arts, but as hinted at in our talk of Plato, literature and philosophy.  In Christianity for example, there is the idea of typology.  This is where events, persons, places, and institutions can foreshadow, by divine appointment, later things to come.  So, for example, you have the Passover lamb as a shadow of what would happen in the redemption earned by Christ.

These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. — Colossians 2:17

Not only is there ambiguity and unfinished story embedded in every shadow, but often, a visual leading of the eye to the subject proper.  Photographers well know of the artistic device of leading-lines. Leading are used since, for some reason, our eye tends to follow lines when looking at images.  They may be invisible innate reasons (nature) or socio-cultural reasons (nurture), but we do it.  Any discussion about composition worth its salt will explore, and exploit, this truth.  What makes shadows such a neat vehicle for the employment of leading-lines, is that there’s an organic connection between the lines and where it’s leading. That is, without the source, these shadowy lines would not be. With shadows, then, we can get a trifecta: leading lines, a way to express something we’d like to “say”, and via ambiguity, the invitation for further “dialogue.”

“Los Angeles, 2015”
“Los Angeles, 2015”
“Long Beach, 2010”
“Long Beach, 2010”

Shadows show up in a couple of other ways too, albeit, not as imagination provoking.  For instance, they can accentuate pattern and texture.  But still, I wonder if there’s some hint of mystery or story provided in such graphic elements of an image. Take a zebra, for example. The pattern is inherent in the object.  But the pattern seen from light hitting a gate, or a crowd, is derivative. That is, it’s not in the object.  The latter is reminiscent of Plato’s cave, isn’t it?  An emanating light source must be behind the object in order for us to see the created pattern, but in the case of the zebra, light only reveals the, already-there, pattern.  Thus, we are reminded that the shadowy patterns created by a light source are transient, unlike those of the zebra.

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“San Diego, 2016”
“Long Beach, 2013”
“Long Beach, 2013”

As the sun runs its course from east to west, the shadows turn.  Think of it.  In the morning, the shadows lean long and west.  As noon approaches, the shadows and pattern disappear, as a vapor.  But hope is held out, for in a few hours the shadows will lean to the east.  But they are different shadows and other textures. A new world to be seen, but only for a time.  You can see them tomorrow, though, right?  Maybe.  It may be a bit cloudy and so the diffused light is not direct enough to create shadows.  Diffused light reveals too much, for the light exposes peaks and valleys equally.  That’s no fun!  Even more, as to the transient nature of shadows over inherent pattern, is that the sun strikes the earth at differing angles throughout the year.  In June, here in the northern hemisphere, we get our longest day and most directly-overhead sunlight of the year.  Shorter shadows.  Contrarily, in December, the opposite is the case and long shadows show up throughout much of the day.  Good times, indeed!

“San Francisco, 2013”
“San Francisco, 2013”
“Long Beach, 2011”
“Long Beach, 2011”

I make a proposal: one of irony and overstatement.  Have you ever heard the term “golden hour”?  It’s just after sunrise or just before sunset.  Clearly it is characterized by rich warm hues and, often, crisper light.  But ya know what else is so wonderful about it?  Long long shadows!  Hence, I propose that hereafter and henceforth, because of the aforementioned thus and such, we call that glorious time by another name…shadow hour.  Not that catchy, I suppose.  Ok, I’ll settle for the established name.  But what I will not take, is another week going by without us dusting off our cameras and getting out there to snap up the elongated obscurity waiting on us.  You’ll see them just inside the wonder-inspiring bookends of nature’s library that we call dawn and dusk.  Go get ’em, and in doing so, elicit the viewer to get involved.

Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see. — MLK

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