Photography: Moments of Incandescence

A certain moment may come
when light shines incandescent
out of a house or a hinterland,
through the cracks of a tin roof
or between valleys older than time.
Thus a moment is hallowed,
thus an interval is remembered
an interval otherwise inconsequential.

~ ‘Light’, after Sylvia Plath

Light, and its counterpart, darkness, is the fundamental element in photography. In fact, the word photography comes from merging the Greek words for light and drawing.  Light determines not only brightness and darkness, but importantly, the tone, mood, and atmosphere of a picture. Whether it is the intimate setting of a home, or the wide panorama of an expansive landscape, light lends an otherwise ordinary photo a richness of depth and mood. The photos below illustrate this principle. Chosen from the National Geographic archives, they are stunning examples of photograph where light dramatically illuminates moments that are “otherwise inconsequential.”  


Palestine, circa 1910

From shade to sun and back into shade again, residents of Jerusalem Old City go about their workaday lives on the street called Bab-el-haris – “Door of the Prison” – because it once led to an Ottoman Empire jail. “Nearly all the shops line the narrow lanes, arched over with thick masonry, the light entering in sharp slants from holes cut in the roof” is how the December 1927 Geographic described Jerusalem’s warren of medieval alleyways.


Pakistan, 1980

As if summoned by the circle of storytellers that gathered about a fire, a ghostly figure enters a Kalash hut on a beam of light. An Indo-European people who have long dwelt in their remote Hindu Kush valleys, the Kalash adhere to an ancient polytheistic religion – and so have been oppressed by their more numerous Muslim neighbors. One elder lamented to the October 1981 Geographic that “we have been told so many times that we are low, that is carved on our brains, like the carpenter carves on wood.”


Afghanistan, 1931

Shafts of sunlight highlight worshippers in a mosque improvised from a Herat warehouse. The image of purity and piety was Maynard Owen William’s favourite of the many thousands of photographs he made during his three and a half decades as a roving Geographic writer and photographer.


Nepal, circa 1980

Morning light breaks into the Sherpa village of Khunjung which nestles in a Nepalese valley beneath the soaring spire of ama Dablam, the 22,493-foot peak that guards the approaches to Mount Everest. The “Matterhorn of the Himalayas,”, Ama Dablam was first climbed in 1961 by a team that included Geographic‘s Harry Bishop, who two years later became one of the first Americans to summit Everest.


Oman, 2002.

An Arabian sun, which otherwise beats down equally on the parched platforms of Oman, sends one illuminating beam into the vast cave called Majlis al Jinn, the Meeting Place of the Spirits. The spectacular limestone caverns, only discovered by Western scientists in 1983, include some of the largest such chambers yet found on earth.


Turkey, 1930s

Photographer Maynard Owen Williams captured this arresting photo of hermits in Cappadocia, Turkey, silhouetted by the light of gas lamps in their cave homes. They are following the footsteps of habitants who have settled here for centuries.


Easter Island, 2008.

Giant stone effigies known as Moais gaze from Ahu Akivi at the Milky Way brilliant with the incomparable stars of the Southern Hemisphere. Those were indeed stars to steer by, for by gazing at them, the ancient Polynesians found their way even to previously uninhabited Easter Island, one of the most isolated outposts on the planet.

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