Dating back to the Renaissance, artists have used the dramatic technique of painting shadows and bathing a subject in a single light source. The effect was used both to illuminate and lead the viewer’s eye, making a particular area the focal point within a painting. The method, known as chiaroscuro, derived from two Italian words chiaro, meaning clear or bright and oscuro meaning dark. Burn it In pays homage to the beauty and the power of the dark print, bringing together the work of four internationally renowned photographers: W. Eugene Smith, Roy DeCarava, Ray Metzker and Alex Majoli.
W. Eugene Smith, perhaps the single most important American photographer in the development of the editorial photo essay, famously instructed his then darkroom assistant, the photographer James Karales: “You have to work it over and over… you have to burn it in.” For Smith, authenticity of the emotion of a scene outweighed the authenticity of the scene itself. Using heavy contrast, so heavy that it created a dramatic chiaroscuro effect, he believed that 90% of a photographic image was made in the darkroom, using potassium ferrocyanide to paint and pull areas back into the light. Spanish Wake, 1951 included in this exhibition, could well be considered an homage to one of Rembrandt’s masterpieces The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp painted in 1632 both in composition and sensibility of light.
Roy DeCarava in conversation once stated: “I’m not a documentarian, I never have been. I think of myself as poetic, a maker of visions, dreams, and a few nightmares.” Combining often pointed political commentary with aesthetic and formal rigor, his pictures were characterized by moody lighting and darker tones to break through a kind of literalness and achieve a creative expression.
Ray Metzker considered himself ‘an intellectual wanderer,’ his images pushed the boundaries of what seemed formally possible in black and white photography and in the words of Keith F. Davis, senior curator of photography at the Nelson-Atkins, ‘transcended any simple notion of technical experimentation of formalism to illuminate a vastly larger human realm.’
Italian born photographer Alex Majoli is the only photographer in the exhibition making work today and has traveled the world photographing political demonstrations, humanitarian emergencies and quiet moments of daily life. Inspired by the paintings of Caravaggio, whose dramatic use of illumination and extreme shadows came to be known as tenebrism, from the Italian tenebroso meaning dark and mysterious, Majoli’s images possess a quality of light and sense of human theatre which is again highly dramatic. Majoli, in spite of making his pictures during daylight hours, unlike the other photographers in this exhibition, uses an elaborate off-camera flash method to plunge the surroundings into darkness to create, quoting curator David Company, ‘something resembling moonlight,’ transforming the scene profoundly.
Pioneers in their field, the photographers in this exhibition, some of whom began working almost a century ago, invite profound reflection upon not only the human condition, but what it is to experience the negative space. Photography begins with darkness, an unexposed sheet of photographic film will produce a clear negative that will print as pure black. The act of ‘burning in,’ to take a negative in part back towards it’s original state speaks to origins both of the human condition and of the history of art.