Category Archives: Week 9

Let there be light

I have always been fascinated by Caravaggio’s bold use of light (amongst anecdotes of his “chilling adventures”). The stark contrast makes his works look like film noir. As our old friend David Hockney stated, “he invented a black world that had not existed before, certainly not in Florence or Rome. Caravaggio invented Hollywood lighting.” Now the question is: how did Caravaggio get to see the details submerged in the darkness and so vividly, and almost sensationally, reflected on the canvas? One compelling belief is he had used some sort of optical device, like camera obscure, to aid this process. 

Just by looking at this painting, he might have introduced a single strong source of light that illuminates each of his figures against darkness—very similar to a theatrical spotlight. After projecting those subjects onto his canvas, he then would be able to piece all of these photographic close-ups together like a collage—which is exactly how this painting looks like to me. Now, there is certainly no solid evidence that Caravaggio absolutely used this technique, but Giambattista della Porta, the Italian writer who first advocated for artists using camera obscura in his best-selling book Natural Magick, was in frequent communication with Caravaggio’s patron Cardinal del Monte. More mysteries? I think so. 

Photography: Recording or Creating?

I choose three interesting photos from different historical phases for comparison.

  1. Photography vs Painting

Girl with Portrait of George Washington, by Southworth and Hawes Studio in 1850

This photo was taken in 1850 by Southworth and Hawes studio, through the medium of Daguerreotype. As for now, the topic and exact meaning of this enigmatic image is still a mystery for people. But for me, the photo is interesting for presenting a contrast. Southworth and Hawes produced the finest portrait for American bigwigs at that time. In the portrait of a young girl, she is gazing another painted portrait of George Washington.

Distinct versus vague, relatively light versus relatively dark, the contrast between photo and painting is clear and meaningful. Photography is clearly a better way to record what was happening, in the field of portrait, it presents the figure’s look directly. Besides, the research shows that this photo is actually a copy from another daguerreotype. Photograph provides a chance of reproduction, making the image accessible by public. Comparing to the creating a painting, taking a photo seems requiring less initiative for it is closer to the reality.

  1. The Power of Recording

Photographing Nelson Mandela, by Peter Turnley in 1990.

This picture was taken by Peter Turnley in 1990, recording Nelson Mandela in his backyard in Soweto after he was released from prison. By shooting Mandela’s back, the photographer recorded the moment of how his colleagues are working from his angle. The photo plays important role in journalism after the technology was popular, for the picture itself can provide immersive impression. Lens became the new eyes of audience. Through lens, the truth was conveyed. From the Napalm Girl to The vulture and the little girlwe are all familiar with the power of present the reality.

However, the mature of technology also give photographer chance to “creating”, to “tamper” the truth. In 2015, Bronx Documentary Center held an exhibition called Altered images: 150 years of posed and manipulated documentary photography. From changing the scene artificially to editing the picture intentionally, photography became more than just recording since long ago.


  1. When Editing a Photo Is Easy

Karina Irby’s snapshot

Karina Irby, a bikini designer and model, post a snap on Instagram and showing how easy it is to edit pictures and portray an unrealistic version of yourself online. By posting the contrast of the two photos, she revealed she had smoothed her skin to remove dimples, redesigned her jaw line, thinned her waist, volumized her hair, thinned her thighs and applied a filter to make the photo seems glamorous.

The charm of photography is making people assume what it shows is real. That is why photography is more striking than painting. But now, editing a photo is so easy, the line between creating and recording is blur. The ubiquitous photos is creating a new fantasy for us, by pretending themselves as true.


When photography first emerged, it once was seen as the threaten for paintings, for it could record a scene more accurately and vividly. An artist pessimistically said:” From today, painting is dead”. Eighteen decades after the invention of Daguerreotype, we could announce confidently that statement was totally wrong. When photography took the place of “recording”, the painting turned to “creating”. And how is the role of photography itself changed? With the development of technology, everybody could take a snapshot and beautify it easily. First stand out for its reproduction to reality, the requirement of photography developed to aesthetic demand as well.



Alan Buckingham, Photography. New York: DK, 2004. Excerpts.

Martin Irvine, “Introduction to Photography and the Optical Image

Norman Rockwell- not only the photograph

The paintings I chose for the discussion are the works of Norman Rockwell. When I first saw Norman Rockwell’s work 10 years ago, I was impressed by the sense of humor and bright details contained in his painting. His painting depicted the daily life and culture of American. He used the projector and took photos of normal people, and then he used those photos to create posters and paintings. Even though people in his paintings look stylistic and comic, the figures in his paintings seldom came from his imaginary but come from “carefully orchestrated” elements that captured by the camera (Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera, n.d.). Norman Rockwell used optical techniques to show the image and trace the image projected from the photo (A Story in a Frame— Norman Rockwell’s Techniques,n.d. ) and thus he could precisely record the movement and the emotion of people. However, even though he recorded from the photos, his painting is not only limited to the photograph. He sometimes created the paintings by combining and referencing several photos. He also added his imagination into his art, with more details, figures, and even perspectives, and therefore, his paintings could overcome the limitation of the camera and create scenarios of meaningful content. There is a series of pictures about Norman Rockwell’s painting (Norman Rockwell: Behind the Cameran.d. ).








Reference photo and magazine cover ( Norman Rockwell, 1958)

For example, in the painting Little Girl Observing Lovers on a Train, the referenced photo showed a little girl staring at a man, and there is no couple, the girl’s emotion is not clear, and viewers cannot figure out her feelings. While in his painting, he depicted a girl staring at a couple and she seems curious and confusing. The scenario became much more humorous and dramatic and much more meaningful with details added by the painter. Another painting of Rockwell is The Connoisseur. Initially, I thought this might be a metapainting, and he copied the painting of Jackson Pollock. However, in this painting, he did not copy Pollock’s work but used Pollock’s way of painting creating a similar one. Then, he combined the man in the painting with the abstract painting and finished the final painting (Norman Rockwell Museum, n.d.).







Reference photo and Little Girl Observing Lovers on a Train ( Norman Rockwell,1944)

The Connoisseur ( Norman Rockwell,1961)

In painting, the painter’s emotion and skills are the most important and traditional academic painting genre put great emphasis on painters’ sense of perspective, feelings, and expressions. In the process of 3D to 2D, the technology of precisely copying and recoding could be a tool for assisting painting, but preciseness is not the aim of painting but a way of expressing painters’ idea and feelings. In Norman Rockwell’s painting, he utilized the photograph and projectors for recording people’s movement, emotion, and gestures. The technology of the photograph offered him detailed elements of the painting. However, he created the context of the paintings and without his creation of the meaningful context, his painting cannot express the in depth feeling and ideas of him.


Norman Rockwell Museum (n.d.). Retrieved from:

TIME (n.d.).Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera. Retrieved from:,29307,1943059_2005737,00.html

Norman Rockwell Museum (n.d.).Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera. Retrieved from:

Norman Rockwell Museum (n.d.).A Story in a Frame— Norman Rockwell’s Techniques. Retrieved from:

Norman Rockwell Magazine Cover 1958 Saturday Evening Post Cover The Runaway Norman Rockwell Ideas. Retrieved from:


Photos that conveys social, cultural, and technical values

Photo as a historical record: Invisible “light” that pictures our “Inner self” 

X-ray photography is somewhat different from general photography, which usually based on the capturing of an image through visible lights. The photo below was the first X-ray photography ever taken in Human history, which captured and recorded a major breakthrough in human scientific development.

The first X-ray image, “Hand mit Ringen” by Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, 1895.

The hand in this photo is believed to be the hand of Wilhelm’s wife, features a “ghostly” picture of her hand, unlike any ever taken before, with long, shadowy finger bones and a large dark wedding ring. According to folktales, Wilhelm’s wife actually said, “I have seen my death!” and never set foot in his lab again.

A photo that opens up interpretation

The famous photo, as well as the 1985 book cover of National Geographic magazine, Afghan Girl is a fascinating piece of portrait taken by Steve McCurry. At that time, This iconic image has earned McCurry recognition and fame among photographic society, yet also opens up more interpretations towards this piece of work.

Sharbat Gula, Afghan Girl, at Nasir Bagh refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan, 1984.

For general public viewers,  this image is a symbol of Afghan, a country of myth, and a country of war. The big green eyes of her are haunted with fear, perhaps suggesting her fear of war and chaos. However, some people have different interpretations. They thought that the fear in her eyes is merely the fear of being photographed, since, in traditional middle east culture, women are not allowed to be photographed.

Photo as the carrier of “Anime-pilgrimage“ culture: 

Quite a few Japanese anime and manga stories actually take place in real-world locations and borrow their sceneries. Fans of these works regard these locations as “holy sites” and will attempt to find these places when they visit Japan. They take pictures of these places not only to indicate that they have been to these places but also suggest that they break the “dimensional boundary” between real life and anime. The picture below features my visit to Shimogamo Temple in Kyoto, an iconic spot where the anime “Eccentric Family” takes place.

A photo taken by myself in 2018, during my visit to Shimogamo Temple.

The scene in “The Eccentric Family” anime features using the exact same place.

Vermeer and Chevalier

The science behind translating the 3D world to a 2D representation has been around for hundreds of years. Since the time of Aristotle (384-322 BC), it has been known that when light enters a dark room through a pinhole, the world is projected on the opposite wall, though inverted (Buckingham 6). Since light is known to travel in a straight line, the rays from above that enter the pinhole are observed on the bottom of the projection (Baldwin). Hundreds of years later, Renaissance artists would attach lenses and mirrors to the pinhole to focus the projection, and the camera obscura was born (Buckingham 6). 

Vermeer (1632-75) is widely believed to have utilized the camera obscura. His paintings are so accurate, that many believe there is simply no other explanation. During his time, Vermeer would have used the camera obscura in a very similar way as Aristotle. However, instead of viewing eclipses, Vermeer would have traced the projected image for his projects (Buckingham 6). More specifically, Vermeer would have learned how to manipulate the 3D world using mirrors and lenses onto a 2D surface to create the “optical” appearance in his paintings (Irvine).

Image result for vermeer officer and laughing girl


For Chevalier’s daguerrotype in 1842, the same basic idea of the camera obscure was used. Instead of a dark room, he would have utilized a portable camera obscura with a sliding rear box and a copper plate coated with silver. The plate would be treated with chemical vapors to make the surface light sensitive before exposure (Buckingham 8, 9). The sensitive plate would be placed in the back of the portable camera, and the sliding door would allow light to enter. After the exposure was finished, the plate would be exposed to mercury to develop the image, and fixed with a salt solution to ensure the plate is no longer light sensitive (9). The resulting image is also backwards, because of the same reason mentioned previously (Baldwin). 

Parisian panorama, c 1842. : News Photo


Baldwin, Gordon, and Martin C. Jürgens. Looking at Photographs: a Guide to Technical Terms. J. Paul Getty Museum, 2009.

Buckingham, Alan. Photography. Dorling Kindersley, 2004.

Martin Irvine, “Introduction to Photography and the Optical Image“

Three Photos, Three Topics

  1. Photo and the specific social context

This black-and-white photo was taken on August 14th, 1945. It was photographed by Alfred Eisensataedt and was taken with a Leica Illa.

NEW YORK, UNITED STATES – AUGUST 14: A jubilant American sailor clutching a white-uniformed nurse in a back-bending, passionate kiss as he vents his joy while thousands jam Times Square to celebrate the long awaited-victory over Japan. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

When I firstly look at the photo, it seems that a couple is sweetly kissing at the Times Square. However, actually, they didn’t know each other before. It was simply a coincidence that this couple-like posture was captured. The man in the photo is a jubilant American sailor and the woman is a nurse. The sailor “clutched the nurse in an in a back-bending, passionate kiss as he vents his joy while thousands jam Times Square to celebrate the long awaited-victory over Japan.” To see the sailor’s action from a different age, he might get into big trouble: he must be accused of sexual assault by people who are determined to fight for women’s equality. But his rudeness was forgiven by the surrounding pedestrians or even the whole country, because of the specific historical context—V-J Day. People love to see such a scene and Edith Shain, who claimed to be the nurse in the photo was invited to be at the 2008 Memorial Day parade in Washington, D.C. It to some degree proves that photos are framed by their uses and reception.

Edith Shain at the 2008 Memorial Day parade in Washington, D.C.

2. Photo’s function of recording  history

This was taken on the morning of November 10, 1989, recording the exciting moment that the first section Berlin Wall is pushed down by the hands of crowds of determined people.

BERLIN, GERMANY – NOVEMBER 1989: The first section of the Berlin Wall is pushed down by the hands of crowds of determined people on the morning of November 10, 1989. (Photo by Tom Stoddart/Reportage by Getty Images)

Photos have deep roots in recording and witnessing historical events. Digitalization makes old important photos more likely to be disseminated. Just type “BERLIN” in, you will get many similar photos that show how people celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall. Each photo of the Berlin Wall appearing in the research result have meaning in relation to other images. Those photos together are trying to renovate the atmosphere of that time. For people who didn’t experience the exact period of history time, the digital version of old photos stored in internet platform could be regarded as the interface, through which they can have more sense of how the real history was like.

3. Photo in the digital era

I took this photo by using iPhone 6s. The man in the photo is an American young singer named Greyson Chance.

Greyson Chance at DC9 NightClub By Yutong Zhang

His live show in DC9 Nightclub in Washington, D.C. was the starting point of his new album tour. I took this photo standing right before the stage when he was singing. After the live show, I uploaded a series of his live show photos and videos on Weibo. Surprisingly within less a day, I got over 1000 notifications saying that my photos or videos were re-twitted or commented or liked by other strange Users. The development of digital camera gives rise to paparazzi and fan culture. Initially, media provides a range of perfect platforms for photos to be noticed. But nowadays photos are now being using to attracting audiences for media. Even though photos are actually the repetition of daily life, they provide audiences with more visual shock than bucks of characters or letters. Familiar with the feature of photographs, some fans are aware of the opportunity of earning money by shooting famous stars. They followed their idols everywhere, took photos, edit them by using software, and finally printing them as photobooks in secret and sell to other fans. This behavior actually violates stars’ individual portrait right but is always connived in the fan culture.


Martin Irvine, “Introduction to Photography and the Optical Image”

Alan Buckingham, Photography. New York: DK, 2004. Excerpts.

“V-J Day in Times Square”

American Sailor Kisses White-Uniformed Nurse on V-J Day – Alfred Eisenstaedt

Fall Of The Wall Revisited – Tom Stoddart

A Fraction Of A Second    |H.S Wong 1937

In the summer of 1937, Japanese troops sailed into Shanghai and the bombing caused widespread death and panic. Wong, a journalist, came to the bombed station and saw the crying child. He quickly took pictures and carried the child to safety. The photo, known as “bloody Saturday,” is one of the most powerful news photographs ever taken, and the pain of the baby is thought to represent the plight of China and the bloodiness of Japan.

At that time, Wong saw a man helping two children near the railway track. He first lifted one child off the rail and put it on the platform, and then went to hold another injured child. Acting on instinct as a photographer, wang immediately captured the scene and ran to save the child. Due to the film is not much, finally presented only a dozen seconds. On September 15 in that year, the photo was shown in the United States, causing huge repercussions. At the same time, the major newspapers used “Bloody Saturday” to report the Japanese bombing of civilians. It was said 136 million people had viewed the image. Of those, at least 50 million were viewed through newspapers and 80 million through newsreels. There were only a couple of billion people in the world at that time, and a lot of places still lived primitive life style. We can say that anyone who could read a newspaper or a newsreel had seen this picture.

The response was unprecedented, shocking not only the United States, but the world. Western countries, previously indifferent to Japan’s invasion of China, suddenly changed their attitude, condemning the Japanese army and expressing sympathy for the Chinese people.

To this extent, this photo shows the power of truth and misery.  It is a scene “just ‘out there’ waiting to be taken, captured from nature, or simply a ‘quotation from reality’ requiring nothing but pointing and shooting in the right direction.” (Irvine). The truth value of the picture was displayed in the war. A small picture could arouse such a big social impact. In Bresson’s own words, “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.”

In my opinion, the theory of decisive moment can be described in another way: the photographer should be involved in the happening events and summarize the essence of the whole event. For a complete event to occur, there must be an event that can fully represent the center of the overall event. What I do as a photographer is to forget my own existence and integrate myself into the whole event to find this event and shoot it, so as to achieve the expression I need.  |Paul Graham 1984-1985

First of all, many people must feel that this kind of picture is just like a random shot, who can change who. But all of his pictures were taken in large format. And a lot of people have known how troublesome is to shoot a large picture. It can be said that the photographer will be very cautious when shooting. So every single picture of the big picture was taken with a lot of thought. One of the most striking points of this picture is the sight of adults looking to the right and children looking to the left. Adults sat there with dull faces and numbness, while the child in the pram in front and the child on the bench behind seemed to be full of vitality and curious about the world. From the perspective of clothes, it is also like a metaphor. Adults are dark colors, while children are lively colors, like a contradiction of The Times. Back then, the thatcher government used economic measures to rein in wage demands, leading to rising unemployment across England. As a result, there will be a lot of job seekers waiting anxiously. Graham recorded what was happening in the moment.

To this extent, we can say that the picture was made. Graham intended to use the contrastive tension to depict the that period: the Thatcher Government took economic measures to control people’s demand for wages, which led to the increase of unemployment in England. As a result, there were a lot of job seekers waiting anxiously. The photo not only provides a kind of testimony, but also a kind of material for people to imagine. The original country was like this, and the audience would inject their own interpretation into it.

The real life that lens faces is the marble collision of numerous and various events, presenting the appearance of despicable and accidental in every instant. Therefore, it must be a fantasy to assume that there exists a moment that can decisively present the whole event. It is impossible for everything and people in the moment to present the complete meaning. However, some immediate associations can be organized by pressing the shutter and the moment of composition. At the same time, such associations can also present the structure of forms.

This photo was took in this spring break. My friend use an app called NOMO to record that moment. This app can make the digital photo have the film sense. These days, film sense is a kind of nostalgia. People can simply using apps instead of real film camera to create such a photo with graininess. And we do not need to add an additional filter to this picture. And then I posted the photo on my social account to record my spring break.

Nowadays, more and more people love taking pictures whatever technology they use. Some are using cameras, some are using phones. Photography is now the most popular, the most healthy, the most widely involved medium. It is easy to use, to spread and with high viscosity.

It makes the art become public art. People can just use their phone to create a piece of art.

First of all, the economic cost is low. After photography enters the digital age, as a photography lover, you no longer need a special darkroom and do not need to buy a large amount of film and photographic paper. The substantial reduction of consumable investment makes the economic cost of photography reach a very low level.

Secondly, the time cost is low. If I am a painting lover, I need to sit somewhere for an afternoon for a painting. Although this problem also exists in some subjects of photography, most of the time it is very efficient. Furthermore, the technical threshold is low, you do not need to learn any skill at first. You can just press the shutter. And with the fast development of different picture-enhancing apps, people can adjust their pictures easily.

Finally, the threshold for sharing is low, nowadays, I took a favorite photo which can be uploaded to weibo and ins, and then within a few hours, all my friends have seen it, sent to some picture websites to a wider audience.

Besides, one of the most important aspects of photography is the breakdown of concepts. People hate abstract concepts, which are relatively abstract when expressed in words. Picture is a more advanced information carrier than text. It can express the delicate and vivid side, such as people’s eyes. Text is less direct than a picture.

From my perspective, photography expresses an attitude: I am alive at the moment, I love the life in front of me. With taking photos more frequently, people will experience beauty in three levels: ignorant perception of beauty, clear discovery of beauty and skillful creation of beauty.


Alan Buckingham, Photography. New York: DK, 2004. Excerpts.

Cartier-Bresson, Henri and Michael L. Sand. 1999. The Mind’s Eye : Writings on Photography and Photographers. 1st ed. New York, N.Y: Aperture.

Martin Irvine, “Introduction to Photography and the Optical Image

Both Realistic Painting and Photograph can Record Information

“The optical look is a stimulation of a single lens point of view projected on a 2D space” (Irvine, 2019). It is also known as realistic look, interpreting the real world. Johannes Vermeer is one of the artists using optical look to draw. “He learned how lenses and mirrors can be used to make projections of light from three-dimensional objects in space onto two-dimensional surfaces” (Irvine, 2019). One of his most famous paintings, Girl with a Pearl Earring, reflects this idea.

Scarlett Johansson & Girl with a Pearl Earring

Girl with a Peal Earring is a typical portrait work. The light comes from the upper left outside the frame of the painting, highlighting the right side of the girl’s face and shading the other side of her face. The girl’s pupils and the pearl earring also reflect the light. This painting looks like someone makes a photograph for the girl, capturing her facial expression and the wrinkles of the clothes. Scarlett Johansson was shot a stage photo when making the film, Girl with a Pearl Earring, imitating the girl in the painting.

The comparison between the actress and the character of the painting emphasizes how the realistic painting and photograph represent the real world: the lens-based projection fixes a 2D image on a substrate. Camera works in the way that painters use their retina to capture the picture in front of them.