Annotation: Quiet Light

This work was not a book on photography. It was a book OF photography, a distinction I thought I’d make clear before I continued. It had very little writing in it, though the images more than made up for that. John Sexton is one of the few photographers currently out there that makes a living entirely on creative photography–that is to say, he does not work for others, every image he takes is for himself, though he sells prints. I have a great deal of respect for this, above and beyond an appreciation for his style of photography (fine grain black and white, taken at dawn and dusk and other times when there is a particular quality of light. I’ll get to that in a moment). This was a redacted collection of a little over a decade’s worth of work, including some pretty remarkable images that I will discuss later in this piece. What little writing there was had been written by Colin Fletcher and James Alinder, short introductory essays to the book and artist. I really found very little insight beyond biographical information about the author within them, and won’t bother mentioning them again.

Before I get into discussing individual prints, I want to bring up the underlying concept behind the book. It is called Quiet Light for a reason. Sexton believes that there is a certain magic found at key times of day… the hour or two before and after sunrise and sunset. The light at those times is much more gentle and subdued, but that said, also causes things previously unnoticed to jump out. It is a quality of light unlike any other. I’m inclined to agree with him, wholeheartedly no less. It’s something I’ve believed in for much longer than I’ve seen any of Sexton’s work. It’s what I call Lux Ducis: The Lord’s Light. It inspires, energizes, it encourages the sense of wonder, of magic. Personally, living in Vermont as I do, I see that light more often than others in the country (it does happen elsewhere… but in my experience, not as often as here). It’s not just a time of a day, it’s also found in the air right before or right after a thunderstorm. What Sexton does with his photography is he tries to capture the essence of those moments of this beautiful, quiet light. While he does have a few “failures” in that endeavor, in my opinion, his number of successes is considerably higher, to the point of discounting the “weaker” images.

The first plate starts out the book quite well, with a finely done lithograph of a sunset at Panther Beach, out in California. The tonal range is remarkable, and the spartan setting really allows for the objects of his attention to really ring out, a distinction from the dark sand surrounding. A minor distraction, in the distance a man is standing in the froth of the sea, slightly blurred due to the length of exposure. On the other hand, plate 3, an image of a stand of aspen at dawn, is all distraction, for me. There is too much else going on in the image, a mishmash of evergreen and aspens, turning it into a conflagration of light and dark. (This is entirely opinion, of course. I’m sure others enjoy it far more than I do.)

Plate 6, a picture of a bleach-white branch sticking out of the Merced River I consider to be a remarkable image. The tonal range is excellent, and the image itself I find striking: the dark, nearly smooth water of the Merced, with this white branch sticking up out of it, mirrored in the water, like the white-clad arm of the lady of the lake carrying excalibur. It has both heavy symbolism as well as technical excellence, a combination which I find makes a strong image.

Plates 11, 12, 15, and 16 I found interesting and delightful, for varying reasons. These I consider “bread and butter” shots of Sexton’s work: it’s the sort of image that has a high technical quality, and is remarkable in content, but lacks a certain emotional relevance or abstraction found in some others. I point these particular images out because they are EXCELLENT images, just lacking that certain something that makes a particular image memorable or evocative.

Plate 19 was an image of a small tree surrounded by other, larger trees. This concept has good potential, but I’m unimpressed with the image. The foreground is overshadowed by a far too active background, leaving the viewer with the aggravating task of trying to separate out the focus of the image from its surroundings. In short, the arrangement of the image is too busy.

Sexton included two images of the same subject, which I’ll discuss together instead of in order. The two I’m talking about are plate 22 and plate 39, up close images of corn lilies. Perhaps its the abstractionist in me, but I REALLY like these images. Corn lilies have large, curved leaves with straight lines stretching lengthwise along them. As the leaf curves, the lines within the leaf curve as well, overlapping with other leaves to create a sea of abstract patterns, nearly surreal in nature.

There is one image in the collection that I like more than any of the others. Plate 39, “Fern and Log”, is simply fantastic. It is relatively simplistic in arrangement, but has a level of detail and tonality that is extremely rare and valued by me a great deal. It is the frond of a fern, placed in juxtaposition to an opened log, the wood grain at odds with the patterns in the fern. There is a particular glow to it, even though it is a relatively dark composition. The initial simplicity of the image at a first glance makes it accessible, which in turn is rewarded as you began to study the image more closely, to see the subtle details of the print. This, I feel, is a worthwhile image, and would have made the rest of the collection acceptable; thankfully, it did not have to carry the rest of the collection… Quiet Light was certainly worth the time to examine it.

Sexton, John. Quiet Light. Bulfinch Press, 1990.