While browsing photography websites recently I came across yet another new publication, this time an e-book, explaining how best to create landscape images capturing and exploiting the ‘golden hour’, that magical period when the sun bathes the earth with a warm glow. It’s a popular theme on photo websites and in photo books, and a cruise through 500px or Flickr or other photo sharing sites will quickly find abundant examples. Many of them, to my eyes, are jarring, largely because they are very often over saturated to the point where they tend to suggest a recent nuclear disaster.
Though the ability to turn the saturation up to 11 in image processing programmes does render photography particularly culpable here, it’s not exclusive to the medium. A stroll round any major art gallery tells a similar story These galleries often reflects a very traditional view of the artistic canon: room upon room filled with works by the Italian masters — Renaissance, Mannerist, Baroque. Golden light is abundant in the works shown in these museums (though not with the eye-aching intensity common to photographic representations).This is unsurprising, as anyone who has been to Italy will know. This is southern European light.
However, it is emphatically not northern European light. Step away from the Italian galleries and turn instead to the rooms of Netherlandish art and the light changes. The warmth and the golden glow disappear or, at least, are severely muted. Instead the blue skies are populated with magnificent layers of cloud, or are simply grey skies. The light is silvery, grey, blue, cool, austere and to my northern European eyes infinitely more pleasing. Some Dutch artists did work with ‘golden light’ but in doing so they were specifically considered to be working in an Italianate style. The majority, including the prolific and highly regarded Jacob van Ruisdael, did not. His Evening Landscape: a Windmill by a Stream (below) is a perfect example of the silvery, greyish, bluish hour.
So, why the obsession with the golden hour in photography? Certainly, if you have this kind of light where you live, shoot golden landscapes (but please go easy on the saturation.) But for those of us who don’t, why feel compelled to try to create fake landscapes? Here in Manila, the sunsets tend towards the golden, and so, I’ve taken what I believe is my first ever ‘golden hour’ sunset shot, but I hope that it’s subtle rather than garish. Yet there are still those moments, even in Manila, when we experience the ‘silver hour’, and I’ve also taken that shot.
I’m no expert in art history, but I can’t help wondering if the same privileging of Italian renaissance art that is reflected in the holdings and presentation of works in the world’s great galleries, which presumably in turn reflects what must have been at some point (and for all I know may well still be) the consensus among art critics, has also shaped photographic thinking about landscape and light. Perhaps it is time to think more broadly. Anyone for an e-book on the silvery, greyish, bluish hour?