Finding Inspiration in “Visions of Light”

From the darkness, they emerge

It can be very intimidating to do photography or even cinematography these days. It feels like everyone wants to talk about equipment or post processing. There are tons of websites and podcasts telling you what you should use or how to use it, but what about what to do with it once you do have it and know what to do with it? Where should you even begin? How do you find inspiration when your head is full of all this technical jargon, dos and don’ts, rule of thirds, golden triangles and megapixels, oh my!

For me, I went into the vaults and dragged out a documentary I watched when I was in film school many years ago called “Visions of Light” or “Visions of Light: the Art of Cinematography.” It was made in 1992 which is well before movies like “The Matrix” and “Lord of the Rings” came along. It was a simpler time.

This documentary is well worth watching whether you are taking single still pictures or moving pictures, if you are shooting film or digital or video, or if you are just starting out or have been a professional for years. It’s a nice reminder about the power of images and how in the right hands it is an amazing tool.

There are many cinematographers interviewed that talk about their inspirations and their own films. Some names you might recognize and some you may only know them by there movies. A few of my favorites are Conrad Hall (Cool Hand Luke, In Cold Blood, American Beauty), Vilmos Zsigmond (Deliverance, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Haskell Wexler (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?) and Gordon Willis (The Godfather movies, Annie Hall) just to name 4 of the 20 plus people interviewed.

Why I like this is because they talk about the films that inspired them with such admiration. They talk about their own films and admit that a lot of the time key moments came from pure accidents and some from trying to work around a problem with an actor or a location. Gordon Willis had to light Marlon Brando a certain way and that translated into a whole lighting scheme for the “Godfather” series. Conrad Hall had a fan blowing on the rain outside the window and when the actor stood next to it, it looked like he was crying even though he is speaking without emotion. These stories are great because it helps me realize that even my influences didn’t always know what they were doing. They took what they had and found a way to not only make it work, but make it completely amazing. Accidents and mistakes can be brilliant.

I think this is also great to watch to get a flavor for all the different kinds of movies there are out there. You might find a style that you like. You watch enough of those movies and you can figure out what the elements are and then use them for your own photography. For example, I’m a big fan of film noir and anything Orson Welles touched. The Third Man is just pure brilliance and have seen it a ton of times. I love the dramatic shadows, the strange angles, the lack of fear of having subjects out of focus, etc. This lead to these photos I did with my cheap plastic chess board and the black & white filters in Picasa.

Inspiration can come from anywhere. If you are studying photography (like me), don’t limit yourself to only looking at photos and photographers. Open it up to movies, art, music. You could hear a song and see a photo in your head that captures it. Let the creative spirit flow, don’t let all the tech talk weigh you down and don’t surround yourself with just one kind of medium. Be a creative explorer!

Kathy Ann Bugajsky

“Anyone can look for history in a museum. The creative explorer looks for history in a hardware store.” – Robert Weider