Without light, there would be no film, no photography, no cinema. It is often said that cameras fundamentally transformed and expanded the way people viewed the world. While there is much truth to that idea, the fascination with representing and capturing light has been shared by artists, scientists and philosophers long before the invention of photography and film. One of the earliest precursors to the cinema was a device called a camera obscura, which has been documented as early as the 4th century BC by Chinese philosophers. Quite simply, a camera obscura is a room or a box with a small hole in one side. Light enters the hole and projects an upside-down image of the world outside onto the opposite wall. It is one of the earliest examples of light-power projected moving images, and it shows that the transformative power of light has been understood and investigated by humans for millennia.
Lighting the 19th century
Many of the artists in Light: Works from Tate's Collection, such as Turner, Constable, Monet and Pissarro, famously transformed the ways that light could be depicted through visual media like painting. Across the 19th century, various technological, cultural and aesthetic innovations meant that artists could start to paint outdoors more much easily. This tradition of working en plein-air (painting outdoors) was hugely influential on changing artistic practices of the time, culminating in art movements like Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Nineteenth-century artists could depict the light while in the light.
These artists also lived in an era of dynamic experimentation in optics and new technologies of visual representation. Photography, and later cinema, emerged out of these experiments. The innovations of these new media were not simply to depict light in new ways as painters were doing – these camera-based technologies were only possible because of light. Photography’s revolution was to “capture” light, as the energy from photons caused chemical reactions on light-sensitive surfaces, producing direct images of the real world. The word photography literally means “drawing with light”.
Film went further again. Whereas photography “froze” the real-world image, film captured it in motion. Whereas early photographic processes such as the daguerreotype were small and intimate objects, the cinema gained popularity through its ability to be projected in larger scale and to wider audiences. Earlier pre-cinematic devices, including Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope, presented moving images in “peephole” devices, designed to be viewed by one person at a time. It was the French brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière (whose surname literally means “light”) who combined moving images with projected images, giving birth to cinema as we understand it today. Their invention, the Cinématographe, expanded the experience of the camera obscura and made it time-shifting, transportive, and re-watchable. It even gave the new artform its name – cinema.
Cinema’s birth in 1895 came at the end of a century that had been similarly transformed by new visual technologies. Advances in artificial lighting, including gas street lighting, merged with architectural developments in cast-iron, steel and plate-glass. These new technologies opened up a city like Paris, making it more visual and illuminated – the “city of lights” was born. Think of Moulin Rouge! (2001), which opulently interprets this belle époque era of the late 19th century in glittering, light-filled glory. Although Baz Luhrmann’s vision is exaggerated, it reflects the sense of spectacle and visual opulence that was transforming cities like Paris. Art, light, and eventually cinema, were intimately connected.
Expressions of light in film and art
The belle époque ended with the outbreak of World War I. In the European visual arts, the early 20th century was characterised by various avant-garde artistic movements, which rejected the opulence and established political systems that culminated in global war. These avant-gardes also adopted alternative visual languages that have proved exceptionally influential across art, film and visual culture.
For many artists of this time, light and colour become important tools of visual experimentation. Instead of harnessing light and colour to reproduce or mirror the real-world, artists like László Moholy-Nagy and Wassily Kandinsky made the most of their symbolic, expressionist and abstract potentials. Moholy-Nagy believed that light should be used as a “creative agent”. He experimented with it across many different artistic media, including painting, film, kinetic sculptures and photography, where he (and many of his contemporaries) got rid of the camera altogether and created camera-less images called “photograms”. Perhaps you experimented with this simple but evocative method in school art classes, where photographic paper is exposed directly to the light, with various objects arranged on top. Without the mediation of a camera and its lens, the materiality of the objects determines how the light passes through to the light-sensitive paper, creating stark contrasts between the deep dark (exposed) background and the light, often subtly abstracted figures.
Moholy-Nagy and his contemporaries were working in the period of Weimar Germany, the inter-war era seen in iconic films such as Cabaret (Fosse, 1972). The period was politically and socially volatile, but it was also creatively dynamic. Similar experimental tendencies were found across many creative fields. Like the visuality of photograms, stark contrasts between light and dark where typical of the influential German expressionist cinema that flourished in this era. As Richard Pells writes, German expressionist cinema was characterised by “contrasts between ribbons of light and insidious shadows, distorted camera angles and disconcerting perspectives, vertiginous staircases [and] windows that entrapped individuals”.
One of the most iconic examples of this style is found in FW Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, as the distorted shadow of the vampire Count Orlock (Max Schreck) ominously climbs the stairs in search of his victim. Probably the most legendary film of German expressionism, Metropolis (1927) was inspired by director Fritz Lang’s visit to the “glaring lights and the tall buildings” of New York City. These filmmakers created one of the most distinctive visual styles of all time, and their use of light and dark reflected the hopes and anxieties of the era. Many popular film genres today, such as science fiction, horror and film noir, owe a huge debt to the predecessors of German expressionist film and European avant-gardes.
With the rise of Adolf Hitler and National Socialism during this era, many filmmakers, artists and composers fled Europe for safety and opportunity abroad. A generation known as the émigrée directors moved to America, including Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger and many more; this influx of creativity had profound impacts on Hollywood. Visual codes of expressionism were adapted to American subjects and audiences. One result was the creation of a new genre, film noir. Through films such as Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944), Gilda (Vidor, 1946) and The Big Heat (Lang, 1953), film noir combined expressionistic visuals with popular literary tropes like the “hard-boiled detective”, exploring the seedy underbellies of modern urban life. Their use of light is often ominous, treacherous, and symbolic of moral failings or psychological ruptures. An errant apartment light exposes the conman Harry Lime in The Third Man (Reed, 1949); and film spotlights surround Norma Desmond as she utters the immortal final line of Sunset Blvd. (Wilder, 1950), “Alright Mr. DeMille I’m ready for my close-up”.
Another European cinematic migrant, Alfred Hitchcock, used every tool available to build his influential “master of suspense” moniker, including expressionistic and gripping uses of light. In his 1941 film Suspicion, Joan Fontaine’s character Lina starts to suspect that her playboy husband Johnnie (Cary Grant) is trying to murder her. One of the film’s climatic scenes rests on a glass of milk that Johnnie brings to his wife – has it been poisoned? The scene is a masterclass in the use of light and shadow to build tension, with Hitchcock placing a light globe in the glass of milk, making it glow subtly as Johnnie brings it up the stairs.
In Hitchcock’s legendary Psycho, light drives the tension in multiple ways. As on-the-run secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) drives to meet her boyfriend, the lights of oncoming cars (refracted through pouring rain) disorientate her; the neon lights of the Bates Hotel offer her a seemingly welcome, but ultimately fatal refuge. At the film’s climax where the truth of the Bates Hotel is revealed, a swinging lightbulb intensifies the horror and uncanniness of the grisly scene.
Despite colour filmmaking being the norm by 1960, Psycho was famously filmed in black and white, to visually dampen its shocking violence – especially the infamous “shower scene”. By contrast, in Vertigo (1958) Hitchcock uses the power of coloured light to heighten the psychological tension of his characters. Green dominates Vertigo’s colour scheme, used to imply distorted reality and mystery. James Stewart’s character Scottie has been trying to transform Judy (Kim Novak) into an image of Madeleine, a woman that Scottie lost and is still obsessing over. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, the finally transformed Judy emerges from her bathroom and walks towards Scottie as the room is enveloped in an eerie green haze.
This green haze in Vertigo comes from a neon sign immediately outside the hotel room. If gas light helped transform 19th-century Paris into a modern city, it is neon and fluorescent light that defines 20th-century metropolises, and their futuristic imaginaries. This is the light of advertising, consumerism, excess. Despite (or perhaps because of) their associations with supposed low-brow culture, these forms of light appealed to generations of artists who drew inspiration from popular culture and mass media, in movements such as Minimalism, Pop and Conceptual Art from the 1950s onwards.
Many visual artists turned to neon, fluorescent and LED lighting in the work, including Bruce Nauman, Jenny Holzer, Mary Corse, James Turrell and Dan Flavin. Art historian James Lawrence writes of Flavin that he “took a simple truth about visual art – that the only indispensable element is light – and investigated the creative potential of the light source itself”. Flavin’s series of “monuments”, using fluorescent light tubing, pay homage to Russian constructivist art of the early 20th century. The Constructivists were known for their embrace of modern technologies of engineering, industrialisation and urbanisation. Working in service of the new Bolshevik regime in Russian, they sought to “construct” a new, utopian society based on Socialist principles.
Flavin’s “monument” is dedicated to one of the movement’s founding members, Vladimir Tatlin and his own construction, the Monument to the Third International (1919–20). Tatlin’s monument was an architectural design for a future headquarters of the Communist movement – a complex tower that was never actually built. Yet the minimalist aesthetic of Flavin’s slightly tongue-in-cheek tribute abstracts the original reference. For many viewers, the illuminated structure is probably more reminiscent of the skylines of cities like New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong or Shanghai. Flavin’s building becomes fictionalised, imaginary, speculative – an object of science fiction as much as historical remembrance.
Neon and fluorescent light are particularly useful in science fiction because they have a unique ability to feel both futuristic and retro at the same time. In Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) a vision of Los Angeles in 2019 is devoid of sunlight but drenched in neon and advertising light. Often referred to as “future noir”, Blade Runner is a film that asks, what makes us human? Rich and privileged citizens have migrated to live on colonised extra-terrestrial planets, served by humanoid robots called replicants. Access to light in Blade Runner, and the type of light, comes to symbolise how one’s humanity can be controlled, restricted, but also recovered and asserted.
Across Western visual culture light is often evoked to represent ideals such as truth, purity and goodness. Problematic in their simplicity, these stereotypes can lead to binary distinctions. In this essay I hope to have shown that when thinking about creative practices, light must be appreciated for its multiple layers of meaning, interpretations, and usages. Across art and film, light can be seen as hopeful, seedy, sublime, garish, expressionistic, harsh, symbolic, transformative, spectacular, controlling. These multiple, contradictory elements can easily co-exist, therefore it is not surprising that so many artists and filmmakers have been drawn to the creative and expressive power of light.
– Kate Warren
 John H Hammond, The Camera Obscura: A Chronicle (Bristol: Hilger, 1981), 1.
 Anthea Callen, The Work of Art: Plein-air Painting and Artistic Identity in Nineteenth-century France (London: Reaktion Books, 2015), 9.
 Peter Domankiewicz, “In the beginning: cinema’s murky origin story”, Sight and Sound, 27 February 2021, https://www.bfi.org.uk/sight-and-sound/features/origins-cinema-early-inventors-pioneers.
 László Moholy-Nagy, Painting, Photography, Film (London: Lund Humphries 1967 ), 7.
 Richard Pells, Modernist America: Art, Music, Movies, and the Globalization of American Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 238.
 Fritz Lang, quoted in Peter Bogdanovich, Fritz Lang In America (New York: Praeger, 1969), 15.
 Peter Blegvard, “Obsession: Phosphorescent Milk”, Sight and Sound, 3 no. 4 (1993): 33.
 James Lawrence, “Dan Flavin: Washington”, The Burlington Magazine, 146 no. 1221 (2004): 847.