Renowned photographer Brian Briggs shares the importance of light in his work.
By Mike Brannon, Photography by Brian Briggs
As photographers go, there is a continuum from those who simply own cameras to those who are artists using their gear to pull life itself through the lens and record it. It all comes down to experience, choices, and an awareness of light. This is where we find veteran photographer Brian Briggs: bringing unique life to every subject he focuses on, showing each to have depth of life well beyond the surface. To be a great photographer requires respect for light and spending substantial time considering it under every circumstance. The making of a great image is a meeting of concept, subject, ability, experience, and quality of light.
You might ask why a photographer is profiled in a lighting magazine. Fair enough. Photographers know light and lighting – the mix of natural and artificial light sources, levels, and all of their variables – often seeing light’s possibilities beyond what others do. It’s a primary tool. What photographers do is freeze light in all its myriad possibilities for us to examine and reflect upon. This split-second freezing of light tells a different story of time, events, and spaces and is a record of what the human eye and memory can’t collect as we remember events more as “videos” than as stills.
Photographers also make personal, professional, and artistic choices based on the light quality. What better source to consider than the photographer’s well-trained eye? There’s a value especially for architects and designers here: to experience spaces without the distraction that their work demands and communicate it as a slice of time imbued with the feel of that moment.
A highly published photographer with projects ranging from gallery shows of the guitars of Jimmy Page and the Allman Brothers to portraiture, architecture, and his own art/nature photography, for Briggs, the quality of light is always the muse, ally, and journey.
Inspiration and Light
“Most of the time when I’m in rooms or outside, when you have an overcast day or with the golden sunlight low in the sky, it casts a long shadow that is almost always interesting. I remember a time at a coffee shop when I had a pair of glasses on an antique wood tabletop that had texture and the sun was cascading right across the surface of the table. It cast a long shadow with the optics of the lens causing a heightened glow on the table; it was just so interesting to look at. I took iPhone shots of it,” he recalls.
“You can create something with artificial light that causes people to have an emotional feeling about the form or texture and the light and dark of it,” he explains. “If you hit something with a strong light and it sends intense color your way, there’s feeling there. The opposite of emotion or feeling is what you get from the fluorescent, low energy, cost-saving light bulbs you see in hotels. The feeling you’re left with is tragic, and I stay in hotels for half of the year. [Hotels] will have nice furniture and fabric and then they’ll add these bulbs! I hate the room because of the light. What I like is a nice, strong beam of light that you get out of halogen bulbs. [I also like] the vintage bulbs such as those used in the old Fresnel lights for movie sets or photo studios.”
To Briggs, the Fresnel glass with its lenticular circles immediately evokes the image of a coastal lighthouse. “It’s such an impactful light. The feeling that you get from that has great value. It’s a photographer’s tool to use a soft light on an older face and a hard, intense, high contrast light on a young face. I do sometimes use fluorescent light in photography, but it’s a giant volume of light and it needs to come from a single direction instead of all directions.”
Good Light, Bad Light
What comes to mind when Briggs thinks of an architectural space that’s well-lit and inspiring? “In the Natural History museum in New York City, so many of the spaces have long focused spotlights on key elements in the building. They illuminate dinosaur bones or a doorway, and there’s a lot of dramatic lighting and you can tell someone paid attention. Then you go to another museum and someone – probably the board of directors – sat around and said, ‘We’re spending too much on electricity. Let’s put in all of these cost-saving bulbs’ and the people look like the walking dead; there’s no decent contrast anywhere and it drags the energy out of you.”
Briggs’s choice in color temperatures in lighting revolves around whether there are people in the composition. “If there’s a person in the shot, I don’t like to use fluorescent color temperature. I like complementary colors, like when you get some of the blue from dusk (blue hour), or purple coming in and then you’ve got incandescent light as a nice orange contrast — those are always an endlessly attractive combination.” It’s what people are used to seeing in sunsets, and that psychological effect of light has a lot to do with color temperature.
“I like light that is focused on something,” Briggs states. “If you have a painting on the wall, it’s wonderful to have a spotlight shining brightly on it. It gives light to the room, but it also gives dramatic emphasis to something beautiful.”
Lighting & Cinema
The amazing effects that were able to be achieved without modern technology in early film and photography is remarkable.
“One of the things that came from that period was that they didn’t have all the bulbs we have today. Color temperature was less of an issue because normally they were shooting in black and white — but their film was very mildly responsive to light, so they had to leave the shutter open for long periods of time,” Briggs comments. “They would use arc lighting (like welders’ light) which really exposed that film, but caused people to have temporary blindness. The great creators of the day came from every corner of the globe to Hollywood. It was like a Gold Rush of photography. They would study shadows and reflection. They would hold dried plants in the light to cast soft, interesting shadows — which is now called a Gobo.”
“I like the organic atmosphere of marble interiors,” Brigg recounts. “Marble has a serendipitous design in the veining and color tones, and most antique marble has carving in it. So, architecturally, I’m always moved by the artistic design in the carving and the effect of veining all mixed together in a molten form that dried into the marble.”
Playing with dimension is another favorite. “I like when you have many different levels and spaces that somehow connect to each other, where you can shoot through one room and another, and maybe a third room to get a dimensional effect that adds a real sense of spatial variation,” he explains. “[I also love] tray ceilings, where you get illumination behind the cornice, and that light is almost like a skylight or a sunrise. Architecturally, there’s always a warm feeling that comes from that. A background should be very supportive, but not distracting so I’ll blur it out with my lens (in a Bokeh technique) or I’ll find something that’s very neutral in tone and shape so the individual posing doesn’t get lost in the background.”
Briggs’ recent projects include the Winfield Gallery show in Carmel, California, and the Art of Guitar Show, featuring the guitars of Keith Richards/Jimmy Page and Dickie Betts. To see more of his work, visit www.BrianBriggsphotography.com