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Dept of Ideas: Exploring the Art of Darkness

By David Schonauer   Monday July 18, 2016


Light has a dark side.

We know that the invention of artificial light transformed human life. But it turns out there is more to the story, at least according to Columbia University professor Noam Elcott, who thinks darkness deserves its own spot in the history of art.

Elcott, an art historian specializing in the theory of modern art and media, with an emphasis on interwar art, photography, and film, makes his claims in a new book, Artificial Darkness: An Obscure History of Modern Art and Media  (University of Chicago Press). It’s a pioneering  look at the phenomenon of artificial darkness as a controlled condition and at its applications in art and film.

Darkness is an elusive substance and subject of study, notes Elcott, since it “tends to succeed in its purpose of making itself obscure.” That makes his efforts at illuminating its impact all the more mind-bending. The book reconstructs the uses of darkness largely by examining the spaces in which darkness has been constructed and made visible — photography darkrooms, film studios, and laboratories — and the places it is experienced, including theaters, cinemas, and exhibitions.

“Darkness only becomes perceptible,” Elcott notes, “when we track it across scientific treatises and laboratories, operating manuals for photographic studios and cinema owners, surrealist and Hollywood film, avant-garde dance, paintings, and books, and hosts of other venues.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Elcott came to the study of darkness after first writing about the history of artificial light and art.

“I soon realized that the history of artificial light could not be told without the history of controlled darkness,” he tells the AnOther  blog. “But only after years of research and thought did it occur to me that the story could be told differently – and more compellingly – from the perspective of darkness: the invention and patenting of photographic darkrooms; the darkening of theaters and cinemas; the construction of ‘black screens’ for scientific imaging, trick cinematography, avant-garde dance and other attractions.”

If the impact of what Elcott calls artificial darkness have remained hidden, it’s because darkness obscures everything around it — including itself, he says.

“For example, when we are forced to grope in the dark, we become hyperaware of our immediate environment,” he tells AnOther. “But when we are in the cinema — a prime site of controlled darkness — we focus on the luminous image and forget entirely about our surroundings. In the words of the Surrealist poet and cinephile Robert Desnos, ‘the hall and spectators disappear.’ Artificial darkness enables other types of vision, and so renders itself invisible. We can describe artificial darkness as a technology of invisibility.”

Though they might not have considered it from Elcott’s point of view, photographers, filmmakers, and other artists have understood the powerful uses of artificial darkness. Elcott points out that magicians and early filmmakers like Georges Méliès used black body suits to create astonishing effects. “When worn before a black screen, the black body suit allowed its bearer to vanish, entirely or in pieces,” he notes. Today, black suits and screens have yielded to blue-screen and green-screen digital effects.

Elcott’s work comes from a field of study that gained traction in the 1960s, with scholars drawing on connections among architecture, art, politics, theory, film history and media, notes Columbia University.

At AnOther, Elcott notes that the modern forms of darkness he describes in his book — darkrooms, cinemas and black suits — are old technologies. Today, we live in a brighter world. “Modern artificial darkness has yielded to ever more luminous and ubiquitous screens. And yet, new aesthetic and historiographic possibilities emerge,” he says. The artificial darkness that shaped art in the past is now visible only because it is obsolete, he adds.

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