7th ESRC Research Seminar ‘Light and Lighting in Visual Culture


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The seventh ESRC-funded Configuring Light research seminar took place on Wednesday 14 September in the beautiful Shaw Library at the LSE.  This was a more arts and humanities facing seminar, a departure from the focus of our previous ones, which have concentrated on different aspects of public realm lighting. The seminar set out to examine the role of light and lighting within many different cultural or art practices. More specifically, we were interested to explore the specificities of different conventions in lighting in a range of visual practices and to see where there may be synergies or connections across different visual practices – including public realm lighting.

Our speakers were asked to present one or two pieces of work that explored the following broad questions.

  • How does light operate as an agent or actor in different aesthetic and representational practices?
  • How are the conventions and rules of lighting derived, and cross-fertilise, across disparate practices such as design, photography and performance?
  • How are the material qualities of light understood as topic and as resource in different cultural forms and practices?

The two panels were organised thematically and we began with an overview on light in visual culture in three different practices: painting, photography and popular iconography. Chaired by Dr Richard Howells, Professor of Cultural Sociology at King’s College, London and himself a scholar of visual culture, the panel opened with Dr Elettra Bordonaro’s richly illustrated paper on 16th and early 17th century Italian painting. She examined how the socio-political and theological shift in Italy during and following the Counter Reformation resulted in a parallel shift in representation, with Titian and Caravaggio as illustrative of two quite different regimes. Titan’s bright landscapes allow the viewer a perspective of Renaissance life and architecture which were to be deemed unacceptable by the Catholic church as the Counter reformation took shape. She demonstrated how Caravaggio’s genius was to innovate a new painting style that focused in on the characters in the scene, through the use of directed and intense light. With background details in shadow, the story was told through this play of light which centred the gaze on the emotional qualities of the central characters.

This fascinating paper set the scene, literally, for more contemporary discussion of light in photographic representation. The London Square Mile photos of our second speaker – photographer Polly Braden – have a faint echo of Renaissance grandeur about them, with shafts of light pouring down between the concrete and glass buildings, while her amazing images of young people with learning disabilities hark back to Caravaggio’s style. Polly talked through her photographic practice and how she works with available light wherever possible to create her award-winning photographs. She also described her ethical obligation to create images of learning disabilities that do not resort to the usual ‘sad’ portrayals and she did this in Caravaggio style by screening out the backgrounds to focus attention on the faces of the people she photographed.

The final speaker on the first panel, Dr Richard Martin, examined the iconography of the naked light bulb. The naked light bulb occupies a significant place not only in visual representations of contemporary life, but in the actual social spaces we populate: in our homes, workplaces, leisure facilities and retailing. He outlined the many different possible interpretations of the naked light bulb and how it references multiple and overlapping themes, from its early roots in Edison-eque industrial ingenuity, to potent, contemporary signifier of post-industrial (hipster) creativity. The paper raised a wide range of questions about the importance of styles of light and lighting in registering social and cultural shifts.

The second panel drilled down into specific contemporary practices of light and lighting, with a focus on how lighting professionals work with light. We heard first from lighting designer Satu Streatfield who described the thinking and practice behind her installation at the Light Night Canning Town event. Her collaboration with the Brick Box resulted in a powerful immersive environment under a flyover in Canning Town that combined light and sound. Satu described her low-tech approach to this: water and glycerin in drums with simple torches underneath that allowed for light reflections and patterns on the roof of the flyover. The involvement of the public was key: their drumming created beautiful and dramatic reflections as well as powerful beats. The effects, while temporary, have the potential to inspire a new way of seeing normally drab urban areas that would usually be avoided at night.

The second speaker, Dr James Rattee is both a film scholar and film maker and his paper focused on his recent Configuring Light film of Thamesmead for our Inequalities Roundtables in spring 2016. Having once been the location of Kubrik’s ‘Clockwork Orange’, Thamesmead’s brutalist architecture is beautifully captured in the film and James described how he set out to show the different forms of light available. As our team learned, the estate residents like living there and are proud of the estate. Thus, James described how, like Polly, he was concerned to not simply reproduce a view of a drab housing estate with this film, typically seen as a ‘problem’, but capture the vitality of the estate.

The two panels intersected in interesting ways, with synergies and connections between speakers and the different practice emerging in discussion. This seminar definitely opened up a new arena for CL and we hope to build on the more humanities-based discussion in our next seminar on ‘histories of light’. Watch this space for news on that!