Anders Petersen and Coping with Harsh Light / by Neal Auch

In my last blog post I used Diane Arbus as a jumping off point for illustrating the importance of subject matter in photography.  I might just as well have used the Anders Petersen; he shares Arbus' eye for compelling subject matter in portraiture.  But rather than re-tread ground that I've already covered, I'd like to use Petersen as a case study in clever ways to deal with hard light.

Anders Petersen is perhaps best known for his work Cafe Lehmitz, a series of candid portraits of the denizens of a dive bar in Hamburg's Reeperbahn.   In that work, and throughout much of his career, Petersen works with available light; no doubt carrying around cumbersome speedlight rigs would spoil the raw emotion and spontaneity that make his shots so compelling.  

I want to use the images above to ground a semi-technical discussion on how Petersen often uses unflattering available light to great effect.  First off the obvious: he's shooting in black & white.  It's hardly a new observation that harsh light usually looks better in monochrome and, moreover, one has a lot more latitude with dodging and burning in post-processing.  

The second interesting feature of these images is that Petersen lets the highlights blow out.  He's presumably exposing for the shadows, which are still dark but have a richness of detail and texture.  (In the first image above compare the skin detail on the left side of the woman's face with the right.)  I think this missing information provides a sense of mystery to the images, but it's interesting that Petersen wants to leave the mystery in the brightest parts of the image, not in the darkness, which is rich with detail and on full display.  Perhaps Petersen intends a visual metaphor here?  Too pretentious?

Finally, the last interesting thing I wanted to note about these images is the way Petersen uses the harsh light as a design element.  In the first image note how the single line of line of light (presumably from blinds that are slightly ajar) slices the woman's figure in two.  In the second image note how the slivers of light (presumably from venetian blinds) creates an interesting pattern on the subject's face.  Of course this option isn't always available, but when possible it can be used to great effect, as Petersen has shown us here.  Great stuff.