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Seeking the Shadows 

A shadow is produced from a light source blocked by an object in three-dimensional space. It can be viewed as a projection or extension of the object. Drawing, painting, photography, and digital production use shadows to replicate the feeling of our 3D world despite being projected in a 2D space. Moreover, the blocking of light, of which the shadow is a product, is analogous to the dark side of the human psyche in psychoanalysis; a concept that is portrayed in literature and art. 

The visual style of Film Noir utilizes low key lighting to emphasize shadow, creating ambiguous moods and mirroring the characters’ moral uncertainties. Often a character is shown with key light cast on one side of their face while the other half is in shadow. This effect illustrates the character’s internal turmoil of conflicting ‘good’ and ‘bad’ decisions. For example, in Citizen Kane, the director Orson Welles uses exaggerated angled lighting techniques to better articulate the scene’s mood and the character’s underlying motivations. Kane’s face is continually shown with this one-sided lighting (Carlson 990).  

Film Noir informs my work through its use of shadows, urban streets, and mysterious watchers. Characters navigate the dark and deceptive streets, never knowing what is lurking in the shadows, who may be watching, or, in fact, following them (Naremore 9).  

Often set in urban areas during the late hours of the evening, lighting choices and removal of colour in Film Noir mimic our experience of night. As dusk descends and shadows sink, bright colours of the landscape transition into rich darks. Our light-dependent vision adjusts to low light by shifting from the prominent cone cells, which require light to see detail and colour, to the rod cells that see shapes and movement for depth and distance. This transition into scotopic vision changes how we perceive our environment. We no longer differentiate objects by colour, but rather by shape and movement. For example, walking on a wooded path, where light sources are weak, it becomes difficult to differentiate the shapes of trees as their shadows morph and blur. To make up for our diminished sight, our other senses become heightened; “precisely when our capacity to see, as well as our vocabulary, is under the most pressure, there emerges the most intense power of concentration and watchfulness” (Sorensen 72).  Our lack of night vision creates an obscure environment where things don’t quite appear as they seem.  As described by Fanz Kafta in his short story At Night: 

Deeply lost in the night. Just as one sometimes lowers one’s head to reflect, thus to be utterly lost in the night. All around people are asleep. It’s just play acting, an innocent self-deception, that they sleep in houses, in safe beds, under a safe roof, stretched out or curled up on mattresses, in sheets, under blankets; in reality they have flocked together as they had once upon a time and again later in a deserted region, a camp in the open, a countless number of men, an army, a people, under a cold sky on cold earth, collapsed where once they had stood, forehead pressed on the arm, face to the ground, breathing quietly. And you are watching, are one of the watchmen, you find the next one by brandishing a burning stick from the brushwood pile beside you. Why are you watching? Someone must watch, it is said. Someone must be there.  

As diurnal creatures, our social structure also influences our perception of the night. Street lights and artificial lighting mean we are no longer dependent on the sun’s light. Street lights are, in and of themselves, a surveillance method. The night is predominantly a less active time, inhabited by those who may have no other choice. In the chapter ‘Night Life’, Schivellbusch specifically references the social structure of 17th century London, where night time was for the elite Bourgeois class, as they need not be up as early as the working class (Schivellbush 137). On the other hand, in Charles Dickens’ ‘Night Walks’, Dickens describes his walk through the streets of London and portrays the social aspect of night in cities, dimly lit quiet streets populated by the homeless and night workers (Dickens 127). For Dickens, the night is tied to the isolation and sorrow of those who must exist in the shadows. As evening comes, the once busy streets filled with daytime workers become quiet and still.  Darkness is where the disregarded truths of society lie, and in fact, night is the time where hidden truths emerge. 

A similar scene to Dickens’ ‘Night Walks’, is depicted in Jeff Wall’s photograph Night. The dark image reveals two figures wrapped in blankets, slumped against a cement wall; a bridge is overhead and a body of water is in the foreground. Briony Fer compares looking at the work to how one's eyes adjust at night, “[it] takes some moments for the eyes to adjust but then an image of a cityscape gradually unfolds” (Fer 73). Fer further expands; Wall’s use of a dark monochrome palette allows the scene to reveal itself to the viewer only if they spend time engaging with it. In both Wall and Dickens’ depictions of nocturnes, there is a romanticized element representing the other side of night.  Other than fear, loss, and sadness, there is an element of mystery.  Night vision alters what we think we see to become stronger than what is apparent. With the lack of light and colour, are we more aware of our surroundings, or does the ambiguous nature of night allow the shadow to be romanticized?  

In Lynn Hershman Leeson’s installation, Shadow Stalker, shadows allude to hidden meanings lurking in the work. In the installation, viewers are asked to input their email addresses upon entering the space. Next, every email is connected to data servers that project each viewer's information onto a projected video stream. As viewers walk farther into the exhibition space, the silhouette of their shadow is captured and projected onto a map of New York City, where their documented location-based data is then exposed. Relating to her other works, Leeson is implicating her viewers, through their voluntary interactions, to provoke questions of agency and identity in the age of digital technology. The shadow here is linked to their location and connected to the viewer’s digital data bank. Similar to how data is collected, shadows are a product of a specific place and time and always attached to us. Likewise, the term stalker in the title, implies devious, obsessive, non-consensual attention with dark intentions. The stalker created in Leeson’s installation is the algorithm of a digital shadow. Similar to psychoanalysis’ method of extraction from the darkness, Leeson is trying to bring issues of data collection to light in order to be cured.  

Surveillance cameras are built with both black and white imaging systems, used for depth perception and to distinguish shapes, like the human eye.  Footage is rendered in a high contrast monochromatic medium in order to document crimes of the shadowy night, to surveil and watch that which is not accessible in the immediate present (Gao 3). Cameras are programmed to capture movement and ‘see’ in utter darkness. This is accomplished with infrared technology. Infrared is a wavelength in the non-visible spectrum; hence, most surveillance footage is in black-and-white. Similarly, when photography was first developed, it was thought to show us things beyond our vision. If a picture was captured it was believed to show exactly what was present in that moment. Later, it was recognized that evidence of a photographic event did not in fact mean it was accurate. However, black-and-white images are still considered archival and true representations of former events because photography and films in the past were produced solely in black-and-white (Grainge 90). No matter the creation date, the viewer will inherently believe the monochromatic medium as a past event, separate from our temporal reality, and entrenched with elements of definitive truth.  In addition to this preconceived trust of the black-and-white image, surveillance footage is often presented as evidence of absolute truth.  

Oddly enough, video information processing systems, such as visual surveillance, sport event interpretation, and human computer interactions, use moving object detection (MOD) to process scene segments from the foreground (moving) and background. Using this technology, shadows often interfere with the quality of the differentiation between these two grounds.  As Ariel Amato describes, "an effective shadows detection algorithm is highly desirable for wide range of real-world applications [including] to obtain a precise and accurate foreground segmentation, by removing the negative effect caused by moving cast shadows" (21). This manipulation is not without consequences. In ‘The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept’, Leo Marx warns that the bewitching nature of technology as a mystical, solve-all form is dangerous because it does not hold the user accountable (562). How is our reality altered by this perception of the complete truth being captured on surveillance cameras and in digital data, when in fact what is seen could be in the shadows? 


In these examples, shadows represent an artistic technique to make 2D renderings mimic 3D reality and representations of dark intentions. At night, when our vision is compromised, shadows blur and play tricks. In film noir, shadows illustrate that there is more to be seen in darkness than in light. In Leeson’s work these concepts are utilized to connect shadows to unseen location-based data collection. Similarly, I understand the use of shadows in my own work as representations of time and place, a constant companion attached to my form, and a plane capable of moving unrestricted by 3D constructs.  

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